Rabbi Harold S. White, who's been described as "a Jesuit at heart," made history in 1968 when he became the first full-time rabbi hired by a Catholic university in the United States, and since then he has continued to defy convention.
In his four decades as a faculty member and Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, White has promoted interfaith dialogue, found links between Judaism and Jesuit values, sought common ground between blacks and Jews and between Jews and Muslims, and, for the last five years, presided over gay and lesbian marriages.
"One of my objectives is to bring people together through the reality that we are all the children of the same higher being," he says about his life's work.
Now 78 years old, White will be honored on Oct. 24 at a symposium and dinner in Washington by Moment magazine, an independent Jewish periodical, for his many years of service and his work as a theologian.
"Rabbi White cares about people, no matter who they are," says the magazine's editor, Nadine Epstein. "He's a role model, a trailblazer. Long before anyone else, he's been willing to reinterpret old traditions."
The "who's who" slated to attend the event includes Moment's cofounders, writer Leonard Fein and philosopher Elie Wiesel, Robert Siegel of National Public Radio, actor Theodore Bikel, New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff, and Judea Pearl, father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
A university fixture
Although he officially retired in June, White remains a senior adviser for the Program for Jewish Civilization, which he founded at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Still a vigorous figure on campus, the rabbi also keeps busy by teaching a course, Contemporary Jewish Thought, and mentoring students.
"He's got the soul of the university," Kemp says. "He's a Jesuit at heart. He knows his way around every department in this place. They cannot let him go. … His whole life is committed to people who look to this university."
White, a native of Hartford, Conn., attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut as an undergrad, did graduate work at Columbia University, and studied to be a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.
When White considered going to Georgetown during the late 1960s, he wondered why a Catholic university with few if any Jews would need a rabbi. He says the university president told him, "We want you to teach the Christian students about Jesus — that he was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and died a Jew so that they will better understand the beginnings of Christianity and its relationship to Judaism."
The Rev. Michael Kelley, pastor of St. Martin's Catholic Church in Washington, where White conducts Passover seders, says his colleague has a real gift for explaining the influence of Jewish history on Catholicism.
"Rabbi White, more than any other rabbi, has a deep understanding of Christianity and a deep understanding of Catholicism," says Kelley, who has conducted more than 500 interfaith marriages with him.
A conduit for cultures
White has served the traditional role of rabbi by holding regular and holiday services and by being a mentor, a spiritual adviser and a teacher. But he also has been a bridge builder, reaching out to Jews and Christians alike and expanding his tent to include black, Asian and Muslim students.
"Rabbi White is a man who always wants to bring peace and understanding among different student groups at Georgetown," says Amin Bonnah, who teaches at Georgetown's Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies.
For 10 years at Georgetown, with an imam and a priest, White co-taught a popular undergraduate theology course called Theological Encounter. Singer Pearl Bailey, who enrolled at the university later in her life, was one of his theology students, and he officiated at her funeral.
And in his years at Georgetown, the school has graduated 38 students who went on to become rabbis, he reports, calling it a remarkable feat for a Catholic university.
White has continually defied tradition and orthodoxy when he felt it was justified, including his officiating at interfaith marriages, a controversial act, since most rabbis will not do so.
"I began to realize back in the 1970s how interfaith marriage was increasing," he says. "The only way we can ensure these couples would raise their children to be somewhat Jewish was to reach out to them and not close the door in their faces."
In addition to his work at Georgetown, White has served as assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai in Washington, and as the rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Easton, Md.
Although he has never married, White says all of the congregants where he has worked are members of his family, and that he has filled his life and his heart with a simple but important principle — to not let a day go by without extending a hand to others.
" 'The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable,' " he says, quoting the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. "I live by Martin Buber's thoughts that 'otherness is holiness.' "
Judi Hasson is a writer in McLean, Va.