By Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf
I spent my high school years at a New England boarding school called Northfield Mt. Hermon where I recently returned for my 25th reunion. Yes, it did make me feel old. But it also made feel lucky – lucky to have attended such a beautiful and enlightened school. Truthfully my landing in 9th grade was more like a crash landing. I was thoroughly consumed by my own adolescent drama when I came for my interview. It was the morning after a heavy snowfall and I was sleeping in back of the car. I woke up just as the campus came into view. It looked like a postcard – impossibly picturesque, a cluster of buildings that included a big stone chapel and bold red barn huddled together on a blanket of thick new snow. I fell in love with it instantly. It looked like a place where there might be a place for me – whoever that turned out to be.
At the time it appeared that I only cared about boys and music, and not necessarily in that order. Deep down, though I was looking for some bigger reason to do all the things I was told to do and to act like a human being in the process. “Because I said so” was wearing rather thin.
But this typical teenage defiance was really a manifestation of something about my character that I did not fully understand then. It was a need for a bigger purpose or some over arching reason to try. My problem with expectations and rules was not that I thought I knew better. It was actually that feared that no one knew better and I was looking for people who would at least tell me that my sense that life might in fact be one big crap-shoot was understandable. My parents were just looking for some way to get me to do my homework on a regular basis.
Fortunately Northfield Mt Hermon was a school designed for a kid like me. It had an extensive religion requirement, but it was not based in any one faith. In fact, it was not based on a traditional assumption about religion at all. For me, religion was not about proving one faith correct over another. I knew then that it was the entire premise that needed to be questioned. So when my freshman religious studies teacher walked into class on the first day and after listening to 45 minutes of forgettable responses to the question, “What is religion?” he wrote that famous Paul Tillich definition on the blackboard. “Religion is that which gives meaning and purpose to one’s life.” And that was when I woke up.
Eventually I studied religion and became a rabbi but I’m pretty sure none of that would have occurred had I not been given the opportunity to explore these issues in a place that demanded even more of me as a human being than it did of me as a student. NMH was that open space for me physically, intellectually, and spiritually. There is a great irony in this discovery since my high school was founded by one of the most famous Christian Evangelists of the 19th Century, D.L. Moody. The school he founded still embodied many of the ideals that were connected to his Christian faith but they were the very same ideals that made it possible for me as a woman to eventually become a leader in a different faith.
Moody was a popular preacher who returned to his birthplace in rural western Massachusetts to start a boarding school for girls who were too poor to acquire an education. He was an activist and a social reformer. He believed that music, specifically singing – was an essential part of a person’s spiritual evolution. He also believed that an education was useless if a person lacked good character and he believed part of developing that good character was having a responsibility to the community as a whole. He believed in physical labor, gender equality and that climbing a mountain once in a while was equally as formative as reading good books and he was a devote Christian. The veracity of his views on education remain true regardless of their origins and I have never felt the need to sever these ideals from their ties to the Christianity in order to embrace them.
There is no question in my mind that NMH was an enormous influence on my decision to study religion and my decision to be a rabbi. I absorbed the school’s liberal activist tendencies and even though it's now routine, being a female clergy person in faith that has been defined and described for thousands of years by men is an activist move. Another thing I owe rev Moody is the merger of my spiritual and musical interests. Before NMH I was focused on music because it was were I felt heard and where I felt challenged. It was separate from schoolwork though in my mind and definitely had nothing to do with faith until I went to NMH where I found a voice as a singer and as a person and where these two things became one endeavor. Music was not a superfluous subject at NMH. It was as rigorous as any academic subject and for me it was a giant affirmation of how I felt about music and its ability to reach me when nothing and no one else could.
I remember singing in the big hall that had been designed for D.L. Moody’s sermons and for the choral singing that took place around these wildly popular gatherings. The hall was huge and was a masterpiece of acoustic engineering for its time and I learned to be a public speaker and a singer in that giant hall. I observed and participated in truly powerful moments of community gathering and saw the way a group becomes far more than the sum of its parts through worship and through music. I heard my own voice many times in that hall and in the two enormous chapels where we sang and I am certain this too influenced my decision to become a rabbi. I do not think I would have ever heard my own voice with the kind of accuracy one needs to be an affective leader or teacher had it not been for all those concerts and gatherings as a school community.
I’m pretty sure D.L. Moody would have preferred that I became a Christian. But he would, I hope, be happy that I became a friend of that search for faith and a person willing to discuss issues pertaining to religion with sensitivity and understanding. I’m also positive that this diverse setting is what made me not only the kind of person I am today but also the kind of Jew I am. I did not become a rabbi because it was expected. Actually, given where I grew up (Cape Cod) and then gong to a school that was ostensibly had absolutely no relationship to Judaism would have predicted a very different outcome. But being surrounded by different thoughts on religion and spirituality has always made me clearer about who I am. NMH was all about cultural diversity so I certainly learned as we all did how to be sensitive to other faith traditions. But the real fine-tuning of my own inner voice also occurred there. There is awareness of difference and then there is an acceptance of difference and acceptance of one’s own core and others takes requires a kind of hearing that goes way beyond simple acknowledgement of other people’s ideas and views.
Acceptance requires understanding the relationship that you have to that other person and then finding a way to be who you are at the same time. I’m Jewish and your Christian or Muslim or Buddhism can mean you worship on Sunday, I worship on Saturday and so on. But making those differing practices sing, as part of the same community without dumbing down the timbre or their respective voices requires practice and listening. It is not I worship this way and you worship that way. It is a question of why we do what we do, what purposes do our respective actions fulfill. What core values do they express and how can we hear the underlying intentions of our respective faiths and make sure that these are truly respected. We do this by sharing our traditions and beliefs. Not by imposing them on others and not by simply clearing a space and stepping away so that someone else can do what they need to do. It’s something in between. It is being a supportive and engaged listener when that other voice is speaking and it is modifying our actions and words in certain ways because we have really heard that other voice. In religious terms I would call this being a “witness” to another person’s truth or experience. In musical terms I would call it intonation.
Seriously, the most accurate metaphor I know for the concept of different voices not changing or conforming but altering them through listening to one another is the process of a musical ensemble being in tune. Entering that beautiful chapel that is so Christian, I felt certain that learning to hear my own voice in relationship to another was in fact a spiritual exercise – one that gave me the resources to continue not only existing in a diverse world, but to allow that diversity to sharpen my awareness of myself and others. The credo of Judaism is the prayer that begins “Shema Ysirael” or “Hear, Oh Israel.” While I use to read that as a command from God to the people demanding that we hear and obey Commandments, I now read that as a command to listen better, harder, more consistently to others and to ourselves. I now see this listening as the first obligation of a religious life.
I had a wonderfully gifted choir instructor at Northfield who would say, when we were out of tune that if we failed to fix our intonation problems we would all go home “unresolved.” In order to solve the problem we would stand in mixed formation and sing between two people who did not sing the same part. We also did not hum back the note hummed by the pitchfork right before we started to sing. We listened to it because somehow you hear and sing back the pitch more accurately if you just listen to it. I left Northfield with good ears. Though I still had no idea where I was going, and though I still feel lost at times I did learned to listen and that one skill eventually led me to Jerusalem, to rabbinic school and to the life I have today. Returning twenty-five years since graduating I drove through the moss and tall pines past Shadow Pond, past the gingerbread eves of the cottage dorms where I lived and up to the grey stone chapel perched on the peak of campus. An endless blanket of grass rolls itself out across the fields all the way down to the river miles in the distance. I have traveled as far as China and lived in places as distant as Jerusalem but as I stood beneath the cross embedded in the rose stained glass window of the chapel and looked down at the Connecticut River I could think of nothing other than the words of Ecclesiastes: “All rivers run to the sea, but the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.”
Rabbi Laura Sheinkopf is a Reform Rabbi with degrees in Comparative Religion and Jewish studies from Columbia University & Hebrew Union College. She is a freelance writer, teacher, and a media strategist living in Houston, TX with her two children. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Interfaith Houston.