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A vocation for bridging cultures

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How did a young Catholic decide to go to Israel after graduation? Cathleen Chopra-McGowan introduces herself in the first of what will be a series of posts over her year-long adventure studying in Jerusalem.

By Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan

In exactly 24 days, I will be moving to Jerusalem, the city of three Abrahamic faiths, for a yearlong Fulbright fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I will study Hebrew Bible and do an independent research project. I'll be blogging about my experience for U.S. Catholic every few weeks.

Why would I go to Jerusalem to study the Bible? My professor at Boston College, Father Michael Himes used to ask us "three key questions": What are you good at? What gives you joy? Who does the world need you to be? The answer to these three questions is your vocation.

I grew up in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas with an American mother and Indian father. My first languages were English, Hindi, and Punjabi, but in a land so diverse, I was exposed to a multitude of other dialects. The history and intersections of these languages fascinated me, even from a young age. At age 8, I began teaching English to children in my neighborhood, most of whom spoke only Hindi. By 18, my classroom repertoire included Hindi, history, and geography, and I was convinced that teaching would be part of my vocation. It was something that I was good at, and that gave me great joy. Without even knowing the questions, I had begun to find the answer.

At Boston College, I looked for an intellectual discipline that encapsulated these varied interests in history, culture, language, and teaching, and I found it in biblical studies. Over the course of four years, I became increasingly certain that being a professor of biblical studies is my vocation.

My professors guided me on how to pursue it, suggesting that in addition to studying Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, I also incorporate archaeology into my training. It is important for biblical scholars today to be able to transcend the boundaries between different societal groups and to act as liaisons between historians, theologians, and anthropologists. The many classes I took in Christian theology and Abrahamic religions further informed my training. The answer to the question, "who does the world need me to be?" was becoming clearer.

As I continued learning, I realized that my biography places me in a unique position for interpreting the text and developing avenues of dialogue. Perhaps these skills are what will help me become the person the world--filled with so much tension at this convergence of Rosh Hashanah, Eid-ul-Fitr, and the anniversary of September 11--needs me to be.

My upbringing has put me in a unique position of fostering conversations about inclusion and diversity both in college and in the community at large. Having grown up with an American mother and Indian father, I not only had to intertwine my family's culture with that of the community around me, but I also had to intertwine cultures within my family itself. It was challenging, but forced me to ask difficult questions, and to be able to traverse back and forth between different social, religious, and cultural groups.

As I navigate through my year in Jerusalem--a city that is often organized on religious lines between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity--I hope the skills I have developed so far serve me well.

Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan is a Fulbright fellow in biblical studies and a recent graduate of Boston College. She will be blogging about her experience as a young adult Catholic studying in Israel for the My Generation blog. Her posts can be found at "A year in Israel."

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.