Upon descending the stairs to the second floor of the Intercultural Center, a quaint but easily overlooked sculpture can be observed toward the right wall. The bronze statue depicts a scene in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, in which the titular character embraces his father after returning from a path of rebellion.
Only a handful of people know that the statue was brought to Georgetown by former Senior Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Harold S. White, who approached its sculptor, Barry Woods Johnston, in 1983. To many members of the community, White himself charted an iconoclastic path at the university.
As the first full-time Jewish chaplain at a Catholic university in the United States, White persistently defied traditional boundaries set by religious and political doctrines. He sought a deeper connection and understanding between people of all religious and cultural backgrounds through his work in the Jewish ministry, his founding of the Program for Jewish Civilization and the hundreds of interfaith weddings he officiated over the past half a century.
White died Aug. 31 of complications from a stroke. He was 83 years old.
In a university-wide email sent on the day White passed away, University President John J. DeGioia commended White for his impact on Georgetown as an institution that welcomes diversity.
“Rabbi White’s devotion to our shared values and our mission as a community was unparalleled,” DeGioia wrote. “His leadership and vision in creating opportunities for dialogue strengthened our community and helped build the ethos of engagement that characterizes our campus ministry today.”
White is survived by his son, Ross McQuilkin. The university will hold a memorial service in celebration of White’s life on Sept. 20 in Gaston Hall.
Born in 1932 to Jewish immigrants from Austria, White grew up in Connecticut and studied philosophy at Wesleyan University before receiving his rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
White arrived at Georgetown in 1968, three years after the Vatican released “Nostra Aetate,” a declaration that repudiated the Catholic Church’s prior prejudices against Jews and other practitioners of non-Christian faiths.
According to PJC Associate Director Rev. Dennis McManus, White was not hired to serve Jewish students, as there were very few on campus at the time. Rather, the rabbi was tasked with educating the entire student body about Judaism.
“Harold White was ‘Nostra Aetate’ at Georgetown. He’s the one who opened the door for us to understand that on a daily basis. He’s the one who got us going. The most important thing he did was consent to that job offer,” McManus said.
From then on, White’s dedication to interreligious understanding transformed Georgetown. Students of all religious backgrounds frequently crowded the hallway outside his Healy Hall office, competing for a time slot to engage the rabbi in discussion.
For many in the Jewish community, White is best remembered in his rabbinical robe, delivering sermons on the stage of Gaston Hall for High Holy Days services, open to the general public.
Israel Klein (COL ’99), a friend and former student of White’s, said that even after he graduated, he returned to Georgetown to attend White’s sermons.
“You really had to make it a point to get there early. They are extremely well attended,” Klein said. “The way [White] conducted a service was really inclusive. It was open and accessible to everybody. You were made to feel at home.”
Director of Jewish Chaplaincy Rachel Gartner, who assumed White’s position after he retired in 2010, said that he solidified Georgetown as a welcoming institution to Jewish students.
“Over my last four years here. I’ve heard repeatedly [from Jewish alumni] that it was Rabbi White who made Georgetown feel like home for them,” Gartner said.
Theology and fine arts Professor Ori Soltes, who was initially recommended for a teaching position at Georgetown by White two decades ago, described him as yotzei dofen, a Hebrew phrase that roughly translates to “outstanding.”
“I think of him as not just outstanding, but in the etymological sense of the Hebrew, as someone beyond the norm,” Soltes said. “He was always reaching in different directions that took him away from the safely circumscribed, the mainstream. And often, he ended up bringing the mainstream, dragging it with him in the direction he took.”
White was not only known for bridging religious groups in the public sphere. He also played a significant role in the personal lives of many interfaith couples. At a time when interfaith marriages were still relatively unaccepted by most religious communities, many turned to White to perform their ceremonies.
White officiated the wedding of Vice President for Public Affairs Erik Smulson (CAS ’89) and Jennifer Beard (CAS ’89). The Jewish-Catholic couple met at Georgetown, and asked the rabbi and Rev. James Shea, S.J., to preside over their nuptials.
Smulson said that the rabbi provided endless guidance for the marriage.
“As we were leading up to our wedding, Rabbi really reinforced our patience and understanding with each other,” Smulson said. “It wasn’t always easy, but to have Rabbi and Fr. Shea there was a big part of our lives.”
An Inspired Teacher
Beyond his role in the Jewish chaplaincy and ministry, both students and faculty said they considered White an incredible and highly knowledgeable educator.
Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., said that White’s teachings were instrumental to his development as a Catholic priest.
“My relationship with [White] has made me a better person, a better Catholic, a better priest,” O’Brien said. “He helped me to understand my own Christian tradition in a new way from a Jewish perspective. … [He was] an inspired teacher.”
From his first days at Georgetown, White longed to create an academic center focusing on the different dimensions of Judaism, according to McManus. After an extensive fundraising period under his leadership, the Program for Jewish Civilization was launched as a program within the School of Foreign Service in late 2003.
After he retired, he continued to serve as an advisor to the program, which also saw the establishment of the Harold White Chair in Jewish Civilization made possible by alumni donations.
Next February, the PJC will officially be expanded into the Center for Jewish Civilization, which will push forward plans to create a major and a master of arts degree in Jewish civilization.
McManus said that the center is a testament to White’s continued influence on Georgetown.
“He knew about this before he passed, and that elicited a huge smile. He understood this was actually going to happen and we were going to be a center. It was the culmination of his life’s work,” McManus said.
Aside from the PJC, White was a professor who brought his endless thirst for knowledge to the lecture hall.
McManus, who co-taught a popular course on the dialogue between the Abrahamic religions called “Interreligious Encounter and Dialogue” with White and Imam Yahya Hendi, said that White’s approach to teaching was dynamic and engaging.
“He’d make his notes fresh every single time. He’d come in and say, ‘You know what, I’ve changed my view on something.’ [It was] a new surprise a week,” McManus said. “‘Why not?’ he would say. ‘Why not continue to change? It means that you’re growing and seeing new things. You should bring them in. You shouldn’t be afraid of that.’”
Hesham El Abd (GSB ’76), another friend and former student, agreed that White consistently welcomed new perspectives into the classroom.
“I was the only non-Jewish student in his class,” El Abd said. “You can imagine, I’m sitting there and you have 15, 17 Jewish students. He would say, ‘Okay, Hesham, but what about Islam?’ It added to the discussion and dialogue.”
El Abd continued a friendship that lasted decades with the rabbi, who had made plans to spend Thanksgiving with him in Cairo this year.
White also co-officiated El Abd’s wedding in 1983. Neither the bride nor groom was Jewish — he was Muslim, she was Presbyterian. Still, White performed a ceremony unique to El Abd and his wife.
“You could plan any wedding with Harold, and Harold would wake up that morning, decide what he’s going to do and he’d do it,” El Abd said. “You don’t call the rabbi if you want it to be by the book.”
In his lifetime, White fostered relationships that transcended religious, cultural and political borders.
“Thousands of people would say that he was their friend, and they would all be absolutely correct,” said Richard Chused, a former professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and a friend whose wedding White officiated.
Hendi, who became the first full-time Muslim chaplain hired by a Catholic university in 1999, pointed to a memorable experience in which he, Rev. Raymond Kemp and White blessed each other at the Jordan River during a trip that focused on interfaith dialogue.
“How rare would it have been for a Christian to be blessed by a Muslim and a Jew? People started taking pictures of this, and we became celebrities for almost half an hour,” Hendi said.
For Hendi, White’s connection with others stemmed from his marin, an Arabic word that means flexibility or elasticity.
“He wanted for everyone to be happy,” Hendi said. “He was one of those people who were naturally not willing to fight.”
Yet, despite his easygoing nature, White fought tirelessly for a society that embraced differences. He was an advocate for not only religious but also racial equality, having participated in the civil rights movement in 1961 as a Freedom Rider.
PJC Director Jacques Berlinerblau said that White’s acceptance was a rare quality that left a lasting impression on those who knew him.
“He was an enemy of close-mindedness, philistinism, homophobia, racism and any type of prejudice,” Berlinerblau said. “He didn’t look at somebody and just draw assumptions from that. For an 83-year-old Jewish man, having gone through what Jews had gone through in the 20th century, that was sublime.”
Correction: White co-officiated the wedding of Erik Smulson and Jennifer Beard with Rev. James Shea, S.J., rather than Rev. James Schall, S.J., as the original article incorrectly stated.
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