We were set to begin today with part one of our special series for freshmen entitled: “The Year You Missed: Class of 2019 Edition.” That was until we heard about Rabbi Harold White, who exactly one week ago died of a stroke at the age of 83 while under hospice care in Connecticut.
As many know, Rabbi White was Georgetown’s first rabbi, a position he held for just over four decades before retiring in 2009. His death was widely mourned, and noted, by both Jew and non-Jew alike. The Washington Post and Georgetown have each written moving tributes to the man. As one commentor on the former said, “I wish I had known this mensch.”
Fourteen years ago TGA praised Rabbi White in a regular, back page section known as “The Lauds,” the purpose of which was to profile and celebrate those who made Georgetown a better place. One of our alumni board members dug into his archives and sent us the piece, which we present now for those of us not fortunate to have known the man, and those who did and lament his passing.
For Rabbi Harold S. White, Alav Ha-sholom . . .
TGA Lauds: Georgetown’s Rabbi White
Even now, Georgetown has relatively few Jewish students. Fewer still are religious. Not to say that Georgetown should not be proud of its long-open doors to Jews, even while Ivy League institutions refused their admittance. Georgetown’s first Jewish student registered in the 1840’s and by 1960 Georgetown had more Jewish graduates than Princeton has now.
But in 1968, when Fr. Robert Henle, S.J. hired Georgetown’s first rabbi, the number was negligible. So the young rabbi asked Fr. Henle why he wanted to hire a full-time rabbi given so small a number. Fr. President looked up at the young Harold White and told him, “I’m not hiring you for the Jewish students. I’m hiring you for the Catholic students.” There was no better introduction to Georgetown and its particular Catholic tradition that the young rabbi could receive.
Since 1968, Rabbi Harrold S. White, has become the institutional memory of Georgetown’s Campus Ministry. He has outlived two presidents, including Fr. Henle, and worked for four. He is also a survivor. No less a venue than the Wall Street Journal recorded in 1999 that when the University’s newly arrived chief chaplain Fr. Adam Bunnell took to firing popular chaplains, White declined an invitation of “early retirement.” Thirty years of Georgetown friendships suggested to Bunnell (and Fr. O’Donovan) that it was unwise to press the issue.
With the rise and fall of various university presidents and chaplains, Rabbi White has stood comfortably, well at home. As the Senior Jewish Chaplain on campus, White has been a central figure, not just in the Jewish faith at Georgetown, but in all faiths. It was no small matter that when Catholic students rallied to return Crucifixes to classrooms, Rabbi White’s was among the first voices to be raised in support. Expressing his respect for the most sacred image of the Christian faith, White recalled the words of Rabbi Chaim Potok and stated his appreciation of the Crucifix as a “universal symbol of human suffering.”
In no small measure because of White, Georgetown’s Jewish community has taken root. Not only does it thrive in religious expression, but also in the success of the Jewish Students Association (JSA) with its house just beyond Healy Gates, and the recent formation of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity independent of University control. White has been a central figure in the Jewish Students Association since its inception, and has helped guide the organization through numerous program directors and problems with Campus Ministry. White has also been the leading activist for a Jewish Studies Program at Georgetown, helping to raise significant funds to make the program a reality and a success. The Program began in August 2000 due in large part to Rabbi White’s hard work.
At every important Georgetown moment in the last 30 years, Rabbi White has been there, and not just for the Jewish students, as Fr. Henle envisioned. He has made it a priority to ensure positive relations between our many faiths. Most recently, after the air attacks of September 11th, he stressed the importance of the Jewish community reaching out to their fellow students of Muslim faith, to avoid all that comes of ignorance. He understood that being a part of one community at this University means reaching out to all other communities.
Whether for Jew or gentile, whether it be through is classes on Jewish Mysticism or Jewish Life and Thought, his ministry work or his guidance of the Jewish Student Association, he has shown what being a true benefactor of the community is all about. He has taught by example, that at the core, Georgetown is about teaching young people. As Cardinal Newman taught, Rabbi White has known that this is the idea of a university.
Rabbi White also tells us that we cannot merely be transients here; even in a society we do not really run. Georgetown students must find their own unique place in Georgetown history. He has been a resource for student activism, most notably through campus ministry, but through other areas as well, since his arrival in 1968. This is an unspoken affirmation that Georgetown is bigger than any one administrator, faculty member or student . . . that it is a community, where intellect and creativity thrive.
For all these reason, TGA lauds our rabbi, Harold S. White; a man of God that we have no doubt the saintly Carroll would have liked. In a world of givers and takers, Proverbs (15:27) says “the man who dislikes gifts will live.” To Life!
Originally published in the November 2001 edition.