Because the Jewish population of the Deep South is small and spread out, it is common for Jews in the region to be the single source of Jewish information for Christian friends and acquaintances. When my son was in school and any Jewish holiday came around, I would make sure he had had enough information to reply to the inevitable questions of his friends: Why do Jews celebrate_____? What does it mean? Why don’t Jews believe in Jesus? Why did “you” kill Jesus? Aren’t you afraid of going to hell? Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?
And the truth is that the questions are wonderful! I believe it is our responsibility to be informed and have an understanding of the basics of our faith not only for ourselves but also for the friends and neighbors who—with the utmost respect—want to understand more about our religion. Down here, each of us has to act as an ambassador of Judaism, which means doing our best to answer questions, even “while standing on one foot.”
Just last month I was getting my nails done, when the woman in the chair next to me noticed my Star of David and started overflowing with questions. I could barely answer one before the next one came. It was for her a rare opportunity to ask, and for me it was an honor to answer.
I think the most common misconception about Jewish life in the South is that we are faced with a tremendous amount of Anti-Semitism. The reality is that we are faced with a lot of folks who know little about Judaism and most of the time, they simply want to be better and closer friends and neighbors! The only way to deepen friendships is through understanding and respect. I also believe it is our responsibility to have a basic understanding of what Christians believe. Outreach is a two-way street!
What is your most memorable “While standing on one foot” experience?
It’s happened twice in the last four years: I’ve been in the middle of a lovely conversation with someone, and the “accidental slur” popped out: Jewing someone down.
Now, these two conversations were both with different people. Both of these individuals know I am Jewish, and both of them care deeply about me and have a definite respect for Judaism. So why would they say this? Well, they just didn’t know any better … but the real question each time, after someone said it to me, immediately became: what should I do?
They were very different situations, and very different people: one was my 30-something hairdresser. The accidental slur came up when he was sharing a story about buying a horse. Then, there it was: the slur.
I had been going to him for several years at the time, and my mind began reeling as he said it, knowing he meant no malice but… what to do about it?
The next case was when I met a delightful 70-something woman. It was our first meeting, but she also knew I was Jewish and had no malice in her heart for Judaism, or for me. I admired a sculpture in her home, and she then told me the story of how her deceased husband, um … effectively bargained to get it. (The slur again!)
In the first case, with the young hairdresser, I decided that for both our sakes, I needed to point out what he said. I explained that had I been a new customer, I never would have come back, but because I knew him well by now, and knew his heart and knew it was unintentional. I thought it better to explain why the “good old boy” expression was offensive. It was a good move, and he was grateful.
In the second case, although the friend I was with nearly had a coronary on the spot when he heard the older woman’s use of the slur, I silently waved him off. I quickly decided that if I were to share with her how the slur is offensive, it would have caused her great shame and humiliation, so my decision was to simply let it go.
Living in the South, or anywhere where Jews are true minority, these situations can provide quite the dilemma. How would you have handled these or other similar situations?
We hear a lot about “interfaith” and “outreach” programming. In fact, I spend a lot of my time promoting it. But why does it matter? If it might lead to some difficult conversations and such – why bother?
Well, my experiences not only as a director of programming, but also as a proud New Orleans native, have shaped my understanding of the value and vital need for these sorts of efforts.
“….Temple Sinai is a house of prayer for all people and all who enter our doors in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood are always welcome and that includes the members of Greater St. Stephens Ministries.”
These words were spoken by Rabbi Edward Cohn. Since becoming the Rabbi of Temple Sinai in New Orleans 25 years ago, Rabbi Cohn has made interfaith and outreach programming a priority for the congregation. His efforts have led to a strong New Orleans Interfaith clergy group which meets on a regular basis to discuss theological, ethical and political issues as well as forming strong bonds of friendship which have served all of these congregations well. Often times, our opinions or convictions may conflict, but there is always respect and love. In times of celebration and in times of tragedy, these congregations have stood with each other side by side.
In fact, when the Greater St. Stephens Baptist Church burned down, Rabbi Cohn reached out to Bishop Paul Morton and Senior Pastor Debra Morton and offered the Temple Sinai sanctuary as a … sanctuary!
I attended several of the services to see what it was like while the St. Stephens congregation was worshiping in my synagogue. Sitting in the back of that 1,100 seat-sanctuary (completely filled twice each Sunday while they were there), I was blown away by the full Gospel choir and the spirit. Whatever your faith, God was in that place, and I knew it.
That’s why interfaith and outreach programming matters. Because in times of triumph, and in times of trial, it enables us to be better neighbors and experience modern miracles … like when the trial becomes the triumph, and two communities can share one sacred space.
What has been your very best interfaith experience?