A Lonely Jew at Catholic School

By Nancy Kalikow Maxwell

Published February 09, 2010, issue of February 19, 2010.
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‘Let us pray” often opens funerals and weddings, but budget meetings? When you work at a Catholic college, you come to expect getting blessed without sneezing and praying before committee meetings.


The first time I heard prayer at work was at a staff meeting at the Catholic college library where I had just been hired.

“Dear God, we thank you for bringing us together at this moment. We thank you for bringing Nancy, our new librarian, to us and pray for all good things for her and the library. Amen.”

We thank God for Nancy? I was both honored and appalled. Though I appreciated the gracious welcome, I found it unnerving to be the subject of a benediction at work. Like many secular Jews, my religion is a private affair and I am apprehensive when subjected to public prayer. Will it conclude with “in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ?” If it does, will I — should I — keep from flinching?

When I applied for this job, I deliberately kept my Judaism under wraps, not knowing if it would prevent me from being hired or make me a target for Catholic conversion. Once hired, I deliberately left blank the line on the personnel form asking my religion.

But now that I was sitting in a staff meeting being prayed over, I realized that in this environment, religion and work would be intermingled. During the next few weeks, I heard many more prayers and experienced a workplace completely different from the public and not-for-profit worlds in which I had worked before.

Daily Mass was scheduled at lunchtime and was short enough to enable employees to pray and eat before returning to work. Mass also accompanied commencement and major campus events, though participation in communion was optional. Words such as “mission” and “caring” were heard as often as “student retention” and “enrollment projections.” Since many members of the faculty, administrators and staff were priests and nuns, “God bless you” and “Peace” concluded many a conversation.

Though I had not begun blessing anyone, I was often mistaken for a nun. I chuckled to myself every time I was addressed as “Sister Nancy.”

I continued to keep my Judaism a secret until the approach of the Jewish holidays, when I “came out” as a Jew to my boss by submitting a vacation request for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

“I didn’t know you were Jewish. That’s great,” he said, greeting the news with celebration rather than religious coercion. Handing me back the request, he told me to simply take off on those days. “At this college, attendance at religious worship is encouraged, not penalized,” he said.

I was immediately appointed to the Jewish/Christian Relations Committee, which I did not know existed. That body — which I ended up chairing — sponsored campus-wide inter-religious dialogues and an interfaith Passover Seder, and sent Hanukkah cards to the Jewish students and staff on campus (who I also did not know existed). As I later learned, the desire to identify the Jewish employees who should receive these cards was one of the reasons the religion question appeared on the personnel form.

Of all the religion-related activities of the college, it was praying before meetings that I came to appreciate most. All prayers were kept religiously generic. Even though it was a Catholic college, none of them ever excluded non-Christians by evoking the name of Jesus Christ.

The subject matter of the prayers varied, but was always inclusive. For instance, blessings of healing were offered for someone’s recovery from surgery or in celebration of the birth of a new baby. Sometimes the prayers were work related — asking for wisdom to rearrange the department’s schedule, or divine beneficence for an increased budget. Other times they were related to news items, such as prayers for newly elected political candidates or for victims of a hurricane.

For seven years I flourished in the combined work/religion atmosphere of the Catholic college; however, when a more attractive position at the local community college library was offered to me, I succumbed and changed jobs.

I now work for a public institution, so I am no longer allowed undocked time for the Jewish holidays. I miss that benefit, but more than that, I yearn to pray before meetings. Before battling over the budget or squabbling over office supplies, it would be nice to have a moment of reflection. With surveys showing less than half of all employees being satisfied with their work, gatherings of employees these days most likely include a sizable number of disgruntled workers. A benediction before a meeting provides a chance to put aside complaints, collectively take a deep breath and unite on a higher plane. Though workers may still be unhappy, group reflection helps temper anger and frustration, if only for a moment.

If public prayers were allowed at work, given the current economic situation, most employees would probably offer prayers of thanksgiving for still having a job. Privately, I would add a plea that should I lose my position, I be allowed to return to my previous job. Sister Nancy would gladly return to the Catholic college, bringing with her blessings of happiness and peace.

Nancy Kalikow Maxwell is a freelance writer and library director at Miami Dade College North Campus. She lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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