I Am A Better Rabbi Because I Was A St. Mary's Girl
A St. Mary’s Girl and A Rabbi: A Chapel Talk by Rabbi Rachel Bearman
I’ve wanted to be a number of things in my life. When I was really young… and still graceful, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Then I started reading about a spunky young woman named Nancy Drew and my dream morphed into “girl detective.” After that, was a brief but intense interest in the law; I went so far as to make up “business cards” that said, “Rachel Bearman- attorney” and pass them out during recess. Then in 8th grade, I decided that I wanted to be Mrs. Mulrooney. Just to clarify, I didn’t want to be a middle school English teacher or even an 8th grade English teacher. I wanted to actually be Mrs. Mulrooney. But, then in 10th grade, I finally discovered my true calling. I realized that what I really wanted was a job that would combine my love of Judaism, community building, teaching, and service. That’s when I decided that what I really wanted to be was a rabbi. That realization was the formal beginning of my journey to being ordained last May and then to serving as the rabbi of Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, Connecticut.
Right now, I’m in my first year as a rabbi. I still feel both awkward and excited when I introduce myself and say, “Hi, I’m Rabbi Bearman.” I’m still a newbie, but I’m learning fast and feeling lucky to have found a community that supports me, plays to my strengths, and pushes me to grow as a rabbi and as an adult.
If you were to walk into my temple office today you would see that on one large wall, I’ve hung my diplomas. Out of everything else in my office, I hear the most about the frames on that wall. Specifically, I hear the most about one, particular frame- my diploma from St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls. When people see that I, a rabbi, attended a Christian school, they respond in a couple of predictable ways. Here are a two of the most common reactions,
Wait, an Episcopal school? So you didn’t grow up Jewish?
Oh, rabbi, you went to a Christian school? That must have been so hard. Why did you have to do that?
Honestly, I enjoy hearing both comments because they allow me to launch into my explanation of why attending St. Mary’s was awesome and how I loved every minute I spent in this amazing school. I will often go on, and on, and on for so long about my love of St. Mary’s that people’s eyes will start to glaze over. But honestly... they asked...
So here’s my story:
My sisters and I have been Jewish since we were born, and both of our parents are Jewish. Our house was filled with Jewish learning, songs, and holiday celebrations. When my parents were deciding where we would attend school, they believed, correctly I might add, that St. Mary’s would offer us an amazing education and a supportive school environment, and that’s why they chose to send all of us to an Episcopal school from junior kindergarten through twelfth grade. There were other Jewish kids in my grade from JK on, and I never remember feeling excluded because I was a Jewish girl at a Christian school. My class celebrated every Jewish holiday was celebrated with with fun and games, until one year when my class was too competitive, and we were no longer able to play dreidel games at our Chanukah parties. So St. Mary’s.
There were, of course, moments when I didn’t understand what was happening in chapel or when my friends didn’t understand why I brought huge matzah crackers to lunch during Passover, but those moments always felt like opportunities to learn rather than anything dangerous or tense. In Lower School, I figured out how I could participate in chapel in a way that was comfortable for me and for everyone else, and I never felt less a part of the community because I carried the St. Mary’s banner but would never carry the cross into a chapel service.
The first time I can remember feeling anxious over how to be Jewish in Chapel was when I made the switch to Middle School. This chapel space felt distinctly Christian in a way that the Moss Hall cafeteria did not. It took a while for me to start to feeling comfortable in this space, and just when I had figured out what I would do when people were kneeling, or which prayers I would read with everyone else, it was time for the first Eucharist service. Guys, I’m going to be completely honest with you, I was crazy nervous about that first service. Trying to be helpful, someone had explained to all of us that there were many options for participation:
You could stay seated.
If you wanted a blessing, you could go up on the chancel and cross your arms over your chest.
Or if you wanted to take communion, you could go up on the chancel and kneel.
To my fifth grade mind, multiple options meant multiple ways to mess up. I imagined myself not paying attention for a minute and then somehow snapping back, kneeling up on the chancel. What if I crossed my arms the wrong way and offended someone? What if I was the only one who didn’t go up on the chancel? What if... what if... what if... Ultimately, the stress was too much for me, and I decided that the only way to be really safe was to have my mom come to the service. And, because she loves me and because she understands my crazy brain, she came and sat next to me during my first Eucharist service as a St. Mary’s Middle School student. At the end of that service, I very clearly remember thinking, “That’s what I’ve been so nervous about? No one cared that I stayed seated. I didn’t pass out and magically wake up in the wrong spot. It was just a longer chapel service. Next time, I can handle this on my own.”
I think that my newly-confident, fifth grade self would have been pretty tickled to know that when I graduated from St. Mary’s, I had made hundreds of chapel announcements, spoken in chapel multiple times, run down the aisle of this chapel dressed as Aragorn from Lord Of The Rings, read from the Hebrew Bible during a Eucharist service, been both an angel and a shepherd in the Christmas pageant, and finally, been voted most likely to storm the chancel by my senior classmates. By the time I graduated from St. Mary’s, this chapel space had gone from mysterious and overwhelming to a special and sacred part of my St. Mary’s home.
You see, over the course of my middle and upper school years, I learned explicitly what had always been an implicit part of the St. Mary’s culture. Religious experiences, especially interfaith religious experiences, are most successful when all participants feel both trust and confidence.
I am a more secure Jewish woman because of my time at St. Mary’s. I am more confident in who I am as Jew because I spent fourteen years of my life in a place where I was allowed to explore and share my Jewish identity. Because I was exposed to the rituals, ideas, and texts of other traditions, I was able to place my own rituals, ideas, and texts into a larger and more nuanced context than I would have ever been able to in another environment. I was allowed to have an opinion and to share that opinion within these walls. At St. Mary’s, I learned and experienced an important truth-- honoring another person’s beliefs does not diminish your own. That might seem like an obvious idea, but I can assure you that it’s not.
At St. Mary’s we have the opportunity to talk about our own religion and learn about our friends’ religions. This school is a safe, supportive environment to explore what it means to say out loud, “I’m Jewish, or Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim.” Our faculty and staff create a community that is grounded in and founded on a deep respect for one another. And because we are the products of that kind of community, we go out into the world with the ability to respectfully engage with people of different backgrounds, faiths, and lifestyles.
St. Mary’s taught me that being Jewish in a non-Jewish environment was an opportunity to build relationships and friendships that would expand my mind and my worldview. St. Mary’s taught me that questions about my religion are most often coming from a place of genuine curiosity. It taught me that experiencing other people’s religion didn’t threaten my connection with my own faith- and in fact often deepened my understanding of my own beliefs. It taught me that friendships allow interfaith conversations to be a source of joy and even humor rather than tension or danger.
I hope that all of you take advantage of this sanctuary- in both its physical and metaphorical meanings. I hope that you use your time at St. Mary’s to figure out what role prayer and faith have in your lives. I hope that you use this space as a time for a daily check-in. Even if the chapel speaker isn’t your cup of tea, I hope you use your chapel time to take a break from thinking about your incomplete homework for Mr. Miller’s class, or whether or not you’ve finished Tess of the Dubervilles, or if you’re prepared enough for Mrs. Brundige’s quiz, or if you can articulately explain why Jane Eyre would ever have fallen in love with Mr. Rochester, or even whether you actually ever learned those Latin case endings. Use the sanctuary of this chapel to stop thinking about what you have to do and focus on how you feel. You won’t always have the space or time for that, and I hope that you take advantage of it.
I also hope that you use the safe and supportive environment that this school provides to explore what it means to be friends with someone whose beliefs are different and even contradictory to your own. I hope that you build friendships that are strong enough to allow you to ask one another serious and important questions about religion. I hope that you feel the respect that our community holds for each of its members, and I hope that you use that respect as a safety net as you explore your own beliefs.
Ultimately, I decided to hang my St. Mary’s diploma on the wall of my rabbinical office because I know that I’m going to be a better rabbi because I am a St. Mary’s girl. That diploma reminds me of the lessons I learned and the friends that I made within these walls, and because it does, it makes me smile every time I look at it. To me, being a St. Mary’s alum and a rabbi is a perfect fit.
And, I have to tell you that one of the best things that came from me going to St. Mary’s for 14 years was that in Rabbinical School, I got an A+ in Christian Scriptures. So, thank you, St. Mary’s, for that and for so much more.