When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
The rabbi’s rationale for blessing the pets comes straight from Torah, and the Jewish concept of being God’s partner on Earth: If God blessed the fish and the birds and gave us dominion over them as well as the beasts of the earth, and our job is to model “Godlike” behavior, we should also bless the pets!
According to the Torah, the animals were here first. The fish and birds created on the 5th day and the land animals on the 6th day before mankind was created. And our pets bless us every day with love and companionship. For that we should say Dayenu! But some pets also are trained to save lives, make our world safer and to enable the disabled. Plenty to honor.
There’s a Sabbath connection, too – in the Torah, we are commanded to rest on Shabbat and we are also commanded to rest our animals on Shabbat. God has commanded not only to have dominion over the Earth and the life on it, but also to care for His world and bless it. Hence, blessing of the pets.
I’ve had some friends tell me that this isn’t something their community does, so I started wondering: Is it a Southern phenomenon? A small-town practice? I’ve seen several churches in the area do pet blessing services, as well. Have you ever attended a pet blessing service? And while we’re asking questions: When your dog sneezes to you find yourself reflexively saying to him/her, God bless you? (I do!)
It may not happen everywhere, but I love the Blessing of the Pets. I think that anything that brings the community together – two-footed and four footed – is an occasion for blessing! Plus, just look at these happy faces…
Today’s post was written collaboratively by Education Fellows Elaine Barenblat, Dan Ring, and Allison Poirier
This February, the ISJL launched the Linda Pinkus Memorial Labyrinth in not one, but TWO locations!
First, Elaine, Allison, and Rabbi Marshal Klaven took the labyrinth to a launch party in Greenville, Mississippi. There in the heart of the Delta, we celebrated the memory and legacy of Mrs. Pinkus with several generations of her family. In the same weekend, Dan brought our second labyrinth all the way across the South to Greensboro, North Carolina.
A labyrinth is a two dimensional meditative device. Unlike a maze, which twists and turns into dead ends, a labyrinth has a single path to its center and back. Their history goes back at least 3,500 years, and in Judaism they are often connected with the battle of Jericho. Today, we are using our labyrinth (pictured somewhere on this blog post) as a meditative exercise. We walk the paths in silence, concentrating on slow, even, steps, and reflect on spiritual matters. This project is the brainchild of Rabbi Marshal Klaven, created in memory of Mrs. Pinkus as a way to bring new spiritual experiences into the lives of Jews in the South.
Elaine and Allison check in from Greenville:
“We enjoyed seeing how different participants approach this new experience. We expected children to try to race through, but were also pleased to see that they enjoyed it when we encouraged them to slow down. We were surprised to learn that some people saw the labyrinth as a coordination challenge, and feared they were too clumsy to attempt it. Many adults who did try found that walking so slowly and purposefully did, in fact, change their sense of balance. But all who attempted it were pleased to have had this new experience and said they enjoyed learning about a new Jewish spiritual practice.”
Dan checks in from Greensboro:
“The labyrinth was a huge hit! I used it as a religious school program on Sunday morning, and thanks to the help of Beth David Synagogue’s religious school director and the religious school teachers, it worked out perfectly. It was fantastic to see rambunctious, energetic students completely transformed into contemplative, introspective scholars, discussing in detail the intricate differences between a labyrinth and a maze, and bringing these complicated ideas into a larger discussion about our own lives and life decisions. With the tool of the labyrinth, I believe the students also truly began to understand the power of silence and meditation – a benefit which I’m sure will resonate with most any religious school teacher!”
The two labyrinths will be making the rounds throughout our ISJL region, and we hope you will be excited to bring it to your community soon. In the meantime… did you catch the “Green” connection? Don’t worry – it’s not a community requirement or anything!