By Kristeen Bruun
When I was in my twenties and very definitely searching in my faith life, I spent several years working in New York City. I loved my time in the Big Apple, filled with the difficulties of running a nonprofit organization, promoting exhausting campaigns, going to see Off-Off-Broadway productions, and sampling all kinds of restaurants.
At that time, one third of the population of New York was Jewish. They would claim, with a twinkle in their eyes, that there were “more Jews in New York than in Tel Aviv.” TheWar (World War II) was still very much alive in their memories. I met people with tattooed numbers on their arms, as well as people who, although already living in the U.S., had watched helplessly as their families overseas were wiped out, leaving them with a sense of abandonment and disconnection from family history.
In spite of their experience of the horror of the Holocaust, also called the Shoah, they were people of deep faith. There were numerous subcommunities within the Jewish community, ranging from the Orthodox and groups who still spoke Yiddish as their primary language to people who rarely went to synagogue and probably would be described as “secular.” And everyone in between. But they were all Jews, and they embraced their identity with a depth of being that was alien to me. I didn’t know many Christians who embraced their Christianity like that.
They welcomed me. I was invited to celebrate the Jewish holidays with families; first Sabbath meals, then Passover, then Hannukah and the other feasts that mark the Jewish year. I learned to speak a bit of Hebrew, and traveled to Israel twice. I became very comfortable sharing the life of the community. At one time, my friend Anne said, “You should think about converting. You fit in really well with us. You seem to appreciate what Judaism brings to life. It’s a family religion. We mostly celebrate it at home. I think you would love it.”
I did love it. I still do. But I also knew that at the center of my being was a different faith; even if I did not, at that time, express it in the context of a worship community. I always took Holy Week off to celebrate what I thought of as my own “High Holy Days,” usually with a community on Long Island, where I enjoyed anonymity along with unity of faith.
Life moved on and so did I. I went back to school for a Master’s Degree in Theology and became a Director of Christian Education. But I have never forgotten my life with the Jewish community.
When we speak of “faith formation,” that’s what I think of. They were responsible for forming my faith in a deep and profound way. I remain attuned to what goes on in their communities. If someone in my community expressed an antisemitic stereotype, I took it as a challenge to introduce another way of looking at life. I hosted Seders. I invited speakers from the Jewish community.
You may have heard that antisemitism is on the rise around the world, and certainly in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League has reported a significant rise in antisemitic incidents during 2022. Right next door to where I live, a group of worshipers at a synagogue were held hostage by someone on the U.S. terrorist watch list. All were eventually freed without loss of life.
I expected that the hostage situation would prompt prayers on Sunday, but it did not. This, to me, is typical of the response of my faith community. I would not characterize them as anti-Semitic. (I have encountered the expression of some negative stereotypes, but not community-wide.) Yet they go to Israel and don’t visit the Holocaust Museum, where the Garden of the Righteous commemorates Gentiles, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who helped Jews during the Holocaust.
I think this is a form of blindness rather than a deliberate omission. Of all the things we pray for, we never pray for the Jews. We read from their Scriptures, the Old Testament and the Psalms. We read about the Passover, but do not take to heart the reminder, “You shall tell your son, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).
When the Roman Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin wanted to open a dialogue with the Jewish community of Chicago, he began by introducing himself: “I am Joseph, your brother.” Should we not all be able to say this? Do we not owe the Jews much of our rootedness in faith? Should we not at least be aware of their calendar of feasts, and their current struggles?
The experience of living with the remarkably disparate Jewish community of New York for several years in my late adolescence was a gift I will never forget. I am who I am as a Christian because of their nurture. I owe them my faith.
As for me, I will be forever grateful for my time within the Jewish community. If not for them, I would not be the person of faith that I am today.