A Discussion with Rachel Gartner, Director of Jewish Chaplaincy at Georgetown University

With: Rachel Gartner Berkley Center Profile

July 23, 2014

Background: On July 23, 2014, Daniel Varghese, member of the School of Foreign Service Class of 2017, interviewed Rabbi Rachel Garner. Rabbi Gartner is the director of Jewish life at Georgetown University. In this conversation, Rabbi Gartner discusses her own personal spiritual journey, her perspective on interfaith issues, and the realities of religious life at Georgetown.
How has your personal faith journey brought you to your work today?

For as long as I can remember, I have been deeply and often painfully aware of the inequities in our world; Disparities among people in terms of economic and social inequities, but also psychological and emotional disparities; disparities in physical and mental health and in spiritual well-being too—of course some of those latter are born from economic inequalities. It’s another one of those nature/nurture questions for which the answer is “both, and.” Certain social and economic conditions can impoverish or challenge one’s well-being more than others. And in reverse, hard circumstances—within reason—can fortify a person’s spirit in ways that easy ones don’t. But also, some people are born more resilient than others, with more spiritual ease or emotional strength than others.

And so stemming from those differences, I came to understand that different people have different spiritual, emotional—and social and economic—needs.

I grew up next to a very wealthy neighborhood, going to very nice public schools. But, you know, my mom was a secretary, my dad was an engineer, we were fine and comfortable, but never had the kind of money my peers had. So I was always aware that not everyone has the same amount of resources. Our family also had its share of members with mental/emotional challenges, and that made me very vividly aware of how disparate the experience of living can be for different people.

This awareness is the landscape for my spiritual journey. It is the soil in which my spirituality took root and developed.

I was also very interested in Judaism growing up. As a child, I loved going to services, I loved singing the songs. I didn’t know what I was singing; I didn’t know what anything meant. But the feeling of community and support and optimism and hope, and the imagery of nature and beauty and power was very compelling to me. The idea that all these people could come together in a room from different places, emotionally, spiritually, economically, socially, and could draw on these images for strength was very powerful to me.

When I became a teenager and a feminist and started learning what some of the texts actually meant, I became a little bit more skeptical. Throughout the millennia, the written history and texts as well as many of the practiced traditions of Judaism were penned and shaped primarily by men. I started wondering if such a religion—a product of male creativity and a by-product of male experience—could actually work for me.

That sense stayed with me through college, where I wasn’t really involved in anything that engaged my Judaism. I didn’t go to Hillel; I didn’t “do” Jewish in college.

But then, I had this very close non-Jewish friend who started asking me questions about what I believed and what motivated me and why I called myself Jewish but didn’t do Jewish things. And that really was the turning point for me, and sent me on my own Jewish journey in earnest.

I graduated from Barnard and I went to live in Israel to explore my Judaism and to volunteer with various immigrants and women’s groups. During this time, I was introduced to the writings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, a major thinker and influencer of contemporary American Jewish thought. His teachings about the role of religion in making life meaningful really spoke to me. He taught that salvation was a this-worldly thing. He taught that reaching salvation meant living a fulfilled, self-actualized, meaningful, and contribution-making life. He taught that we can make our lives more meaningful and that we can contribute to make the world a better place, and that religion can be an agent to help us do those things. So, I set out to rabbinical school hoping my engagement with religion would bring meaning and fulfillment to me and help me bring that to others.

What got you interested in working as a rabbi at Georgetown? Why Georgetown over other universities?

I was a pulpit rabbi for four years. My journey with my family took me to the Midwest, where my husband was working as a professor of creative writing. There, I began doing some part-time campus rabbinic work, mainly as a way to serve and to contribute while also staying home part-time with our new baby. In the process, I fell in love with campus work, particularly in an interfaith context.

What really attracted me to Georgetown in particular was, quite frankly, the mission statement of Campus Ministry. I knew Jesuits were known as consummate academics and passionate advocates of social justice. That the Campus Ministry mission statement highlighted both of these as priorities, as well as cura personalis (care of the whole person) and centered pluralism (standing firm in your own tradition while helping others grow in theirs) was extremely compelling to me.

Throughout the interview process I came to see more and more the contours of my own Jewish journey reflected in that of the students I met. Many students told me (and they continue to do so to me regularly) things like “I don’t know about much about my Jewish identity, but being in this atmosphere of religious inquiry AND not being in a predominantly Jewish community AND my respect for the Jesuits, made me want to do my own exploration.” Or, “People from other traditions keep asking me questions about Judaism and now I want to know the answers too!” This of course, is exactly what happened to me in college.

Georgetown makes you ask yourself the questions about your own tradition that you might never have considered otherwise. So, when prospective parents ask me how Georgetown’s Catholic environment might affect their student, I tell them that many of my students come out of school more connected to their tradition than when they came in precisely because of the Catholic and Jesuit nature of the university.

What does the current state of interfaith dialogue look like here at Georgetown?

Quite frankly, when I first got here, I was surprised at how little the Jewish students were involved in organized interfaith dialogue. I realized that of course this could merely be an issue of timing. Campus trends come and go, and my arrival might simply have come during a lull in Jewish participation in interfaith dialogue. However, I also wondered if this lack of participation stemmed from a discomfort with or suspicion of interfaith dialogue that many a Jewish individual feels. Historically, interfaith dialogue wasn’t always about listening and learning; it was sometimes used not as an actual dialogue but as a tool to try to convert Jews.

But as I became more accustomed to the campus climate, I learned that there wasn’t really a resistance to interfaith dialogue. It was that these Jewish students, who are a minority on Georgetown’s campus, felt like they were living interfaith dialogue in their daily lives. Their lives were filled with constant informal interreligious dialogues in the residence halls, in the classroom, at meals, at any time when they were just having conversations with their peers.

So the Jewish students were really more interested in using their “leisure” (as if) time to unwind with other Jewish students. They wanted a relaxed environment to be with each other, in which they could feel understood without having to explain, an atmosphere that felt like having a home within a home.

Since there really is abundant informal interfaith dialogue among the students here, what we’ve been working on in the chaplaincy is to engage in more interfaith dialogue with each other—both privately and publicly. We’ve been meeting more and more together to have conversations that range from talking about our personal strivings to the hard hitting, investigative questions of one another's faith. Usually, over lunch when people are in generally good moods.

On the public front, we’ve started a series called Challenging Texts. Last year, the goal of Challenging Texts was to allow all of us to take on the difficulties our traditions pose to us as practitioners of our religions, or the actual challenges our traditions pose to one another's traditions—not easy conversations to have. In some sessions, we would each grapple with something that we see in our own traditions that has challenged us, and that we’ve worked through. Something that might be negative towards another tradition, or towards women. We would take that problem and attack it head on in an interfaith context. That’s not something that is usually done; usually we try to avoid those things.

This year, we’re switching the focus. We’ll be talking about how our different traditions approach challenging things in our lives and our world. We’ll talk about things like stress, war, competition, other issues of social justice. We really think that this approach will be beneficial to the campus community.

We also want to move away from just providing interfaith exposure to interfaith reflection. We do a lot of exposure here, where we say, "Come to my service," or "Come to my prayer," or "Come to my Seder." So people have a lot of exposure, but they never get the chance to process it. We want to try to give students this opportunity, to deal with the questions that arose during their experience. What did it mean? What was it like to be here? Our chaplaincies are going to move towards providing more opportunities for that.

What is your message to the average Georgetown student?

Less is more. Chill out. Do less, go deeper. You will get more out of anything you do.

As you get older, try to remember to give from the overflowing cup. When your “cup” or well-being is diminished, you cannot give in a way that is sustainable or truly helpful over time: you’ll burn out. Take care of your spiritual and mental health. But then, when your cup is full with energy, give generously.

Take leaps, you won’t always know why you’re doing something until you do it. Sometimes you have to “feel your way” through something before it’s meaning is revealed to you. As it says in Torah: “God was in this place, and I, I didn’t know it.” Be patient.

If religion is meant to bring salvation—a meaningful, fulfilled and contributing life—to us then work hard, tirelessly, and responsibly to remove all obstacles to a meaningful life for yourselves and for others.

Judaism teaches that sparks of the divine are embedded in everything and that each of us has our own unique sparks to find and bring out—bring more fully into the world. No-one else can liberate the sparks meant for you. And you can’t liberate those meant for others. So seek and pursue those activities (and people and ideas) that spark you, and bringing the to light in the world will actually come easy.
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