Pushing Our Boundaries: Engaging with the Other
September 9, 2020
I was on my way to an audience with Pope Francis when I was first shoved out of the way by a priest—but it led to one of the most memorable interfaith experiences of my life, and all because I was open to a new situation.
It was the spring of 2014, and I was living in Rome for a year pursuing a Russell Berrie Fellowship in Interreligious Studies. This incredible program supports people with an interest in interfaith dialogue by sending them to study different faiths in Rome for a year. As a Jewish person who is interested in all things interfaith and has close Catholic family and friends, I knew it was the perfect fit for my year after college.
Through one of the universities where I was studying, we found out that we were invited to a private audience with the pope, an incredible opportunity. It would still be a large gathering, but slightly more intimate than the public audiences held weekly in St. Peter’s Square and reserved only for those associated with our university. In my ever-dreaming soul, I was very optimistic that during the audience I would find a way to meet Pope Francis, shake his hand, and share with him that I was a Jewish person living in Rome doing interfaith work.
It was on our way into the Vatican building that a priest first shoved me aside as he excitedly tried to get through to the door. The auditorium we entered a few minutes later was massive, with an aisle down the center of the room where it seemed likely that Pope Francis would walk at some point. I made my move to start getting up close to the aisle, and one again, very eager priests and nuns from all over the world—in their clerical collars or brightly-colored habits—physically pushed me back and away from the aisle in their excitement.
It hit me at that moment that as much as I dearly wanted to meet Papa F (as I affectionately call him for all the good work he has done building interfaith relationships), for these Catholic devotees, meeting the Pope would likely be a moment of immense religious significance in their lives. So I sighed, gave up, thought to myself, “He’s yours,” and slowly backed away from the clamoring group, my hands raised in the air in defeat.
Then I heard a chuckle to my left. I turned and saw that it came from a then-seminarian from the Philippines. This man had seen what was happening, with the shoving and the pushing, and we shared a laugh at the situation. I then told him that I am Jewish, and was in Rome for a year as part of an interfaith program. His response blew me away when he said, “I am part of a small group here in Rome that holds mass in Hebrew on Friday nights. We would love for you to join us for one week.”
Out of all the people I could have met, out of all the priests and nuns and seminarians in that huge auditorium at the Vatican, I happened to bump into one who goes to a weekly mass in Hebrew—held on Shabbat, no less!
There exist a number of Catholics in the years since Vatican II and Nostra Aetate, especially some who seek to honor and explore the Jewish origins of Christianity, and so I figured this mass was part of that movement in the Church. Of course, I would go.
So a few weeks later I found myself sitting in a lovely cave in the basement of a building in the center of Rome (the Catholics have the best real estate in Rome, I swear) with about seven people—celebrating mass in Hebrew. As they consecrated the host (the communion wafer that for them is the body of Jesus), it sounded almost identical to the motzi blessing we as Jews say over bread. As they blessed the wine (that for them is the blood of Jesus), it sounded like our kiddush prayer over wine. Finally, the priest’s sermon spoke of his joy at having me with them that evening, and he asked that everyone pray for the Jewish community of New York, where I am from. It was an incredibly meaningful, magical experience.
And this whole opportunity came about because some very eager priests and nuns pushed me out of the way—but it also came about because I was open to talking with someone who was very different than me.
In this time of such a great divide between people with different beliefs, we as practitioners of interfaith work have a moral obligation to set the example by genuinely engaging with people of other backgrounds and beliefs. If we only ever speak to those with whom we agree, we are not building the true types of deep, authentic relationships we need now more than ever.
Now on the spectrum of any difficult topic, we certainly all have a place to which we cannot go in terms of having conversations with people so radically different from us. Whether that issue is abortion, or gay marriage, or Israel and Palestine, or any other difficult topic, we all have our limit, when things go too far for us to hear. But we each must do our best to stretch those limits as far as they can go and foster these connections. Only by fostering these types of genuine, deep relationships—even and especially when we form them with people radically different from ourselves—can we start to really move our world forward toward greater understanding and respect across lines of difference.
So push your boundaries. Be open to the opportunities the universe presents to you. Be willing to listen, truly listen, to those who believe differently than you do. Create space in your heart every day to these types of moments of meaningful encounter, because they can happen when you least expect them.
Who knows—maybe your next one will be at a Hebrew mass in Rome.
Allyson Zacharoff is a current rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College outside Philadelphia, as well as a representative on several national interfaith dialogues. She has been blessed to follow her passion for interfaith dialogue in the U.S. and abroad. Allyson previously studied as an International Peacemaking Program Fellow at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut; a Conflict Resolution Fellow at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; and a Russell Berrie Fellow in Interreligious Studies at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Pontifical Gregorian University, both in Rome. The interfaith conversation continues on her blog, www.christmasandkreplach.blogspot.com