WILMINGTON – In the first few months of 2017, the Siegel Jewish Community Center in Brandywine Hundred received several threats, disrupting its services and causing a sense of unrest. Father James Kirk, pastor of the Catholic parish closest to the JCC, St. Mary Magdalen, thought it would be educational to invite a local rabbi to the school for a wide-ranging discussion.
So on April 4, Rabbi Michael Beals of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington joined Bishop Malooly as they talked about the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism, and they answered several questions from students at St. Mary Magdalen School.
“We’ve had some craziness in our community,” Father Kirk said. “The rabbi is a good friend and a neighbor.”
Rabbi Beals grew up in California and has been a rabbi for 20 years. He moved to Delaware in 2004 to lead Congregation Beth Shalom, which is located near Brandywine Park. He and his wife and their two children live close to St. Mary Magdalen.
He explained that Jews and Catholics both believe in one God, and Bishop Malooly added that a lot of what students at St. Mary Magdalen and other Catholic schools are taught in theology is from the Old Testament and the Jewish tradition.
“There are a lot of clear connections between our brothers and sisters who are Jewish,” he said.
With that, the floor was turned over to the students, who came prepared. The first questioner wanted to know the difference between the titles “rabbi” and “bishop.”
“’Rabbi’ simply means ‘teacher,’” Rabbi Beals said. “I look at Jesus as a teacher, so I see Jesus as a colleague and a friend.
“I’m no closer to God. I’m not any holier than you.”
What that title means, he continued, is that he is qualified to pass on knowledge of Judaism.
“Bishop” comes from the Greek and means “overseer,” more of a centralized leader.
Both Rabbi Beals and Bishop Malooly said faith remains important in the world. The rabbi said he sees people cutting faith out of their lives, and it worries him.
“Our job is to make faith as accessible as possible. I think it is a very lonely life that doesn’t have faith involved,” he said.
Bishop Malooly said one of the reasons he is so supportive of Catholic education is the faith component. Children need that foundation, he said.
Rabbi Beals was asked why Jewish boys are considered adults at age 13, when most go through their bar mitzvah. He called it “a brilliant question,” saying theoretically that is when a boy could become a parent, although he strongly suggested that they don’t. At that age, he explained, boys should be responsible for keeping Jewish laws and traditions.
Another student wanted to know what the Jewish synagogue experience was like.
The rabbi said Jews pray three times a day, and in a previous time Jews made sacrifices three times a day. The Sabbath is a big day for them, with services that can last several hours.
“You’d better get comfortable,” he joked.
Their services include readings from the Torah and secondary texts. The only qualification to conduct a service is knowledge, so his daughter will do as much of her own bat mitzvah as possible.
Each of the religious leaders was asked about his inspiration to devote his life to his faith. Bishop Malooly spoke about his days as an altar boy in Baltimore and how much he admired one of the priests of his childhood.
“I became a priest because I felt God called me,” he said.
The rabbi told a story about his mother, who grew up in the Bronx, N.Y., in an area filled with Jews and Italian Catholics. She saw how many Jewish people were marrying outside the faith and worried about Judaism’s future; worldwide, there are only about 13 million Jews. That stuck with Rabbi Beals, who was 29 and working in Los Angeles at the time. He added that there is a selfish reason for becoming a rabbi.
“I get to meet really super-neat people,” he said, “and I am never bored.”
Before the session ended, Father Kirk asked the bishop and the rabbi what can be done to end situations that lead to threats like those against the JCC.
Rabbi Beals said get-togethers such as St. Mary Magdalen’s are very helpful. He suggested the students “go out of your comfort zone” to get to know people not like themselves and to put their religious teachings into action.
“You can’t be innocent bystanders when people are being treated badly.”