Interfaith Interaction – My Passion, By Gail Katz

I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland in a very non-Jewish neighborhood and I was always the only Jewish child in my elementary school classroom.  Every morning I would bow my head with my classmates and recite The Lord’s Prayer – “Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name, etc.”  Prayer was quite legal in the 1950s when I was a child.  And then there was always the December dilemma!  I was always part of the Christmas pageants where my class would sing the Christmas Carols in the assembly hall – Oh Come all Ye Faithful, Joy to the World and Silent Night – all the songs with the name of Jesus in them. I knew they were not my songs, but I did not want to be singled out as the only one not singing with the rest of the school.  My teachers always pointed to me, the Jewish kid, to explain the meaning of that “Jewish Christmas” called Chanukah, and I had to bring in the menorah and stand in the front of the class and talk about what it was, underscoring how different I was from everyone else.

My parents were very secular Jews, and went to the synagogue three times a year – twice for Rosh Hashanah and once for Yom Kippur, the holiest days in Judaism.  Even in the synagogue, I felt like an outsider.  My brother went to Hebrew school and learned the Hebrew prayers for his bar mitzvah.  I received no Jewish education, and I sat in the synagogue feeling conspicuous, as I couldn’t read Hebrew and I didn’t know the prayers or the melodies.  I would sit next to my father and braid the fringes on his Tallit (prayer shawl), counting the minutes until we could go home.  I continued to feel like an outsider.

In 1960 my father got a job at Ford Motor Company, and we moved to Oak Park, Michigan, which at the time was a suburb of Detroit that had a heavy Jewish population.  So from being the only Jewish kid in my class, I was surrounded by Jewish classmates.  But as the new kid, the shy kid, the kid that got all A’s, I was bullied by the girls for not being COOL!  I was still the outsider!

My grandfather, an orthodox Russian Jew, came to live with us when I was about 14. He spoke Yiddish and very little English, but showed me his love for Judaism!  Every morning (except Shabbat) I watched him put on his tefillin (his phylacteries) and say his prayers, and I spent my teens hearing about the Eastern European Jewish life he left behind in Russia, which became Poland by the time my mother was born there, and the relatives that perished in the Holocaust because of hate of the “other,” – the Jews.

All of this laid the foundation for my career teaching English as a Second Language in the Berkley Public Schools to Immigrant adults and children, people labeled as the “other.” I chose to start a diversity club for middle school students, teaching them to take a right stand, to stop just being bystanders, to advocate for the “other,” to stop the bullying that was taking place because of differences in ethnic background, religion, size, sexual orientation, and economic status. One of the programs that I was instrumental in starting was named the Religious Diversity Journeys, and involved selected seventh graders (who study World Religions in their social studies classes) from 5 Oakland County school districts to make site visits to a mosque, a Sikh gurdwara, a synagogue, a church, and a Hindu temple where they spent these special school days learning about different faith traditions!  Now 12 years later the Interfaith Leadership Council has taken on this program and it has tripled in size and is incredibly impactful to the students and their parents who attend!!

Being involved with the Religious Diversity Journeys increased my desire to teach our youth and adults about religious literacy, to focus on greater respect and understanding and to decrease the myths and stereotypes we have of people different from ourselves!  I helped to foster an interfaith initiative called Face to Faith, which impacts high school students of different faith traditions who come together a few times a year at different houses of worship after school.  I am the chairperson of the World Sabbath, an annual event to celebrate World Peace through prayers, dance and music from different faith traditions, and that includes our youth as Children of Peace who make peace banners and sing “We are Children of Peace” together. In 2006 I helped to found WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit) to bring women of different faiths together to plan faith-based educational initiatives and interfaith social action projects. I became the chair of the Interfaith leadership Council’s Education committee, where we have planned many interfaith panels to address life-cycle events across the faith traditions.  As a member of the Temple Israel Board of Directors, I have brought the temple’s Sisterhood and the women of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church together for fun social action projects.  I am the co-chair of the Jewish and Chaldean Social Action Committee that brings the two communities together to better understand each other’s faiths and cultures. Interfaith Interaction has become my passion!!

My involvement in interfaith has increased my desire to know more about my own faith tradition, Judaism.  Because I was not given the opportunity to learn about my faith tradition as a child, I have had a strong yearning my whole life to learn about what it means to be Jewish, and so I have been taking many courses in Judaism and Torah study for the last 8 years.  In June of 2012 I had my adult bat-mitzvah at Temple Israel, an event that meant so much to me, and I even had the chance to chant my Torah portion that spring in Jerusalem, not far from the holy Western Wall.

So from the angry child who didn’t fit in anywhere, I have found my calling in bringing people of different faiths, races, and ethnicities together who may not have had the opportunity to meet each other in our rather segregated metropolitan community!  Being the “outsider” has led me into an incredibly fulfilling world of interfaith in my years of retirement, and I am incredibly blessed!!  I look forward to many more years of interfaith interaction in Metropolitan Detroit!