Fairfield Holds Its First Kabbalat Shabbat Service

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on February 7, 2011

On Friday, February 4, 2011, Fairfield University held its first Kabbalat Shabbat service in the new Interfaith Prayer space at 42 Bellarmine. Co-sponsored by the Carl & Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies and the Office of the University Chaplain, the service, welcoming the Sabbath, was open to all members of the University community and was followed by a dinner. Rabbi Suri Krieger led the service with prayers and songs.

We contacted Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J., University Chaplain, and Dr. Ellen Umansky, Director of the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies, to learn more.

Photos Credit: Jean Santopatre

Q&A with Rev. Gerald Blaszczak, S.J.

1. When did you join the Fairfield community as the University Chaplain, and why were you attracted to this position? Where did you work before Fairfield?

I began my work as University Chaplain at Fairfield in July, 2009. Before that I was Pastor of St. Ignatius Loyola Church in NYC, following my position as Vice President for Mission and Ministry and University Chaplain at Fordham for 8 years. When I left St. Ignatius, I was happy to have the opportunity to return to work on a university campus. I believe in the value of the sort of educational, formative experience Jesuit higher education aims at. I very much enjoy living and working with students, and am especially interested in working with faculty and professional staff in shaping together the culture of learning, service, personal growth and transformation, and preparation for leadership that are at the core of a Jesuit education. I believe that Jesuit colleges and universities are able to offer students a type of education that not only outfits them for professional success, but also helps them discover what really matters to them as their perspectives, skills, and values evolve – leading to lives that are more genuinely satisfying and meaningful.

2. When and why did you see a need for an Interfaith space at Fairfield, and how was 42 Bellarmine chosen?

From my arrival here I recognized that there was a need for a non-denominational space where people of any religious tradition or none in particular could feel welcome and comfortable. As the Muslim Student Association started growing last year, I was even more conscious of the need for such a place. Having lived in the old Jesuit residence that we now call “42 Bellarmine,” I knew that the space that had served as our chapel would be perfect for what I had in mind. I spoke to Father von Arx about this need and the appropriateness of the former Jesuit chapel. Fr. von Arx immediately agreed to designate it for an inner-faith prayer and worship space, and Dr. Mark Reed and his staff refurbished the chapel to serve its present purpose.

3. How would you describe the Fairfield community, and its tolerance of religious pluralism?

In my view Fairfield is at the point of beginning to build the reality of our diversity – achieved through the University’s strategic plan – into the fabric of our Fairfield campus culture. Now that students of diverse racial, cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds are on campus, their gifts, perspectives, interests, and needs must be reflected in our public life. Religious pluralism is only one dimension of this growth in our culture, but, given that we are a Jesuit University, a dimension to which we give special attention and importance. I have said elsewhere and would want to repeat that Jesuit universities should be places where people on campus notice the religious diversity that exists there, and respond to it directly and with conversations in which faiths meet and are explored intelligently and sensitively.

4. Please share any other thoughts/comments/reflections.

I want to stress that what we have been doing here flows from the conviction that religious pluralism as such is religiously significant – by which I mean that we affirm that this diversity is a religious good – the providential context God has given us for our lives.  I hope it is clear that I am not advocating some sort of bland “tolerance” of the religiously other, but rather inviting us all into a creative and open dialogue.

Q&A with Dr. Ellen Umansky, Director of the Bennett Center

1. What does the first Jewish Shabbat Service signify to you?

For me, this service marks an important step in Fairfield University’s putting into practice its commitment to diversity and to further fulfill our mission of educating the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. I know that many of the Jewish students, faculty, and staff who attended felt, as I did, a real sense of religious community, something that I, as a Jew, haven’t felt at Fairfield before.

2. Please describe the primary differences between Catholic and Judaic prayer.

There are many differences between Catholic and Jewish public worship. In the Jewish service, for example:

  • There is no kneeling (although there is some bowing), no Eucharist, and no formal creeds or statements of belief that are recited
  • Much of the Jewish service is in Hebrew
  • All of the prayers are offered in the first person plural (“we” vs. “I”)
  • At some services (although not on Friday night), the Torah is read
  • The liturgy emphasizes the strong connection between the God of Israel, the people of Israel (i.e., the Jewish people), and the land of Israel (the homeland of the Jewish people for almost 4,000 years)

3. Please describe the rituals and intentions of Judaic prayer.

The intentions of Jewish worship are both religious and social. For observant Jews, participating in regularly scheduled public worship is a mitzvah, or commandment. It is a form of spiritual discipline which enables the worshipper to feel a deeper sense of connection with the Jewish people and with God. It also allows Jews the opportunity to socialize with one another. Fr. Blaszczak, Rabbi Jim Prosnit, and I, in envisioning what the service on campus might be, agreed that it should be followed, as Kabbalat Shabbat services regularly are, by dinner, affording many of those who attended the service the opportunity to informally meet and talk to others.

4. Do you feel that the event was successful?

I counted 49 people at the event (we had set up 50 chairs and only one was empty). The number of those who attended, and the level of participation by those present, far exceeded my expectations. I received extremely positive feedback from Jews and non-Jews who attended, including many non-Jewish undergraduates who had never been to a Jewish worship service before.

We hope to have 3 Shabbat services each semester. Our next one is scheduled for Friday, March 4th at 5:30 pm. It will be led by both Rabbi Suri Krieger, who led the February service, and Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport. It, too, will be followed by a Shabbat dinner.

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