What’s Jewish about…
- The N’awlins phrase “Where Y’At?”
- Eating cheese grits soufflé in Alexandria, Louisiana?
- Cheering “Roll Tide” on Wednesday, “Go Tigers” on Sunday, and in between, enjoying an interfaith gathering at a Methodist Church in Pensacola Friday?
Well, those expressions and experiences were all part of the twelve-lecture, ten-day, four-state tour covering 1,200 miles that I embarked on with Dr. Ron Wolfson last month. In New Orleans, “Where y’at?” is a question that starts many conversations … and in the Torah, the first question is “Ayeikah?” – most often translated as “Where are you?” but in N’awlins, it’d be “Where y’at?”
Moments like that one, connecting Jewish learning, community, and Southern hospitality, were hallmarks throughout the trip.
There is nothing that can’t be accomplished when we keep in the forefront of our minds that all Jews are responsible for one another and share our resources, working together to make greatness happen for everyone involved. The January lecture tour of Ron Wolfson through the South, exemplified Klal Yisrael and the regional, communal programming approach of the ISJL .
The cooperative spirit was contagious, and along the way Dr. Wolfson addressed over 750 people, across four states in ten days including Jews and Christians, in tiny congregations like Gemiluth Chassodim in Alexandria, Louisiana (88 members) up to large Southern congregations like Temple Sinai in New Orleans, LA (700 members) and everything in between. The youngsters in 4th – 8th grade in Birmingham, Alabama were every bit as enthralled with his afternoon Be Like God workshop as their parents and grandparents were with the evening lecture, God’s To-Do List.
What makes Ron so brilliant is his ability to touch everyone and leave them with a renewed awareness of what it means to be made in the image of God, as well as what we can do to honor that in everyday life at home, in our synagogues and in our communities. He is joyful with everyone, greeting each individual with a handshake, which begins breaking barriers before he is even introduced.
Ron doesn’t deploy heavy handed preaching, or one definition of God. Christians, Jews, and even those without a particular faith learn from him. The overwhelming feeling at the end of each lecture – renewed and refreshed, so glad to have been there and thirsty for more!
Speaking of “more,” I am thrilled that Dr. Ron Wolfson is spending some more time with Southern communities this coming week; you can see the schedule for his Virginia tour here.
That’s where I’ve been recently … so, where y’at?
Greetings from the Community Engagement Department!
I am proud to announce that The Health Express, our peer-to-peer education publication, is now available to read online! This year, we began working on implementing a health initiative at Blackburn Middle School. This initiative focuses on empowering students with knowledge about physical health, establishing healthy eating habits, and promoting a safe environment. Rather than have the information just given to them by the adults, this is a peer-to-peer learning model: students are the ones researching and learning about healthy living, and they’re also the ones sharing their new knowledge with their peers and community via a student-published blog and magazine.
With the help of Bertha Hardy-Smith, Blackburn’s health teacher, we designated a small group of students to participate in the program. During my first months working with the students, we focused on teaching them the basic principles of publishing. The students came up with possible article topics, conducted focus group research and received staff positions and duties. The students began writing their first set of articles and named their publication “The Health Express.”
Our partnership with the School of Nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center begins this week. Through this partnership, the middle school students will have the opportunity to work with health professionals as they continue to generate more articles for The Health Express. We have started working towards getting the Health Express printed and distributed throughout the Jackson Public Schools district at the end of this school year.
We are very proud of the work our students have produced thus far – and we hope throughout the community, folks will be excited to get on board with The Health Express!
Please feel free to leave comments and questions on The Health Express blog – the students will love it!
“Jews are dogs, killers of Christ!”
The shouts came from an irate woman as I was walking into one of our Southern congregations for Shabbat. At first, I could not make out what she was saying. Then, it became clear:
“Jews are dogs! Killers of Christ!”
She began to quote some scripture, which implied that our Jewish spiritual path is the path of sinners and we are either the devil or a slave to him. In either case, it was clear – to her – that we were destined for hell. Feeling accosted, I debated whether or not I should respond. For the sake of our people and our rich Jewish heritage, eventually I decided in the affirmative. After all, we’re no push-overs! I yelled back:
“Hey, if you’re going to quote scripture, why not ‘love your neighbor as yourself’’?! Surely, it’s a better representation of Jesus the JEW’s theology!”
She mumbled something profane and continued on her way.
I called after her with the departing words: “May God bless you!”
Moments of misunderstanding like this are too common, even today. In fact, leaving this moment, I walked into the congregation and right into another moment of misunderstanding: a member of the congregation, a concerned father, approached me with this story:
“My daughter came home with this certificate from her public school volleyball team. See! There’s her picture next to the verse: ‘I can do all through Christ, who strengthens me.’ Rabbi, what are we to do?”
His frustrations, like mine a moment ago, were palpable. In such moments of misunderstanding, we feel horrified, as if we are the butt of someone’s awful joke, victims of someone’s senseless act of violence. And, in such moments, we may desire retribution, seeking to return anger with anger, hurt with hurt, bruise with bruise, hoping then we may feel absolved of our pain.
“But, from my experience,” I explained to this father and a small group of fellow congregants who had gathered around, “there’s no remedy to be found in that course of treatment. For what we are coming face-to-face with is not true anger but ignorance, not deep-seeded hatred but hard-headed-ness. That can’t be fixed by acting in kind. Doing so amounts to little more than the knocking of heads, leaving everyone with headaches! Trust me.”
So, at that moment, I provided this father and others who may be in a similar place with these words of guidance. I suggested not always using these exact words verbatim, but following the general formula, and particularly the caring tone in which they are offered. For they beseech both the individual as well as that greater essence which pervades our lives, the Divine Oneness behind all that is. These are the words I suggested, using the example of the volleyball team picture and my own experiences and perspective:
“I know your inclusion of this text was done with the best of intentions. It is a beautiful sentiment from Paul, as many understand his words to mean: ‘I can do all through God, who strengthens me.’ In fact, if that was all it said, without the citation of Philippians 4:13, there would be much less cause for concern.
However, please understand, when prayers are given from a specifically Christian lens (i.e. “in the name of Jesus we pray”), when Bible studies commenced from only Christian sources, when certificates and gym rooms are plastered with quotes from the New Testament, what you are really saying to a valued member of your team, who happens to be of a different faith, is: You are not one of us; you do not belong.
Again, I know that was not your intent. But, honestly, that is how it is being heard. Because, with all due respect to your beliefs, Jews do not believe the Messiah has come yet. Thus, in the case of Jesus, we see him as just another son or man of God, as you and I are. For we all are children of the Father, the Holy One, blessed be God.
Coach, I deeply respect the time and energy you are giving to this team and its members. It reminds me a little of what it was like being a Chaplain in the United States Air Force. And, one of the things I learned there is that the differences of every team member are not a hindrance but an asset, not an obstacle to be overcome towards your goal but a tool to achieve it.
I hope that you will consider my words as you continue on to what I pray will be a great season for the team and every individual member therein. May God continue to bless you as you continue to be a blessing to others.”
In the face of such moments of maltreatment, we may think of sounding the retreat, leaving the front lines of Jewish life for the safe zones of suburbia where large Jewish populations have gathered. While this may seem “safer”, it ultimately puts Judaism in greater jeopardy. For then no one will be left to stand guard and confront these moments with the sensitivity and knowledge needed to halt the advance of ignorance moving towards us and our Jewish brothers and sisters across our country. It is a blessing that we in smaller communities can share: increased awareness, and building bridges with our neighbors.