Alumni mix politics and religion while becoming military chaplain and Reform rabbi
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Most children say they want to be doctors, astronauts or firefighters when they grow up. It’s rare to hear a child say, “When I grow up, I want to be part of the clergy!”
Although Kelsey Lyon, ‘04, attended church weekly and Michael Lewis, ‘09, occasionally went to Torah study with his father, neither imagined themselves as religious leaders in their youth.
During high school, Lewis was editor of the Octagon, played baseball and was on student council, while Lyon played volleyball, worked in the after-school program and acted in a school musical.
Now Lewis is studying in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College to become a Reform rabbi.
And Lyon is in her first year at Boston University, earning a master’s in divinity. Lyon, a Christian Scientist, wants to become an Air Force chaplain.
Lewis attended Tulane University in New Orleans, where he served as the undergraduate student government president as a senior.
After graduating in 2013, he worked in Washington, D.C., as a political fundraiser for three years.
Although Lewis said he thoroughly enjoyed working in politics, he felt a growing connection to Judaism. He also said he saw an unnecessary barrier between politics and religion.
After talking to 10 rabbis – including Rabbi Nancy Wechsler at Temple Beth Shalom in Carmichael and Rabbi Mona Alfi at B’nai Israel in Sacramento – he decided to apply to Hebrew Union.
“Rabbi Alfi helped me figure out that the rabbinate is a great path toward merging dueling interests in Judaism and politics, as she manages to balance the two in an incredibly effective way,” Lewis said.
As a rabbi, he said he can become a different kind of community leader, one who helps others explore Judaism and find meaning in their day-to-day lives.
Lewis said that rabbis have different focuses. Some are musicians and others are teachers, and those talents come out in their rabbinic path. Lewis wants to connect his passion for politics with Judaism.
“Judaism is social action and social justice,” he said.
“For instance, I believe that it is the duty of Jewish communities to advocate for Syrian refugees.”
Lyon also first worked in a secular job as a rebate and interconnection specialist before studying to become a chaplain.
She was raised in Christian Science, which had always been a side passion, and graduated from Principia College, a Christian Science institution in Elsah, Illinois, in 2008. However, she recently began to dedicate more time to studying her faith.
“There came a point in my last job where I was considering climbing the corporate ladder,” she said. “I was thinking about what position I wanted, and I realized that this wasn’t my passion.
“I was ready to dedicate my life to my biggest passion, which is Christian Science.”
A couple years after college, Lyon attended a lecture by a Christian Scientist military chaplain in Los Angeles.
“The military is a place where I think there’s a lot of need,” she said. “You’re faced with a lot of hardships like high rates of divorce. There’s a need for peace and selflessness in the military, and it seemed like a unique opportunity as a religious person.”
Actually, Lewis and Lyon aren’t unusual among divinity students. Of the 42 students in Lewis’s class at Hebrew Union, only about 10 are directly out of college, he said. Similarly, there are about 200 students in Boston University’s School of Theology, and Lyon estimates that only 5-10 percent are directly out of college.
Both Lyon and Lewis began their programs in 2016, Lyon taking introductory courses in Christian history at Boston University and Lewis studying intensive modern Hebrew at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.
Lewis must complete his first year at Hebrew Union in Jerusalem and will spend the other four years at the Los Angeles campus, as part of a five-year program. (Hebrew Union also has campuses in New York and Cincinnati.)
Lyon is obtaining her degree (specifically in the chaplaincy track) at Boston University, which will take three years.
The military requires two components: a master’s in divinity and an endorsement from one’s house of worship. In Lyon’s case, she must be endorsed by the Christian Science Mother Church.
Currently, Lyon takes general classes about Christianity, but meets with her Christian Science endorser once a month. Lyon’s endorser teaches her the Christian Science perspective on specific aspects of military chaplaincy.
So far, Lyon has taken core requirement courses, such as Christian History, Christian Tradition and Christianity Engaging Modernity. Her largest lecture consists of 80 people, who meet weekly in discussion groups of 10-15.
Last semester, her smallest class of six people was Narrative Sermons.
Lyon said she liked her sermon class because it allowed her to incorporate her own theology into learning and develop her own voice.
Of the 200 people in her program, only two others are Christian Scientists, Lyon said. The majority are Protestant.
She has been pleased by the open-mindedness of her classmates.
“The news often depicts Christians as extremely conservative and anti-abortion or anti-immigrant, anti-people of other religions, and that’s not what I’m seeing at all at my school,” Lyon said.
“Everyone is looking to see how to embrace more people, support marginalized groups, love and liberate and have tough conversations. I love seeing these perspectives of Christianity.”
One of her favorite projects was taking a social justice issue and learning about how the church would combat it.
As a chaplain, Lyon said that her job is to respect and honor the beliefs of all with whom she works.
“My job is to serve and love people as faithfully as I can while respecting their beliefs,” she said.
Lewis also sees an emphasis on social justice.
“In our society, I see two major needs,” he said. “One is organized action for causes that have moral grounding and for justice.
“The second is for strong communities. Historically and presently, different religious groups have been able to provide that answer.”
Lewis’s classes, consisting of 10-15 people, are taught by professors of multiple nationalities, many of whom hold doctorates.
He’s taken Biblical Grammar, Jewish Liturgy, Bible and Jewish history courses.
“Biblical Grammar is more interesting than it sounds,” he said.
“We study the original text and its meaning. For example, the first words of the Bible are ‘In the beginning,’ but it actually translates closer to ‘In a beginning,’ which has a completely different meaning.”
Some of his classes are taught in the chevruta style, where they spend half the period working with a partner to analyze text and the second half discussing the passage with the class.
But Lewis said that his most enjoyable classes have always been his history courses.
“(History teacher Daniel Neukom) inspired me to be a history nerd,” he said.
“We had a class in the summer about Biblical history. We talked a lot about the things I learned in Mr. Neukom’s ninth-grade (Ancient History) class.
“It definitely helped me on a quiz when my peers were struggling to remember Thutmose III, and I remembered Mr. Neukom’s dynasty chart on the chalkboard.”
Lyon has also been enjoying her courses, despite their difficulty.
“Before I entered the program, I thought, ‘I love Christian Science, so it will be natural and easy,’” she said.
However, on average she must read 300 pages a week, write multiple essays and complete projects.
Lyon said that her demanding classwork made her re-evaluate where her joy comes from.
“I’m pushed to constantly look at life’s big questions. I’m asked to look at my own perspective,” she said.
“I have to understand what I heard from class today, how I feel about that and how I relate to that from my own tradition.”
According to Lyon, Christian Science emphasizes healing through prayer, which isn’t emphasized in all other denominations.
“When I’m studying other thoughts, I ask myself, ‘How do I respectfully learn about that while holding close how I view the world?’” she said.
“You come in sometimes really wanting to promote your own ideas, thoughts and beliefs, but you quickly learn to take a step back and gain a little humility and grow in understanding in your own faith.”
Lewis has also been thrust into new and uncomfortable situations.
“I’ve been surprised by the number of times where I’ve been thrown in a position where people treat me like I’m a rabbi when I’ve only had six months of school,” he said.
“I worked with a couple of Birthright groups over winter break, and I would spend Shabbat with them. People (18- to 26-year-olds) would show up and ask me heavy questions. I was in a position where I was acting as a rabbi.
“It was challenging but rewarding.”
Lewis’s advice to those considering becoming religious leaders is to not be intimidated by gender or sexuality.
“There’re some religions and religious sects that are very off-putting to women and LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “As someone who’s gay, I can say, don’t let that intimidate you.
“We have more women than men in our program, and people don’t imagine a woman when they hear the word ‘rabbi.’
“We also have about 10 people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the program.”
Similarly, Lyon estimates that one-third of the students in the Boston University School of Theology are female.
“(The School of Theology) attracts people from all sorts of gender and sexual identities that people wouldn’t think would associate with seminary,” she said.
Because BU’s School of Theology has always had a progressive stance, more liberal people are naturally attracted to it, Lyon said.
“You might think that it attracts heterosexual males,” she said. “But they’re actually a minority.”