Rabbi Joe Murray has only been in Rhode Island since November 2017. He agreed to answer a few questions as part of Jewish Rhode Island’s ongoing effort to introduce community leaders.
What was the path that took you from law to the rabbinate?
I grew up in an observant Irish Catholic family, as the oldest of 13 kids. I knew almost nothing about Judaism until I met the proverbial “nice Jewish girl” and started attending synagogue with her. I wanted to have my Bar Mitzvah at a Reform synagogue, but I was worried about it, so I started studying at the Conservative temple across the river. The rabbi there, who I consider “my rabbi,” suggested that I continue my studies at rabbinical school. As I’m not currently admitted to the Rhode Island Bar, my focus has been on rabbinical work.
Favorite part of being a rabbi?
It’s working with those in prison, as well as people in hospice and their families. It’s God’s work; there’s no other way to say it. I also enjoy being someone that others are comfortable asking about Judaism and God. I’d have law clients come in who had no knowledge of Judaism, but they felt comfortable asking questions of me, the kid who grew up Catholic.
As a prison and hospice chaplain, you’ve worked with a lot of people in difficult situations. What drew you to that type of work, and what do you see as its greatest challenges and rewards?
My mother was a major influence on my work. As the mother of 13 kids, she had strong faith and high ethical expectations, and that inspired my own work with the needy. The biggest challenge of this sort of work is that there are so many people needing consolation; the need is unimaginable. The rewards are incalculable.
You’ve done a good amount of interfaith work. In your opinion, what are the best ways to build bridges between different faith communities?
The first thing everyone can do is to quit pretending that their religion is the superior one, and stop being upset by our similarities and differences. We can have conversations about our similarities without worrying we’ll lose our distinctiveness.
Your wife is an Episcopal priest. Can you tell our readers a bit about how two members of the clergy, from two different traditions, came together as a family?
As far as I know, I’m the only ordained rabbi married to an ordained priest. We don’t try to change each other. I do God’s work, and so does she, and where our work overlaps, so much the better.
What are some of your favorite things about living in Rhode Island? What are some of the most challenging and/or surprising?
Almost everything. All the people seem nice, and that seems to be the case all over. I keep tripping over people who are kind, courteous and welcoming. For example, my wife’s congregation is very accepting of the fact that their clergy is married to someone of a different faith. It was also surprising to me that all the prisons are in one town. That’s phenomenal if you’re a prison chaplain.
Favorite Jewish holiday? Why?
Passover, because the seder is a family event. In fact, a seder was my first exposure to Judaism. I see it as a way to be Jewish as a family, and to pass traditions down to the next generations through our stories.
Favorite Hebrew word and why?
Avatiach, “watermelon.” I just like the sound of it, and I figured that once I knew the word for “watermelon,” I must be pretty far along.
Favorite Yiddish word and why?
Ein bisschen, “just a little.” It’s a nice way to admit that maybe you don’t know or can’t pronounce everything.
Favorite Jewish memory?
I was 48 and had just left a profession that was good enough for anyone else. I was in rabbinical school, sitting in the sanctuary with classmates. It was the beginning of the year, and we were singing Ma Tovu. In that moment I realized that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, in the place I was supposed to be, and with the people I was supposed to be doing it with.
If you could have three dinner guests, living or from history, who would they be and why?
Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, a giant in the Reform world who exemplified the virtue of being patient with those who didn’t know as much as anyone else.
My mother, so I could tell her what I’ve figured out since she died.
Moses, because there are gaps in Deuteronomy 34 and I want to know how he felt between verses five and six. Those are the passages where Moses dies, but nothing is said about how he feels about it.
Would you mind sharing a recent memory/experience that you found impactful?
It was in the last week, with a 23-year-old inmate. He asked if I remembered him from the last time we met; I told him that I did, because I remembered telling my wife I wanted to grab him by the shirt and ask what he was doing there. As he left, he said, “You don’t have to. I’ve done it a hundred times myself.”
Best piece of advice you ever received?
I received it two days ago, from my sister. We were visiting our sick brother, and she said, “Never forget the importance of family.”