Once again this year, Beth Israel Congregation, where I serve as rabbi, will be participating in a local Interfaith Thanksgiving Service with several nearby faith communities. In thinking forward to this wonderful tradition, I’d like to share a memory from several decades ago when I was part of a central New Jersey interfaith group and their annual Thanksgiving service. Like here, it too would rotate among different houses of worship.
One year the local Roman Catholic Church, having just completed construction of a new building, was pleased to host the event and show off their new facility to the broader community.
At the time, my family and I lived in a townhome development and had become friendly with our next door neighbors — a single mother and her daughter who was a year or so older than my eldest son. The kids, about 5 and 6 years old, often played together. Coincidentally, this mom and daughter were also active parishioners of that particular Catholic Church. We all decided to travel together to the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, and in preparation we told my son, Amiel, just to behave respectfully and in a similar manner to his friend Angela, since it was her congregation.
As we entered the building the kids were excitedly rushing ahead of us into a large reception lobby. After a moment I realized where Angela was headed with Amiel close behind — straight to the holy water. Not knowing whether it was considered sacrilegious for a non-Catholic to touch the holy water, I recall chasing after them, calling my son’s name to try to stop him. In my vain chase, I distinctly recall feeling like the old TV image of actor Lee Majors as the Six Million Dollar Man, depicted moving in slow motion. Unfortunately, unable to catch him in time, he dipped his hand into the holy water just as Angela did; although, I was successfully able to reach him before he emulated her by crossing himself.
After the interfaith service I introduced myself to one of the younger priests at that large parish, and told him what had happened earlier. He was exceedingly gracious and assured me that no harm or ritual defilement had occurred. Indeed, he gave us all a private tour of the new church and all of us its facilities, describing various parts of the building and its accoutrements, and patiently answering numerous questions.
That story always brings a smile to my lips — and allows me to tease my son as to how he was almost “baptized” a Catholic. More importantly, it also serves as a small reminder to me of the kind of attitude we should always bring to interfaith occasions; respect for and even interest in each other and our unique differences, kindness and generosity towards one another, and especially tolerance for the ignorance and misunderstandings which we all are bound to exhibit unintentionally in unfamiliar settings. Thanksgiving should be a time not only of gratitude for what we have and who we are, but for the glorious diversity of the world and people around us.
Editor's note: The Interfaith Thanksgiving Service this year will be on Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. at Beth Israel Congregation at 2204 Morganton Road. Participants who will be represented at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service include the Fayetteville Friends Meeting (Religious Society of Friends-Quakers), Beth Israel Congregation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Courtyard Church of Christ, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Masjid Ibn Omar Sayyid, and the St. James Lutheran Church. The Interfaith Council of Fayetteville asks that everyone bring a nonperishable donation to share with the Fayetteville Urban Ministries.