A few months ago, after 15 years of teaching at Boston College (BC), I decided to call it quits. This week, I gave my final exam, corrected the papers, and posted the grades. Finito!
My first contact with BC took place in the Fall of 1999 at the invitation of Dr. Ruth Langer, a rabbinic colleague of mine who taught at the College. I was then the Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, MA., and planning my upcoming retirement. Having a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in Bible and Ancient Near Eastern studies, I wanted to work in academia for a few years. During my initial meeting with the head of the Theology Department, I was given an opportunity to teach an elective. I chose to deal with “God Concepts; Jewish and Christian Responses,” based on Finding God (URJ Press), a book that I had co-authored with Rabbi D. Syme a few years ago. The course was popular and I had a large class. Later on, I taught many electives, including an Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Spirituality, Biblical Theology, and the Decalogue. My classes were popular; I never had less than 35-40 students. Every year I only taught one class per semester, because of time constraints at my synagogue. However, in 2003, at age 65, after my retirement from the full-time rabbinate, BC asked me to teach, twice a week, a required course on Religious Quest, concentrating on Judaism and Christianity. My book Modern Judaism (Cognella, 2013) was written as a textbook for my students.
When we lived in Needham, the commute to BC was easy--under half an hour. However, in 2005 when we moved to our new condo in Ashland, about half an hour west of Needham, the trip started to become a chore- 45 minutes to go and an hour and a half to come back. Especially the return around 5 pm was rough, because it coincided with the heavy traffic on the expressway. I started to rethink about my commitment to BC. When an opportunity emerged for me to teach a course on Ethics at Framingham State University (FSU), just 15 minutes away from my house, I gladly accepted, and began classes in Jan. 2015, both at FSU and BC. About a month ago, however, I told my BC chair that I would not return to the College in the Fall.
Teaching at a Catholic University gave me an opportunity to get to know the Catholic academic community of Boston relatively well. I found my colleagues to be accepting and open-minded, even though my Jesuits friends always maintained a strong devotion to the Vatican and to the basic teachings of the Church. One year, when the administration decided to place a crucifix in every classroom, some of the professors did not like it, but I said, “Listen, Jesus was Jewish; he grew up as a Jew and died as a Jew.” I did not mind having him around.
BC also has a group of colleagues who are dedicated to the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and they sponsor regular luncheon meetings, welcoming speakers on a variety of subjects who deal with the rapprochement between Jews and Christians.
The quality of most of my students at BC has been exceptional. They wanted excellence and strived to reach it through their work. Not satisfied with an A-, they had their eyes on an A+, and demonstrated that commitment by studying hard. In all of these 15 years, I have also had a number of Jewish students in my classes, even though I asked myself: what is a nice Jewish boy or girl doing at a Catholic University? BC made them feel at home, has a number of Jewish professors and even sponsors an active Hillel.
I will miss BC: primarily my students, the excellent computer tech department, the libraries, many faculty members, but in particular Dr. Karen Howard, a Holocaust scholar who has been my office-mate for many years (and who often brought me delicious homemade jams), Dr. Antonia Atanassova, my Bulgarian neighbor, and many other members of the administration. But everything has to come to an end. And this is the year for me. I know that this represents a major transition in my life, but I am ready for it. What made my departure more pleasant were the little gifts, notes and emails I received from my students who wished me well in the next stage of my life. I was enriched by my experience at BC and was rewarded plentiful by wonderful associations. Thank you, Boston College.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D
May 4, 2015