“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.
Every week, I am blessed to work with students all across the South as each prepares for his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah: from Arkansas to South Carolina, from Kentucky to Mississippi… thanks to the modern miracle known as Skype (and other online forums)!
Recently, during a Skype session with a student in Florida, my student noticed something. He pointed out the unique mark above one letter in his Torah portion. It was a trope (cantillation) mark, which had two dots like a colon and a straight vertical line next to it – like so:
“I know it’s not a vowel…” He said. And then: “It looks like an emoticon. It can’t be! Can it, Rabbi?”
For a brief moment, I thought about dismissing this notion, considering it just a crafty tactic of distraction in this particular student’s endless game of procrastination. But then, another thought came to me, and I said: “What?! You mean to tell me that you’ve never heard that Jews created the emoticon, hundreds of years before the advent of the computer?! I mean, think about it. What’s the purpose of emoticons?”
He answered, “To let us know the feelings behind what someone wrote.”
“Precisely, my dear Watson!* And the same could be said of these trope marks, written down in the year 1000 C.E by the Masoretes. They added these marks to God’s words in order for us to know not only how to read Torah, but also how to express the Torah, adding feeling and emphasis to the words.”
In that moment I became the father from My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding. Somehow, I found a rational way to explain how everything can be traced back to Judaism, of note here are emoticons. Yes, indeed, there is a direct line from Torah to our tweets, so that we can be ever mindful that – when it comes to words – what is important isn’t just what we say, but how we say it.
*Pseudonym used to protect student privacy, of course
Rabbis and cantors from Central Synagogue in New York are about to hit the Southern road. Again.
It’s all part of the ISJL Rabbinic Department‘s Rabbis on the Road program. We believe that serving small and isolated Jewish communities is important. For years, we’ve encouraged larger communities and congregations to form partnerships with smaller congregations, in order to make rabbinic and educational services available to more people.
Recently, under the visionary leadership of senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Central Synagogue answered the call.
Over the course of this year, Central Synagogue clergy have traveled South, visiting small Southern Jewish communities. Three of these trips have already transpired, with more to follow.
Feedback from communities has been tremendous. Here’s one example:
“Dear Rabbi Rubinstein – Considering your schedule over the last few days, I cannot say enough how much in debt I am to you for making your visit to Selma happen. The only negative of your coming was it just was not long enough!!! But that is okay, when something is really good, you take what you can get and be happy! Everybody, and I truly mean EVERYBODY, was so happy and impressed with you. They took to heart your words of faith and encouragement, enjoying the high profile stories you passed on. People hung around the Temple ‘til we had to blink the lights to get them to leave, a testimony of how energized you left them. As our attendees left, they couldn’t say enough of how much they enjoyed listening to you… It was a great day for me, Temple Mishkan Israel and historic Selma, Alabama.”
The Rabbis on the Road journeys continue this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman will be visiting with the congregations of Am Shalom (Bowling Green, KY), B’nai Sholom (Bristol, TN) and Emanuel (Stateville, NC). Student Cantor David Mintz will be with the congregations of Temple Sinai (Lake Charles, LA), Temple Shalom (Lafayette, LA) and B’nai Israel (Monroe, LA).
These are transformative experiences for both the visiting clergy and the hosting congregations. We share our unique experiences, but are also brought together by our Jewish identity. Through experiences like Rabbis on the Road, may we continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in the South, and throughout the United States.