Today’s guest post comes from Bob M. Schwartz, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. His thoughts can be found at bobmschwartz.com as well.
On April 28, 2014, a tornado cut a path of destruction through Tupelo, Mississippi. Many buildings were damaged and destroyed. Houses of worship were no exception.
A tree punctured the roof of Temple B’nai Israel. A few blocks away, St. Luke United Methodist Church was hit much worse. Thanks to an outdoor security camera, the world has seen dramatic video of the church playground being blown away. The tornado also tore off the roof of the church’s sanctuary.
B’nai Israel missed only one Shabbat service for repairs. At St. Luke, Sunday services for the 800-member congregation were held in the Family Life Center. But many classes and groups had to look for temporary homes elsewhere.
That’s where the story of friendship begins- or really, where it continues.
B’nai Israel has been an integral part of the Tupelo community since 1939. It is the center of Jewish life for a broad region stretching all the way into Alabama. When the current building was dedicated in 1957, it was a development supported and celebrated by institutions across northeast Mississippi, including many of the local churches.
Openness has marked the relationship between B’nai Israel and the churches that surround it. So it was natural that when St. Luke Church needed a place for its Sunday School, it would come calling at B’nai Israel. But there is much more to this story than just a convenient location.
Bettye Coggin of St. Luke Church is the primary teacher of what is called the Friendship Sunday School. It is an adult education class that includes about sixty congregants, mostly in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Three of the couples are “charter members,” having been in the class for fifty-two years. That is where the “Friendship” name came from.
In this case, that was not the only friendship that mattered.
George Copen is a past President and current Board member at B’nai Israel. His family came to Tupelo in 1954, where his parents Reuben and Dorothy Copen played a major role in the growth of the congregation. George attended school in Tupelo, and it was there in 8th grade that he first met Bettye Coggin.
Continuity has been until recently a hallmark of Southern life and Southern Jewish life. And even with the increased mobility of the last few decades, Tupelo and other Southern sites still seem to have a hold on the people born or raised there. So maybe it is no surprise after decades that Bettye Coggin and George Copen should still be in Tupelo, worshipping in buildings just a few blocks apart, serving leading roles with their congregations. They also continue to share the principle that in extreme circumstances they should get together to help serve their congregations and their faith.
There are differences in particular beliefs, of course. On the most fundamental of human concerns, though, those differences vanish in the face of need and service. Bettye Coggin points out that current curriculum for the Friendship Sunday School concerns the Old Testament, and studying that inside a Jewish synagogue adds a special dimension to the learning. While these particular lessons may not include Ecclesiastes, part of the biblical Ketuvim (Writings), that book has something appropriate to say:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
There’s been some pretty intense facial hair around the ISJL office lately. If you stopped by in May, you might exclaim: “What’s with the beards?!”
See, during the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Lex Rofes, and Dan Ring decided to ignore the Southern humidity and grow out their beards for some very Jewish reasons.
Read below to find out why each of them finds this practice meaningful!
Why is counting the omer meaningful for me? Of all Jewish commandments, it simply lasts the longest. Jewish holidays almost never last longer than seven or eight days, and even the month of Elul, another spiritually rich period, is only 29 days. The Omer? 49 days of counting, contemplating, and for me – beard-growing.
Now, some might argue that doing something 49 times does not automatically imbue that action with meaning. But with the Omer, we have spiritual practices to help us with that. The physical presence of a beard on my face reminds me, with every last itch, that I am in the midst of a special time of year. The application of s’firot – attributes of God – to each of the 49 days, creates a powerful sense of uniqueness in every day.
Most importantly for me, the Omer creates an incredible feeling of anticipation for Shavuot. When that day, which I will have been anticipating for almost two months, finally arrives, I will feel as if I have earned that holiday. The Torah that I receive is not something I am merely given. It’s something I achieve.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had a short beard for the past year or so. I really enjoy having a beard, seeing how wild and unruly it can get before I feel the need to clean it up. Thus, for me, growing a beard for the Omer is great fun. It’s also quite meaningful. Within the context of the Omer, growing a long beard helps me connect to my Jewish past and present. When I look in the mirror, I can’t help but think about my male ancestors, their beards, and their bearded journeys that made it possible for me to be here today. No matter how different their lives and experiences might have been from my own, I’m pretty sure their beards looked quite similar to mine!
As my beard gets longer and longer, I realize that it becomes out of the ordinary; it stands out. I can’t just be one of those normal folks walking down the street. Instead, I become the guy with the unruly beard. I’m forced to realize what it’s like to be someone who can’t hide their differences. It helps me to obtain even a quick and cursory glance into what’s like to be “the other.” As American Jews, we can easily blend in. We can forget what it’s like be separate and what it’s like to stand out. It becomes easy to forget our Jewish (and human) responsibility to the world – our responsibility to be the best people we can be, and to treat people with respect and dignity no matter who they are or what they look like. My omer beard helps me to reconnect and rededicate myself to our sacred collective responsibility.
And did I mention it’s fun too?
With most Jewish rituals, I strive to see them each time in a new light. Ever since coming across a Tobi Kahn sculpture that focused on “Omer Counters,” I’ve been highly focused on finding unique ways of commemorating the season. Last year I made sure to follow the daily GIF on a Tumblr that used The Wire’s character, Omar, to notch each day that passed. This year, being so focused on preparing for our ISJL annual Passover Pilgrimage, I didn’t feel I had time to properly search out a new avenue to bring this piece of Judaism into my spiritual practice.
So, whilst driving to my first destination for my first seder, a quote from Ecclesiastes sprung to mind. “That which was is that which will be.” (Eccl 1:9) In other words, what “traditional” practice(s) had I not yet incorporated into my observance of the Omer? I rubbed the top of my head, still freshly shorn from 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and it occurred to me: I had never grown out my beard! (Coincidentally, I forgot to pack any sort of razor or shaving cream).
What grew out of this practice was a lot more than just my beard. I found it reflected the experience we anticipate in a great way. As the beard lengthened, it became thicker, warmer, oppressive. We yearn toward the day when we will be able to cut it, just like we yearn to be at the end of the omer receiving the Torah on Shavuot. I also found that I was touching the growth around my mouth, the lengths of the mustache impeding everything. It made me think of all the ways we talk about the word of Torah being on our lips, the importance of our mouths to our Religion. While I’m glad to bid my beard bye-bye, the practice this year has been so fulfilling, I decided that instead of saying “shalom” (goodbye), I would say, “l’hit’ra-ot” (see you later) to my scruff.
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Today’s guest post comes from our friend Andrea Levy, a fairly recent transplant to Jonesboro, Arkansas. Thanks for sharing your lovely words, Andrea!
It is Friday morning. I am sitting at my kitchen table. I have a big smile on my face as I work on my bible study lesson for this coming Wednesday. My mother called this morning to make sure the storm wasn’t too bad last night. After the time we had to run twice to the safe room because of tornadoes, there is constant worry (such is the lot of a Jewish Mother).
The location where these tornadoes threatened? Jonesboro, Arkansas. The bible study I’m preparing to lead? A session on Jewish Holidays for the First Christian Church of Jonesboro this coming Wednesday. How the world turns.
Last Sunday, I led our synagogue service observing Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atz’maut, and sending a wonderful couple off to northwest Arkansas at an evening service followed by an Israeli themed potluck dinner with falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, pita and more. The cake had an Israeli flag on it—I wonder what Kroger thought of that?
And the Monday before that? The President of our synagogue, David Levenbach, and I participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah to us) at the Southwest Church of Christ. The program was so moving, with approximately 20 biographies of people during the time of the Holocaust portrayed by other participants provided by the US Holocaust Museum, and a short film also by the museum. David and I read prayers from Gates of Prayer.
I’m not a rabbi, by the way. I’m just a member of a small Southern congregation, and this is what you do.
So back to the bible study. I was invited to lead the bible study session this week at the First Christian Church, to talk about Jewish Holidays. I have been preparing for this feverishly, as I want to make sure to make this session is engaging and interactive. I am bringing show and tell items and some special foods with me—challah, matzah, and macaroons. I have been learning things about our holidays that I did not know before my preparations—the Torah citations for some of the holidays, the explanations behind the traditions, and most importantly why we know Shabbat falls on Friday night/Saturday.
So the smile on my face? Well, it’s both appreciation and amusement… because if I had stayed where I grew up, this wouldn’t be how I spent my morning.
I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with a large Jewish population. Now, my family and I have meandered our way to a much smaller town of 70,000, with a very small Jewish community (we were so happy to get 25 last Sunday!)—Jonesboro, Arkansas. If we hadn’t, I would not be sitting here working on my bible study lesson for next Wednesday.
Funny, but true: Sometimes when you leave a big Jewish community, Judaism becomes an even bigger part of your life.