Yesterday morning I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The Rhode Island State Council of Churches named me "Faith Leader of the Year" at their 4th Annual Heroes of Faith Breakfast. My son and daughter-in-law and my very own Rhode Island cousin and a good friend all came to cheer me on (and I thanked the Council of Churches Executive Minister, Reverend Dr. Don Anderson for making me look good in front of my kids!). But I was also blessed with the support of our Torat Yisrael community which filled a table as well as my colleagues of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island which also shared and filled a table.
After listening to my dear friend and colleague, Don Anderson, say some generously complimentary things about me, I responded with the following:
When I was a little girl in East Orange, New Jersey, I was often chased home by kids in a local parochial school . . . they’d chase me through the alleys in our neighborhood and called me “dirty Jew.” When I was a young mother living in Jerusalem, I had rocks thrown at me from the Arab village across the road as I parked my car one night early on in the intifada years. I was not a promising candidate for interfaith leadership. The proximity of Christians and Muslims was more threatening than reassuring.
Jews engaged in the study of the Torah and rabbinic literature don’t sit in concentrated isolation in a library . . . we sit across the table from a chaver, from a study partner, and we examine, debate, argue, postulate, explore . . . the premise is that two heads are better than one. The premise is that one person, no matter how brilliant, just cannot bring out all the depth of meaning of a text alone. We each need a study partner to challenge us, teach us, show us paths we’d never be able to discover on our own.
Indeed, the premise is that where two people come together to study Torah, the shechinah, God’s most imminent nurturing presence, draws even nearer.
I can tell you that the collaborative effort I have engaged in with Reverend Don Anderson, Imam Farid Ansari, Reverend Betsy Garland and so many other inspiring faith leaders in our state has been a journey of exploration, personal growth that has led to spiritual fulfillment. I have learned from and been inspired by my chaverim, my partners. These people have shown me paths I never would have discovered on my own.
The actions for which I am being honored this morning mean a tremendous amount to me and I am proud to be standing before you as the recipient of this year’s Rhode Island State Council of Churches Faith Leader of the Year Award. Reverend Mercedes and Bishop Wolf and Reverend Balark, whose ranks I join today, the previous recipients of this award, are each visionary and inspired leaders. The leadership of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches has taken an extraordinary step by bestowing this most respected award on a churchless rabbi. Members of my terrific . . . and patient . . . congregation, Temple Torat Yisrael of East Greenwich, are here today to support me and to express our congregation’s appreciation for this recognition. There is another whole delegation of leaders from the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island who are also here in support and appreciation . . . the significance of this award is not lost on any of us . . . and is, indeed, treasured by all of us.
None of my actions, none of my achievements have been attained by sitting in concentrated isolation in my study . . . trying to build bridges between faith communities in a unilateral process is like clapping with one hand. It can’t be done.
Getting an award for the work I’ve done with my partners in faiths makes me a little nervous . . . because somehow the bestowing of an award feels like a summing up. But I don’t feel done with any of this; we have way too many more journeys to take together. There are still so many mistaken assumptions waiting to be blasted, so many barriers of wariness to lower, so many infinitely rich bridges of trust to build. The conviction that real faith creates a safe space for mutual respect and reciprocal learning fuels this journey. I first sat down at those tentative breakfasts with Reverend Anderson and Imam Ansari in the hope that we might demonstrate in some small way that real faith fosters peace. We’ve achieved much more than I had ever hoped with my chaverim, my partners in faith. When we come together to live the principles of all our faiths, the shechinah, God’s most imminent, nurturing presence, draws near and blesses our joint enterprise. Let’s keep that shechinah very busy!
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.