Wheaton Faculty Participates in Interfaith Shabbat Service

Faculty join local Etz Chaim Congregation to celebrate the Shabbat using the college’s Torah manuscript.

By Jacob Murrie | Staff Writer
March 2, 2021
Hebrew script from a Torah scroll. Photo: Tanner Mardis (Unsplash).

On the evening of Feb. 19, Wheaton College faculty participated in an interfaith virtual Shabbat service with members of the Etz Chaim synagogue, a Reformed Jewish congregation in Lombard. Etz Chaim, which means “tree of life” in Hebrew, houses a centuries-old Torah scroll owned by Wheaton and on display in the synagogue. Senior rabbi Andrea Cosnowsky read from the scroll in Hebrew to the online congregation, and then Wheaton faculty members provided other readings in English. 

Shabbat is a Jewish service commemorating the sabbath which begins at sundown every Friday night and ends on Saturday evening. Typically, a Shabbat service involves singing and chanting various Hebrew psalms, prayers and songs about God’s creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt. In place of a traditional Shabbat message, which typically involves a sermon from the Torah, Professor of English Emerita Jill Baumgaertener presented a reflection and two original poems about the Holocaust. Other faculty recited poetry and prayers. 

Like other Etz Chaim meetings since the start of the pandemic, the service was held over Zoom to protect the congregation’s health, according to former senior rabbi Steven Bob, who helped lead the service.

I am certainly grateful for Zoom,” he said, “it has allowed us to maintain many of our communal activities during this difficult time.” 

As for many Christian congregations, the online format has made communal singing—“a central feature of [Etz Chaim’s] regular worship,” according to Bob—complicated. Friday’s virtual Shabbat worship service consisted of congregant Cindy Michelassi playing guitar on one screen while the rest of the congregants sang from their own homes with their computer mics on mute. 

The idea for the interfaith gathering came from the friendship between Armerding Professor of Biblical Studies Michael Graves and Cosnowsky. According to Graves, the friendship began at their alma mater, Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion. Cosnowsky and Graves have partnered multiple times to invite Wheaton College affiliates to Etz Chaim services. 

In 2016, an anonymous friend of the college donated the Torah scroll to Wheaton. Although experts have not been able to identify a specific age, many of them say it could be several hundred years old, according to Graves. As soon as he heard about the donation, Graves sprung into action. 

“First, we had a respected Jewish scribe and a local rabbi make sure the scroll was in proper condition,” said Graves. “With advice from our Jewish friends, we obtained a cover for the scroll. Second, we decided that the scroll’s normal home would not be under glass or on a shelf as simply an object of study, but at a synagogue, which is proper according to Jewish custom.”

According to Graves, the donor requested that an inscription be included on the scroll cover. After discussing this with the Etz Chaim congregation, Wheaton faculty added the message, “This scroll contains the words that unite us. May sharing it always bring us joy.”

“The Wheaton College Torah is the only scroll owned by an evangelical college that lives in an ark at a synagogue,” said Bob. “This possibility emerged from years of trust-building conversations and blossoming friendship.”

Bob met Graves through a study group for Wheaton Bible professors and Chicago-area rabbis. The group was started by former Wheaton president Duane Litfin and Rabbi Yehiel Poupko in 2007. Through this group, Bob and Graves became friends, and Bob became an adjunct professor at Wheaton. 

Since 2010, they have co-taught “Introduction to Judaism” in the B-quad of the spring semester. Graves said students in the class “get a full, authentic Jewish voice and friend as part of the class.” Graves also meets with Bob monthly to study the Talmud, a compilation of Jewish oral law.

In past years, Graves has taken his students on visits to the Etz Chaim synagogue to see the scroll “in its Jewish context.” He said congregants have been very welcoming of visitors and enjoy explaining the scroll’s importance to their faith. 

“In most cases [at other Christian universities], the Torah scroll is simply placed in the library or somewhere on display and studied as a biblical document,” Graves said. “For Jews, a Torah scroll is a sacred, ritual object that should be treated with the respect that is due its status.”

Friday’s Shabbat service was not the first interfaith event between Etz Chaim and Wheaton. In the fall of 2019, Assistant Professor of Library Science Sarah Stanley hosted a lecture at which Graves and professors Aubrey Buster from the Bible and theology department, Richard Gibson from the English department and Jeremy Botts from the art department all spoke about the Torah from their areas of expertise. As with the 2019 lecture, they returned in February via Zoom to share a poem or prayer in English.  

During the service, Baumgaertner—a former dean of humanities and theology at Wheaton—spoke and read two original poems about the Holocaust, titled “Mobile Killing Units, Lopuchowa Forest, Poland” and “Concentration.” These works are included in a collection scheduled to be published later this year.

“We forget Jesus was a Jew,” Baumgaertner told the Record. “What we have in Christian culture and what we have in the New Testament is so dependent upon the Hebrew scriptures.” 

“Christians have a shared heritage with Jews,” said Graves. 

While no further events have been planned, Graves said he looks forward to more collaborations once groups can meet in-person again. 

Wheaton College, IL

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