Persons, places and things: a rabbi, a cantor and a Catholic converse about Judaism

By Barb Arland-Fye
Editor

Our conversation on Judaism at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat near Wheatland left us with a song in our hearts, literally. Rabbi Linda Bertenthal of Temple Emanuel in Davenport and Cantor Emerita Gail Karp, inspired us with stories of their faith journeys and enlightened us with insights about Judaism.

Steve Fye
Cantor Emerita Gail Karp and Rabbi Linda Bertenthal discuss Judiasm during a Lenten talk at Our Lady of the Prairie Retreat near Wheatland March 26.

I moderated the March 26 talk, the third of four weekly Lenten conversations with speakers of various faiths or ethnicities on topics they are passionate about. Gail and I are longtime friends who share a common bond as mothers of a son with autism. After listening to Linda share her story, I feel like I’ve acquired a new friend.

Both Gail and Linda practice Reform Judaism, which Gail described as “the most liberal arm of Jewish streams of practice.” She added, “Men and women are totally equal in Reform Judaism.” Gail grew up in the faith; her family belonged to the largest Reform Jewish congregation in the country, in suburban Detroit.

As a college freshman home for the High Holy Days, she saw her congregation’s cantor (her childhood role model) and something clicked. “I wanted to teach, I wanted to sing and I wanted to conduct ensembles, and he was doing all of those things. And he was doing them in the genre of music that touched my heart the most.”

Gail pursued her dream at Hebrew Union College where she met her future husband, Henry, who was in rabbinical school. They married when she was 19. In 44 years of marriage, they have served several congregations, most of that ministry at Temple Emanuel in Davenport until their recent retirement.

Linda was not born into the Jewish faith, but from early childhood on searched for a spiritual home to call her own. “I was always a religious child. I always believed in God,” she said. When she was 5, her not quite 7-year-old brother succumbed to cancer. “I was like, ‘I better figure out what God wants from me because I have no idea how long I have to accomplish it.’”

During law school, she fell in love with a lawyer who was Jewish. Linda immersed herself in the study of Judaism. “As I was reading, I found the theology I had developed in my head and my heart and soul … and it was liberal Judaism.”

The time she spent at her synagogue “filled my heart in such a way that people started saying to me, ‘You should be a rabbi; you should be a cantor.’” Realizing that “God was speaking to me through these people,” Linda and her husband left their law careers and took their two children with them to live in Israel for a year where Linda studied to be a rabbi. “I’m a Jew by choice, and a rabbi, go figure,” she said.

Asked what they cherish most about their Jewish faith, Gail said: “I love the way my faith is inclusive and diverse and accepting and nonjudgmental and historic. I can feel like I’m part of something bigger than me that I truly can dedicate my life to.”

Linda said: “I love that not only are you allowed to ask questions, you’re supposed to ask questions and you can come up with a lot of different answers and not have to choose between them. It is a very intellectually grappling kind of a faith, Judaism.” When she’s studying Scripture, “I love reading many, many different interpretations and then trying to wrestle even with the ones that conflict with each other …. You might have opinions that are completely different than mine, but your words and my words are both words of the living God. To me, that’s as inclusive as inclusivity can be and I love that.”

The level of ignorance about Judaism can be challenging for Jews, Linda said. The last couple of years have been particularly challenging, she said, because of increasing anti-Semitism. Some children in her congregation have been the target of anti-Semitic speech in school, she noted.
Gail sees misconceptions growing from the fact that “we’re all afraid that we are going to offend one another if we either ask questions that are very forthright or if we make assumptions that other people aren’t like us.” More recently, she’s engaged in dialogue and public speaking with Muslim women. People of different faiths need to recognize that they share more things in common than they do differences, she said.

Todd Seifert, Our Lady of the Prairie’s property manager, made a request: “Both of you mentioned earlier that you love music. Could we wrap this night up with a short song?” And so we were treated to the sound of two beautiful voices calling us to build a world of loving kindness.

(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at arland-fye@davenportdiocese.org.)

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