WASHINGTON — Rabbi Harold White, whose hiring in 1968 by Georgetown University was hailed then as the first time a rabbi had been hired to a full-time campus ministry position by a U.S. Catholic university, died Aug. 31. He was 83.
Rabbi White stayed at Georgetown for four decades officially, “but he never really left,” John Borelli, special assistant to the president for Interreligious Initiatives at Georgetown, said Sept. 1.
The rabbi’s hiring by the Jesuit college was “truly an implementation of Vatican II and ‘Nostra Aetate’ at the time to have a full-time active rabbi on campus, interacting with students, being part of campus life, part of campus ministry life, and a university getting comfortable with the presence of a rabbi and the perspective he brings to so many things on a university campus,” Borelli told Catholic News Service.
“Nostra Aetate” is the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenical and interfaith relations, which was promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965.
“Over the course of his nearly 50 years here, his accomplishments were many,” said an Aug. 31 statement from John DeGioia, Georgetown president.
“He taught and counseled countless students from across faith traditions; he led our celebrations of the High Holy Days in Gaston Hall; and he worked to enhance our academic offerings focused on Judaism, including helping to create the Program for Jewish Civilization in 2004 and championing it since. He often spoke of his pride in working at a Catholic university that fostered interfaith dialogue and sent many graduates to the rabbinate,” DeGioia said.
One of Rabbi White’s last activities at Georgetown was his involvement in a trip to Poland earlier this summer in conjunction with the Program for Jewish Civilization.
“Over his four decades of teaching and ministry at Georgetown, Harold served as a rabbi not only for our Jewish students but for countless students from other faith traditions,” said a Sept. 1 email to CNS from Jesuit Fr. Kevin O’Brien, Georgetown vice president for mission and ministry.
“As a student in the ’80s and now as a Jesuit priest at Georgetown, I am a better Catholic, priest and person for knowing and learning from Rabbi White. He personified Vatican II’s commitment to interreligious dialogue and understanding. As the oldest Catholic university in the country, Georgetown is a better, more faithful place because of Rabbi White’s presence,” Fr. O’Brien said.
“The story is that when he was offered the position, Harold replied that Georgetown didn’t have all that many Jewish students. (Jesuit) Fr. (Gerald) Campbell (Georgetown’s president at the time) replied that he wanted Harold to be the rabbi for the university,” Borelli said in an Aug. 31 email upon learning of Rabbi White’s death.
Rabbi White was born June 23, 1926 in Hartford, Connecticut. He completed his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and received his rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. Prior to coming to Georgetown, Rabbi White was a Navy chaplain and served Jewish communities in Dublin and in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
He also served as scholar-in-residence at Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, and at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Rabbi White’s more recent academic interests centered on Kabbalistic studies and the Judaic roots of Christian scripture. He was also deeply involved in ecological issues and the protection of animal rights.
“I always found him very, very positive on the future of Georgetown, also desirous about preserving the interreligious character of the university as a university that supports religious understanding,” Borelli told CNS
Georgetown planned to have for a memorial service at a future date.