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A Powerful Thanksgiving Service with the Woodstock Interfaith Clergy Council

Dear Friends,

This past Monday the Woodstock Jewish Congregation had the privilege of hosting the annual Woodstock Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. This year’s gathering was so stirring and inspiring that I wanted to describe it to those of you who were not able to attend.

For many, many years I have participated in the Woodstock Interfaith Clergy Council, an informal gathering of the religious leaders in Woodstock. We typically meet monthly. We share with one another about our professional and personal lives, we learn about each other’s traditions, and we find ways to act together publicly on matters of common cause. After 9/11 we held a powerful interfaith memorial service. After Hurricane Irene we cooperated in collecting food and clothing for the victims. Last year on Earth Day we held an interfaith celebration to raise consciousness about our relationship to the planet. And every year we hold our Thanksgiving service.

Before our synagogue came on the scene, the clergy council was exclusively Christian. When I arrived as the first rabbi in town, my Christian colleagues graciously reached out to me, and we became an interfaith council. And over the past several years our local Buddhist monasteries, KTD and Zen Mountain Monastery, have begun to participate, so now I am pleased that our council encompasses all of the religious organizations in Woodstock. Despite our different backgrounds and creeds, I know I can speak for my colleagues when I say that our work and our challenges as pastors and spiritual leaders are remarkably similar, and the support we offer to one another is sustaining to all of us.

At our service this past Monday, an overflow crowd filled our sanctuary and overflowed into the lobby. This was far more people than had ever attended our Thanksgiving service in the past. I think that our troubled and divisive times compelled so many of us to seek this moment of commonality, and to make a statement with our shared presence. Together we sang and prayed, and focused on gratitude as the antidote to our anxious spirits, and as the key to our ability to continue practicing righteousness and compassion in these profoundly unsettling times.

As each speaker offered a serving of wisdom from his or her tradition, in the form of teaching, prayer or song, I felt like we were sharing a magnificent potluck Thanksgiving feast for our spirits. The menu was wonderfully eclectic: Buddhist chants and Protestant hymns; Hebrew chant and American spirituals; teachings and meditations from the Buddhist, Dutch Reformed and Christian Science traditions; the prayer of St. Francis, and heart opening chant from the Christian mystical tradition; and more. The varied flavors of these offerings, seasoned with large amounts of generosity, complemented each other in a way that uplifted all of us, the whole being so much greater than the sum of each contribution. (I also want to thank Diane Colello and her co-volunteers for feeding us with delicious real food after the service!)

At many interfaith gatherings that I have attended, there is a tendency to water down our words, so as not to offend. This impulse is well intentioned, as we want to show how much we have in common, but it also can ruin all the delicious flavors of the feast. But blandness is not the key to bringing us together; rather, it is our deep intention to accept one another that allows us to sit at the same table. It is also our humility that allows us to share in this way, the humility to give up any exclusive claims to “the Truth.” Then we can each bring our tastiest dish, share it eagerly, and taste everyone else’s with delight.

This was the gift of our Thanksgiving service: our ability to celebrate the particularity of our spiritual traditions without having to exercise any claims to exclusivity. This is the path forward in our gloriously diverse world that is ever more interconnected. I am so deeply grateful to live in a community that is eager to come together and celebrate our common humanity. Let’s not take this spirit for granted. In a nation and a world where so many are prone to withdraw into tribal, political, ethnic, or racial divisions, let us keep demonstrating the ability to come together while celebrating our differences.

I want to thank all of my colleagues: Reverend Paul Smith of Overlook United Methodist Church; Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Roshi of the Zen Mountain Monastery; Jan Tarlin and KTD Choir of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery; Pam Murnan of First Church of Christ, Scientist; Reverend Joshua Bode of Woodstock Reformed Church; Father George Hommel of St. John’s Roman Catholic Church; Cantor Micha’el Esformes; Reverend Matthew Wright of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church; Reverend Sonja Maclary of Christ Lutheran Church; and the Overlook United Methodist Church Choir, directed by Ed Leavitt, who also accompanied our service on piano.

I also want to thank all the people who attended our service, and I want to thank all of you readers for reading my words. Fortified by the fellowship of all the good souls in our midst, may we move forward with open hearts, open minds and open hands.

Shabbat Shalom and Love,

Rabbi Jonathan