This department features reflections on faith in America—from prominent thought leaders and individuals of different religious backgrounds or perspectives.
Cathedral Age What does the new year mean for you as a Jew?
While we do celebrate the secular New Year, our religious new year is more serious and meaningful. Both Rosh Hashanah, which marks the start of the year, and Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement, are really times of immense reflection. I believe the New Year is a time for all of us to reflect on who we are, who we want to be, and what type of society we live in. We can ask ourselves: are we satisfied with that society, and what is it we need to do to bring it closer to the vision of what we want or perhaps what God wants?
Cathedral Age You lead one of the oldest Jewish congregations in washington, and one of the largest in the country. Could you tell us a little about your congregation?
This is a congregation that is unique to Washington and to the nation. We were actually created by an Act of Congress, and we’re about to embark on our one hundred sixtieth year. This has always been an incredible congregation. It has been engaged in the local Washington community, but because it is in Washington it has also been involved on national and international levels. It’s a very active congregation with close to 3,000 families.
Cathedral Age Washington Hebrew Congregation has a long relationship with the Cathedral and with the Episcopal Church. Could you reflect on how that has progressed?
I’ve been at Washington Hebrew now for 26 years. I feel that the Cathedral is a second home to me. I’m very proud of what it does, and it’s an incredible honor when I’m asked to participate in anything there.
We’ve always had a phenomenal relationship both with the Cathedral and with the Diocese of Washington. I hope we continue in that trajectory with the new bishop, Mariann Budde, as we did with Bishop John Chane. I’ve had a special relationship with Bishop Chane, who has been really remarkable with the Jewish community. I was honored to attend Bishop Budde’s consecration, which I found very moving. The preacher was outstanding, and I loved the line from the sermon, “Mariann, feed us justice.” I look forward to sitting at the table at the Cathedral and continuing to be led by—and lead together with—the Cathedral in bringing our nation’s leaders and our religious leaders to a better day. I know that there are great challenges that every new bishop will face. But my prayer is that Bishop Budde will embrace her predecessors, build upon the foundations that have been set, and continue the fine interfaith work for which the Cathedral has been known.
With regards to the diocese, we have been involved in interfaith dialogue with sister congregations for more than 40 years. We have something that grew out of a relationship with St. Alban’s Parish, the [Catholic] Church of the Annunciation, and Washington Hebrew Congregation. Years ago we invited members of St. Alban’s and Annunciation to come hear a speaker, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who spoke about the “righteous gentiles”—non-Jews being honored by the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous who had been extraordinary in helping people during the Holocaust. Everyone was so moved that members of St. Alban’s and Annunciation came to us that we now hold a joint Kristalnacht commemoration that rotates through the three congregations each year. It is that type of fellowship that we have enjoyed with the church on so many levels.
Cathedral Age Why is interfaith dialogue a priority for you and your ministry?
It’s most important because, as I often say, my mother taught me to be wary of strangers—and if people of other faiths are strangers to me, then I’m not going to engage with them. I think that in the world we live in, because we’re all children of God, we need to do things so that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Baha’i, Sikhs—all of us—work together for what we all believe our faiths demand: integrity, love, honesty, and compassion. I believe that the Cathedral holds a special power to bring people of faith together. The work that the Cathedral has fostered through interfaith relations both locally and internationally is very important work, and I commend the Cathedral for doing that.
Cathedral Age You showed tremendous hospitality to the Cathedral following the earthquake and resulting 10-week closure, allowing us to hold services in your worship space, including celebrating Holy Eucharist very openly. Why did you feel called to open your doors to the Cathedral in this way?
Because we’re neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters, and your house is my house. I also think it has to do with the myriad number of people that I’ve been able to work with at the Cathedral over the past decade. So it wasn’t just the National Cathedral. It was my neighbors and people that I see who greet me and greet my children.
We weren’t just giving the Cathedral a space; we were giving them a home. When you open your home, you’re there to welcome someone. And as we know from the Bible, Abraham puts a tremendous emphasis on hospitality. He opens his tent, he feeds, he washes the feet of the stranger. That’s our mission. We feel it’s our moral responsibility, and that’s why I called to offer Washington Hebrew. At that moment when our neighbors need you, you don’t wait to be asked; you offer to help.
It was interesting to watch the Eucharist being celebrated, but I also thought it was a phenomenally beautiful moment where we understand that we’re all people of faith, and we all reach to God with our own voice and our own way. But it’s the same reaching, and it’s the same God.
Cathedral Age What is your view of the Cathedral’s mission to be the spiritual home for the nation?
The Cathedral is a unique and beautiful place. You have a window in which the Four Chaplains are depicted [Sacrifice for Freedom window in War Memorial Chapel], and one of those chaplains was a rabbi at Washington Hebrew, Alexander Goode. I often stop and show people that window. The idea that all the things the Cathedral does to try to be a house of prayer for all people has been a really wonderful. I’ve preached at the Cathedral, I’ve been there when it does events, and I have been able to sit down with people at the Cathedral with whom the Jewish community could have never fostered a meeting on our own. In that sense the Cathedral has brokered dialogue and built bridges.
I wish the Cathedral all the best in going from strength to strength. I hope our nation will respond to the call for the restoration of the Cathedral because it plays a vital and important role in our nation and in the life of all faithful people.
Bruce Lustig is senior rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation. For more information, visit www.whctemple.org.