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God needed an admin in heaven

A Christian administrative assistant taught me everything about life.

A painting of Moses in a basket, lowered by his mother on the waters of the Nile, by Alexey Vasilievich Tyranov, circa 1840. Image courtesy of  Wikimedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — It happens without fail.

Every year, precisely at this season, I think of Katie.

When Katie walked into my synagogue in 1993 to apply for the position of rabbi’s administrative assistant, I could not have known that: a.) despite a resume that hardly indicated any potential, she would be vastly qualified; and b.) how important she would become in my life.

Neither could I have known our relationship would come to embody the most profound truths of Jewish history.

Katie was a young woman from a tough, working-class background. She had no high school diploma.

But, after a few minutes of conversation, it became clear that although she had never graduated from high school, she had a master’s degree from Life University. Not only had she studied at Life University, she could have become a teacher’s assistant there and could even have taught a few graduate classes of her own invention.

That is why I hired her as my administrative assistant at the synagogue. Her career decision did not go over very well with her friends and at least some of her relatives.

“Rabbi,” she said, “I take a lot of _________ from my friends for working with the Jews. But hey, a job’s a job, and God is still God.”

So, here’s what happened.

This tough young woman started off working for Judaism.

And, within a short period of time, Judaism started working for her.

The mother of an upcoming bat mitzvah girl was giving Katie a rough time about scheduling bat mitzvah lessons. The girl, of course, had many other things to do in her life: schoolwork, soccer, cheerleading, hanging out with friends and watching television. 

“Rabbi,” Katie said to me, “I don’t get it. These people are dissing you big time. They don’t realize what an amazing thing they got here with this Judaism stuff. And, you know something? I ain’t afraid to tell them that — which, by the way, I do.”  

How had she learned about the amazing thing Jews had with “this Judaism stuff”?

I had asked her to type a list of questions for each Torah portion that would help the kids think about the meaning of their portion and then to write their divrei Torah (sermonettes).

“You know, Rabbi, these questions that I’ve been typing for you?” she said to me. “I hope you don’t mind that I been thinking about them, too. I gotta tell you: These questions that I been typing — these are the only questions that really matter.”

We in the Jewish community talk, and we should talk, about the many gentile and “Jewish adjacent” spouses, partners and family members who have thrown their lot in with the Jewish community. I refer to them as “Jews by Velcro.”

So, too, we have wonderful relationships with many religious leaders who bless us in our work and in our mission.

But we don’t talk about the Katies in our midst enough.

We do not talk enough about the non-Jews who work behind the scenes, and in front of the scenes, to enable Jewish life in our institutions — the administrative assistants, bookkeepers, custodians, soloists, musicians, sometimes early childhood teachers, sometimes executive directors.

They serve us with love — and, let’s face it, sometimes that takes a lot of patience. As Moses was to learn, we are not an easygoing people.

But the way we treat them reflects on us, on our entire tradition and ultimately on God. As my late teacher Eugene Borowitz once said: “God cares more about how we treat the janitor than about the precise order in which we light the Hanukkah candles.”

Over the years in which we worked together, I came to see Katie as representing something larger and something deeper.

Think of all the villains there are in the Hebrew Bible: Laban, Pharaoh, Amalek, Goliath, Haman — the list is rather long.

Now, think about the un-villains. Think about the non-Israelites who aren’t villains or Jew-haters, but who, in fact, are righteous people who have redemptive relationships with the Jews, and who learned something from us, and who taught something to us. (I tell their stories in my book “Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible.”)

Can you name them?

In particular, in this week’s Torah portion: Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who saved the lives of Jewish children. They refused to comply with Pharaoh’s genocidal plan. They were the first to practice civil disobedience. They were the moral grandmothers of Thoreau and Gandhi and King. Their ethnicity is unclear, but the majority of commentators agree they were Egyptians — thus making their moral heroism even more powerful.

Also, in this week’s Torah portion: the daughter of Pharaoh, who rescued and raised Moses. The Torah does not tell us her name, but later sources call her Bityah, the daughter of God.

Also, again, in this week’s Torah portion: Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, who sheltered him, taught him, and a few weeks from now, gives his name to the Torah portion in which God reveals the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people.

In post-biblical times, there were entire synagogues in the Diaspora that were filled with yirei elohim, “God-fearers,” who came to learn Torah and to observe some Jewish customs. During the Protestant Reformation, there were various groups who observed some Jewish customs.

Unless we see these people, our vision will be incomplete and our story will be broken.

Back to Katie. She was not only my colleague. She became part of my family.

Several years later, she became quite ill with lupus. She became so ill she could no longer work for me.

And yet, a few years later, she was better and she came to work for me once again — this time, in a different synagogue. During her illness, she had gotten her GED and had formally graduated from high school. During her illness, she learned how to design websites. During her illness, she became a very good writer.

This is what she would say to me: “I just know that when I die, I’ll get the answers to all my questions.”

“What do you believe about this stuff, Rabbi?” she would ask me. 

I said to her: “There’s a beautiful teaching that says that in the world to come, God gathers the righteous together in a huge circle and they all spend the day together studying Torah.”

To which she said: “That sounds very cool.”

Katie’s lupus eventually and ultimately claimed her. She was only 44 years old. They buried her in the old Irish Catholic church of her rebellious and tough childhood.

I remember how she told me, during one of her bouts with lupus: “I’m not afraid of dying. It’s when I will get the answers to all my questions answered.”

I pray God answered her questions.

And, those answers had better be good ones.