Ephraim Radner and Annette Brownlee’s Story

Ephraim Radner and Annette Brownlee are an intermarried couple and scholars serving at Wycliffe College, an evangelical graduate school of theology at the University of Toronto. Jewish identity, the biblical history of Israel, and deep faith in Jesus are important to both partners in this thoughtful Jewish-Gentile couple.

Tuvya: Ephraim Radner and Annette Brownlee are an intermarried couple for over three decades. Both are academics in Toronto, Canada, serving with Wycliffe College and are ordained Anglicans. Annette Brownlee is the Wycliffe College chaplain, professor of Pastoral Theology, and director of Field Education. Ephraim Radner is professor of Historical Theology. I’m delighted to have them share their stories of growing cross-cultural understandings. Annette, tell us about your background and especially your early connections with the Jewish world.

Annette: Let me start by saying Ephraim and I have been married 33 years. You will hear in his story how he has embraced a part of his Jewish heritage even recently. That’s been a happy journey we have done together.

I grew up in Washington, DC in an ordinary Christian family and church. I don’t remember my parents as having many Jewish friends, but there were a few. Our family moved to the North Shore of Chicago, a town called Glencoe, when I was in 6th grade. That community was predominantly Jewish. When I started attending grade school, there were two 6th grade classes of about 30 kids each. In those two classes, there were only two Gentiles: me and Paul Binelick.

My best friend, Julie, and I would play and have sleepovers, and I was often invited to her house for Passover Seder. That’s where I first had matzoh balls. I was just immersed in Jewish culture at school. During the Jewish High Holy Days like Rosh Hashanah, Paul Binelick and I were the only students remaining in class together. School was in session, but all the Jewish kids were out for the Holy Days. And on Wednesday afternoon, the stores in Glencoe were closed because all the Jewish kids were in Hebrew school. That was the culture in which I grew up. Oh, and we had some great delis!

In the Christian faith, my mentor was a woman who is an Episcopal priest. By her encouragement, I’ve been ordained an Episcopal or Anglican priest for 33 years. She influenced my love for the Old Testament during graduate school at the University of Iowa. I took Hebrew for two years in seminary, which made me wish I’d learned it with my schoolmates growing up in Glencoe.

And while at General Theological Seminary in New York City, I got involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue between our seminary and Jewish Theological Seminary. It was a great fun because we could reflect on our very different cross-cultural perspectives. We realized at GTS, we all talk in Christian terms about feeling “called by God,” “called to ministry.” And they kind of teased us saying, “You know, the only one who calls us on the telephone is our mother!” So, we saw the whole language of vocation was different. Those were wonderful conversations.

Then, while I was in seminary, I worked part-time at the National Conference of Christians and Jews in Manhattan. We worked on interfaith conversations with seminaries and academic institutions along the Northeast Corridor. I helped run these wonderful conferences that brought together people from different academic institutions in the Northeast: Jews, Christians, evangelical Christians. I worked with Ellen Cherry who converted from Judaism to become a

Christian and recently retired from teaching at Princeton University. They were rich experiences where we learned a lot about each other.

For the last 30 years I’ve been doing ministry: first in the parish for 20 years and the last 13 years at Wycliffe College. And more recently, Ephraim has been invited into a fresh Jewish-Christian dialogue as a Jewish Anglican. And in response, he started to reclaim some of his own Jewish heritage. I’ve been quite happy about this. I think these conferences stimulated something new in his thinking; his theology that was personal. So maybe a year ago, he asked that we do Shabbat on Friday evenings. That might sound really weird, but as an Anglican, daily prayer morning and evening is what defines us. And so, to do evening prayer around Shabbat didn’t seem strange to me, and I quite love it. It made me think more about how the Sabbath connects to God’s creation rest.

Reading Scripture and praying Scripture is my oxygen. So now, as part of the Sabbath, we’re both practicing our phonetic Hebrew. It’s been a joy for me to see this part of our life take root in his heritage after 30 plus years of marriage and ministry. We’ve made new Jewish-Christian friends and celebrate Shabbat on a regular basis. Our kids think it is kind of cool because it seems exotic to them.

Tuvya: Ephraim, what’s the story of your family and your background?

Ephraim: As Annette shared, my interest in Jewish heritage and Judaism has been a living part of who I am and has come alive for me recently in an explicit way. Like a lot of Jewish people, my background was so typical that I took it for granted. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants. My mother’s family were Polish Catholics from Krakow. My father’s family were Jewish immigrants from Belarus and Ukraine. Both of my parents grew up in immigrant neighborhoods. My mother spoke Polish at her church school in Philadelphia, and my father was surrounded by other Jewish immigrants in Chicago.

He met my mother when they were both attending the University of Chicago. My father’s Jewish background predominated in our family. I didn’t know my mother’s side of the family because they all died before I was born. My parents moved west, and I grew up in Berkeley, California, where my father’s family eventually retired to be nearby. I’d hear their stories about Jewish life before coming to America. I recall the smells and flavors of their food. Along with that, there was an underlying tension between my mother’s and my father’s families. My parents had to elope while in Britain right after the Second World War in order to get married. That was because neither side of the family was very happy about each of their children marrying out. You know, my dad was a Jew marrying a shiksa, a Gentile Catholic, and her family wasn’t happy she was marrying a Jew. They got a lot of negative feelings from both sides. I don’t think my father’s parents ever really warmed to my mother.

Tuvya: To prove some historical perspective, Jewish intermarriage in America prior to 1960 was less than 6 percent. So, your parents were a very small minority. Jewish intermarriage was a

cultural taboo that didn’t shift until about 2003. So, your parents faced considerable cultural headwinds by marrying “out.” Was that something you heard in family conversations?

Ephraim: Both my parents had set aside their religious identities and cultural commitments. My mother was a quiet, self-conscious ex-Catholic. She rejected it, and by the end of her life, she probably considered herself an atheist. My paternal grandfather bore a pretty strong bitterness toward religion. He came from a large family that came to America, but significant number of the family remained in Eastern Europe. When my grandfather went back trying to bring our people over, they were all gone. I know for a fact my grandfather avoided talking about it, and he was deeply bitter towards God. He would say he didn’t want to have anything to do with the sort of organized religious life of Judaism.

I am named after my grandmother’s father. Even though I wasn’t raised in Judaism, this name identifies me as coming from a Jewish background. It is my ethnic identity. You know, it probably does seem strange to many Christians that a lot of Jewish people do not think about their Jewishness in terms of personal religious commitment. That’s a big difference with followers of Christ. I wasn’t raised with a religious Jewish identity.

Tuvya: But you always had a sense of connection to Jewish people through your ethnicity and through family culture.

Ephraim: Well, yes, obviously through my family and through my father’s own sensibilities. Now, very quickly about my father’s spiritual journey. He served in the army toward the end of World War II. After the war, he went through some spiritual struggles. At that time, he left practicing religious Judaism. Shortly before I was born, he entered the Christian church through friends. While he was a post-graduate student, they invited him to church. He loved the music. You could almost say Bach converted him. He was baptized in an Episcopal church. I was born a year later, and he had me baptized, too.

However, I wasn’t raised as a Christian or a church goer. My mother had no interest in it. We went to church once in a while, like at Christmas. But that wasn’t part of our life.

I was culturally influenced by my father’s colleagues in academia. Probably 75 percent of them were Jewish. So, I picked up on ways of thinking and acting from them along with my family. I realized later on when I went to college and seminary on the East Coast, I was actually more comfortable intellectually with Jews than I was with Gentiles.

Tuvya: Annette, you described working with the National Conference of Christians and Jews. That couplet, “Christians and Jews,” is misleading. The term “Jews” is an ethnic distinction established at birth. It is based within the bloodline of a people, and that DNA doesn’t change. It is a matter of birth. The term “Christians” on the other hand, is derived from a cultural preference or declaration. I’ve found that a name like National Conference of Christians and Jews sets up an interesting dichotomy of categories that are generally assumed to be mutually exclusive. However, people from any ethnic community can become followers of Jesus and

identify as Christians, including Jewish people. That’s why I prefer the term “Jewish Gentile” couples because it identifies two people groups according to different ethnic categories. That’s an apples/apples comparison.

Ephraim: Tuvya, very early on I was conscious of the destruction of the Jews in Eastern Europe. As I got older, I realized if I had been born there, as the child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, I would have been in the same boat as every other Jew! Sometime around high school, that realization hit me, and I’ve had a sense of solidarity with other Jewish people.

Tuvya: Annette, as chaplain of Wycliffe College, how has your exposure to the Jewish experience, growing up and with Ephraim, influenced your liturgical practices, the focus of your sermons, or Bible readings?

Annette: I and??? the Old Testament play a very clear role in church liturgy and preaching. In the Anglican church, we follow a lectionary. Every day we have appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalter, the New Testament, and Gospels. When churches don’t do that, people miss out on the Word of the Lord. At Wycliffe Chapel right now, our faculty members are preaching through the Psalms. I preached last night on Psalm 114.

There’s a church I help out with on Sundays, and they will sometimes cut out the Psalm and the Old Testament from the readings. I’ve noticed one of the prayers in the Canadian Book of Alternative Services, Number 2, does not mention Israel. So, that bothers me. I’m very aware of the times where our service leaves out mention of Israel. All of this stuff is formative, you know. It is not okay to go through a church service, talk about the lineage of Jesus, God’s salvation history, and then not mention Israel at all. Whenever that happens, I point it out to the powers that be.

They might have done it “for time sake,” but they’re not thinking theologically. Our student body is very diverse in terms of ethnicity and geographic origin. They also come from a variety of church backgrounds. I don’t want our students to think that Israel has been replaced. No, I will talk about that. It isn’t replaced. The covenant has not been broken. Romans 9–11 is very clear about that. For some of our students, this is very new.

In one of my classes next week, we’re reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. There’s a wonderful lecture on YouTube on the Nazification of the church in Germany. That shocks our students to hear what happened! You know, the Nazis cut out all the stuff in the Bible about the Jewish people, and well, there but for the grace of God go us.

Tuvya: So, Annette, you noticed something has happened within Ephraim after you both attended a conference in Poland during 2016. What did you see when he came back?

Annette: Well, that was the first time he felt out of his league at an academic conference. That was unusual. They hadn’t adequately prepared him for it. It was a very thoughtful time with sophisticated conversations that were new to him. Those weren’t the conversations he’d been

involved in for 30 plus years as a Christian and an academic. And he came back deeply moved and more aware of sensitivities in the Jewish-Christian conversation, particularly from the Jewish side. I supported him doing this because it was a different subject for him to be thinking about, listening, studying, and praying about. He said it underlined his sense of Jewish identity.

Ephraim: Well, why was I even invited? Back in 2007, I was commissioned as part of a scholar’s group to write a theological commentary on the book of Leviticus for The Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. Truth was, nobody else wanted Leviticus. I was one of the originating editors. So, each person picked a book as they went around the room. I didn’t speak quickly enough, and the only book left was Leviticus. In the end, I’m really grateful. Talk about providence! I don’t want to say it changed fundamentally the way I thought and did theology, but it certainly opened up new ways of thinking.

One of the things I discovered in doing Leviticus was that Christian tradition after the early centuries of the church really lost interest in Leviticus. If anyone commented on it, they didn’t have much to say that was new. It was mostly Jesus takes the place of the Temple sacrifices, and that’s the end of it. The book of Leviticus is a lot more than that. The whole point of this series of commentaries was to engage the tradition. But I didn’t have a really thick Christian tradition to engage on the book of Leviticus. So, it pressed me to look at Jewish commentary. And in doing that, I discovered wonderful things. They were things that told me about Christ, about Jesus, as well as about Israel. The commentary that came out had probably as much Jewish material in it as it did traditional Christian theology.

That got me thinking more about how we preach in our church context and how we understand Israel in the Old Testament. Evidently, because of that Leviticus commentary, somebody said we need an Anglican Jew in our discussions. The group I went with to Krakow in 2016 was a group of Jewish Christians all from different backgrounds. Some were Jews who were Catholic, some were Russian Orthodox, some were Messianic Jews. I was the only Protestant other than the Messianic Jews. I was a latecomer to the group since they had met for several years previously.

There we were in Krakow, Poland, former home to my mother’s family. The conference took place in a Dominican monastery. We wandered around the city, visited the ghetto. Everybody went to Birkenau, a concentration camp of the Holocaust. We also visited the local rabbi. He was not all that happy with the group.

One of the most moving moments was in celebrating Holy Communion in Hebrew in the Dominican house. There, in a place where some horrible things happened to Jewish people, there was this entry into this deep place which had not been healed. And we were Jews who had come out of Jewish families into Christianity entering into this place. We were ones who were asking in this place, “Who is God?” “What has God done with Israel?” “Who is Jesus in all of this?” “He’s our Savior, and for whom, and in what way?” I didn’t come from that conference with any answers. I came with a part of me opened up that perhaps had already been primed for that experience. Being in the midst of all of that brought me to tears on more than one

occasion. And I’m not sure why, other than it was a doorway into the history of God’s life with Israel and the body of Christ. We all know it’s more complicated than that.

You know, I had to change my views about what all this meant—what the dynamics of God’s work in the world amongst His people are. It’s driven me back to Scripture. So, this has been an opening to some discovery. The idea of doing Shabbat seemed to me natural at that point. When I told Annette I thought we should do this, she said, “Sure!”

Tuvya: You two have illustrated something that is not easy to communicate to couples coming from two different cultural backgrounds: that is the potential to find spiritual harmony that is grounded in a common understanding of who God is. When they share that common relationship with Him, people from very different cultures and religious convictions find deep spiritual connections. It’s a joy to hear you speak of your current sacred development, even as spiritually mature, highly educated academics in service to Christian community. Thanks for sharing your lives and relationship with us.