October 31, 2002
A Thanksgiving to Fill the Spirit
Interfaith worship service combines the values of democracy, freedom and pluralism.
On the evening before Thanksgiving, my synagogue, Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo, always gets together with a neighboring church, Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist, for an interfaith service. What is remarkable about this joint venture, and other pre-Thanksgiving services like it throughout the United States, is the fact that Jews and Christians can pray together under one roof.
My parents entered a church only for a neighbor's wedding, funeral or other life-cycle event. On those rare occasions, they were invited guests, not participants.
My grandparents probably never entered a church. When they needed to pass by one, they would usually spit on the ground, and make sure to walk on the opposite side of the street.
My grandparents believed that entering a Christian house of worship contaminated them with bad luck. In addition to their superstition, they feared for their physical well-being. My grandparents knew that they could easily be harmed by church members, who erroneously learned in weekly sermons and in Sunday school lessons that "the Jews killed Christ."
Now, every year, on the evening before the national harvest festival, I take part in an event that my ancestors could never imagine happening: an interfaith service where prayers of friendship and thanksgiving are offered by both Jews and Christians, together as equal participants.
The event joyfully begins when Jewish congregants welcome their Christian neighbors, and sing, in Hebrew, Psalm 133: Hinay mah tov u'mah nayim, shevet achim gam yachad ("How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in harmony"). Church members respond, singing words from their hymn, "We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing...."
The service then proceeds with worshippers reading in unison a number of passages taken from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Talmud (the sacred literature of each faith's tradition).
A clergy member brings the service to a close with a sermon. This year, when the service takes place at the church, the rabbi will deliver a message. Next year, when the service returns to the synagogue, the pastor will speak.
Many synagogue and church members feel this annual experience is esthetically the most beautiful worship service of the year. On no other occasion, including all of the other national holidays, are the values of democracy, freedom and pluralism more clearly expressed and represented. The service brings spiritual meaning to these values and the holiday, in general, that parades, football games, turkey dinners and even family gatherings do not capture.
The transcendence of history, though, particularly after Sept. 11, is the most impressive feature of the evening. What was a utopian or Messianic idea for my ancestors to contemplate has now become a yearly common occurrence. That transcendence, and the consequent hope it instills for the future, is perhaps the true blessing of Thanksgiving that we should appreciate.