Last week, I was privileged to be the invited guest at First United Methodist Church in the very small town of Amite, Louisiana, to participate in a question and answer session on Judaism.
Amite is an hour away from New Orleans, where I live, so I was given the choice of just being available for a phone interview instead of driving, but chose to go to the church instead. Being keenly aware that we are all responsible for each other was my motive for the drive. There’s no substitute for being there in person. Body language, tone, eye contact and just the opportunity for Christians to meet a Jewish person, possibly for the first time, and be able to feel a human kinship is more important than answering any single question.
If a group simply wants information, all of it can be found online. The interaction is the most important part of interfaith learning. When one of us connects in a positive way with 15 Christians, we can help positively shape their perception of Jews for the rest of their lives! And the next time one of them hears a Jewish slur, they are much more likely to react with disapproval, thereby changing the opinions of others, as well.
So how did it go in Amite? Well, the questions about basic Judaism were ones I have answered hundreds of times. However, once we got comfortable with each other, the church members bravely asked the more personal and sometimes difficult cultural questions that too often don’t get asked.
Some of the more difficult questions:
- “Is a Jew ‘Jewish’ because of religion, or because of their culture or lineage?”
- “Why do some Jews keep kosher and others don’t? If one deviates from Biblical teachings, how are they still Jewish?”
- “Why are Jews associated with bargaining, unfair money lending and the slur Jewing someone down?”
The truth is that I think the biggest question modern Jews wrestle with among ourselves is what makes someone Jewish? There is no one single answer… and if we, the Jews, are conflicted – then is it any wonder that non-Jews are a bit confused as well?
So we discussed the differences between the denominations: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and Ultra Orthodox Judaism, and how no one anymore lives exactly according to Biblical law. We disagree on many things as being central to being Jewish, but we all use the Torah – whether we believe it was written by God or inspired by God or a historical document – as a base. Another thing most Jews have in common is that we believe in the central concept that God is one. We also talked about how the technical definition of “who is a Jew” also varies along with each movement – those who believe only in matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion, or at the other end of the spectrum someone with just one Jewish parent who identifies as Jewish, or anyone who converts to Judaism.There are Jews who go to synagogue every week, or from time to time, or who only celebrate Passover or the high holy days – and in modern Judaism, any set “line” is left purposely not drawn. Exclusion and judgments are unproductive; rather outreach and inclusion are central to our faith.
To address the hard question about the Jewish stereotypes related to greed and money, we had to talk about a long history. I explained that in medieval Europe, Jews were not allowed to own land, therefore, they were not farmers and ranchers and their income options were limited. Most were merchants and peddlers, buying and selling things. When a person is successful as a peddler, their main goal, like any modern retailer, is to buy low and sell high. Whether it was clothing, jewelry, food or household goods, these peddlers were as vital to the economy as the current retailers are today – but that meant they too could be blamed for high prices. Another way Jews earned money without owning land was to become money-lenders. A Christian was not allowed to earn interest on a loan to another Christian, and Jewish money wasn’t tied up in land, and so they loaned money to Christians to build their churches and homes and keep their farms going. It was a great business deal for everyone. However, trouble would come when, for instance, a church defaulted on a loan. Then the Jew was put in the impossible position of foreclosure. No one looks upon the banker fondly when they are foreclosing on a home or church, even if it is justified! And if someone was looking for a reason to act with hate towards Jews, this was a ready-made excuse.
These conversations can be hard, but are so rewarding. And as usual, we learn as we teach! The session opened with a prayer, which I expected, but what I have never heard was the content of this prayer. This opening prayer was asking God for forgiveness as Christians for the history of maltreatment of Jews during the last 2,000 years. Pope John II made great strides in reconnecting Jews and Christians, and the facilitator made reference to the prayers of this Pope as the start of the healing process between us.
I hope I continue to be invited throughout my life and I encourage all Jewish people to do the same. I hope the next time you are asked to answer questions, your answer will be YES!
Have you ever been a participant in a program like this? What did you think?
(Image in this post from jerusalemprayerteam.org)
This week, we have a special “Snapshots from the Southern Jewish Road” collection of pictures to share with you, from last week’s Deli Day at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, MS, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
HUC used to be the largest congregation in the state (you can read more about the history of the Greenville Jewish community here). Now, the membership numbers have diminished- but the spirit has not, and that’s never more evident than on the day that HUC invites the rest of Greenville to come to the congregation for a good old fashioned deli lunch, featuring, of course, corned beef sandwiches with all the “fixin’”s.
This tradition has lasted for 130 years – and this year, several of the ISJL Education Fellows went up to the Delta again to help serve the record 2,000 sandwiches sold at the 2013 deli luncheon. They shared these photographs. Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom, y’all!
If you want to learn even more about this community, and the Deli Day in particular, Vox Tablet did a great mini-podcast story on it two years ago – wherein the interviewees talk about the importance of preserving this tradition. What’s a tradition that your community is committed to preserving?
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?