Interfaith Collaboration: A Southern Tradition

Rabbi Ira Sanders

Rabbi Ira Sanders

This past week, two of my co-workers and I attended an interesting lecture by Reverend Ben Matin at Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school here in Jackson. The talk, “People of the Book: Sacred Text and Multi-Faith Conversation,” was part of their Friday Forums lecture series. Rev. Matin described a unique program that brings people of faith together to discuss passages of scripture from one another’s tradition.

Interfaith dialogue is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I was baptized Catholic, raised Protestant – Southern Baptist, to be exact – and as an adult, converted to Judaism. Helping people understand and appreciate difference has been a huge part of my career. When I was a high school teacher, I designed a comparative religion course that produced a lot of interesting discussions. As a graduate student at NYU, I wrote a book chapter that examined the Face to Faith Program, which uses video conferences to enable students of different faiths across the world to share their world views on issues of social justice. Examples abound of innovative organizations working to cultivate dialogue among people of all faiths and none in order to promote tolerance and understanding.

B'nai Israel in Natchez, MS

B’nai Israel in Natchez, MS

As an historian, my job is to educate people about Southern Jewry and their relationship with people of different faiths. While it is true that the South has historically been an environment steeped in Christian culture, there are so many examples of interfaith cooperation between Jews and Christians across the South. It was not uncommon for rabbis and ministers to do pulpit swaps. In Cleveland, Mississippi, Adath Israel’s Rabbi Danziger arranged a pulpit swap with the local Episcopal priest in 2013. Danziger gave a series of lectures to the Episcopal congregation and led the Sunday morning service. This sort of cooperation continues to exist among the lay community as well. When I recently talked to the Cleveland synagogue’s president, Ed Kossman, he noted that there are typically more Christians than Jews at services. For instance, there is a local retired Baptist minister who never misses a service. Synagogue attendance of non-Jews in other small towns with declining Jewish populations, such as Natchez, Mississippi, has helped to keep synagogues open.

That interfaith spirit was echoed by the Jews of Canton, Mississippi. Members of the Christian community there not only came but also participated in services. Because no synagogue member ever felt qualified to play the organ or sing prayers during services, Fanethel Wales, a Presbyterian, played the pump organ and a Baptist minister’s wife sung Hebrew incantations during services at B’nai Israel. A most intriguing evidence of interfaith cooperation can be seen in the formation of the Christian Committee for the United Jewish Appeal in 1947 under the leadership of J.F. Barbour, the father of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The fund sought to raise money to help Holocaust survivors still living in Displaced Person Camps in Europe. They urged the citizens of Yazoo City to donate money to reach a goal of $6,500, and they were successful in this endeavor.

Rabbi Harry Danziger

Rabbi Harry Danziger

Interfaith efforts actually helped to curtail racial tension in some Southern towns. Following the Little Rock crisis in 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders formed the Ministry of Reconciliation which included religious leaders from across the community. After Eisenhower called for a day of prayer during the Little Rock school crisis, the Ministry set up a prayer rally on Columbus Day for congregational members across the city to pray for tolerance. They did this despite bomb threats. Estimated numbers of 8-10,000 people attended services including 500 Jews. In Lexington, Mississippi, town leader and Jewish community member Phil Cohen, African American Pastor James Rodgers, and other town members formed a coalition in 1978 to work out racial strife in the town caused by an economic boycott. Cohen and Rodgers held a prayer session on the south side of town square. Both black and white residents came, and the boycotts ended for good.

As we continue to update our community histories for Mississippi and eventually other states, I encourage our readers to share their stories of interfaith cooperation. And please, send along any other interesting stories as well. The Encyclopedia is a treasured resource for many people of all faiths, and your contributions have helped to bring this history to life.

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Posted on September 29, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On Wedding Vows, Giving, and Receiving

Chana and Joel Engelman with officiant Peter Cherneff. Photo by Avi Burstein

Chana and Joel with officiant Peter Cherneff. Photo by Avi Burstein

My sister, Chanie, and my new brother-in-law, Joel, got married this month. I’m very fortunate to have incredible co-workers who are happy to see pictures of the very special occasion and hear all about the event itself—and of course, I’m also happy to share one of the beautiful pictures here, because that’s what proud sisters do!

But I also want to share with you a thought I had before the wedding—a thought that extended from marriage to the larger community, and also seemed particularly appropriate at this time on the Jewish calendar.

I had the honor of sharing a reading under the chuppah. As I looked at books of readings for weddings, poems, websites with readings and other sources, I came across this reading. I didn’t end up reading it to the happy couple under the chuppah, but it spoke to me.

“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

This line is meant to describe the giving and receiving that takes place between partners. In many ways, however, it articulates my feelings about service. There is so much judgment associated with receiving help. Too often, even well -intentioned givers, engaged in the generous act of offering help, make judgments about the people receiving our assistance.

We may find ourselves judging others for “allowing” themselves to get into this situation. We might feel saddened by their vulnerability, their need—or willingness—to rely on others. We may even use those in need to make us feel better about ourselves: hey, at least we are not in their position.
Judgments of these kinds really impede on our ability to give lovingly and completely. Giving with judgment is still giving, and it is better than not giving at all. When someone is hungry, food is essential. Food without judgment is like getting icing on the cake.

But that is not the type of giving and receiving that a couple strives for in a marriage. Nor should it be the giving we strive for as we serve our communities. Rather, community offers us a lot sometimes, without us asking for it. And by receiving the joy given to us by our communities, we can truly give to people who rely on the greater community for things like food, shelter, and so on, without judging them or their situation.

While I have given thought to the relationship between those who conduct and those who receive the benefits of service (a problematic construct), thinking about it in the context of a marriage—particularly the marriage of two people who truly give to each other and the world with all their hearts—gives me a unique appreciation for the special bond that unites us as people who are constantly giving and receiving.

During this time in the Jewish calendar when Jews ask for a lot—forgiveness, health, a sweet new year–let us also ask for the ability to gracefully receive all we are given this year as well as the ability to give gracefully, without negative judgment of those who receive our help.

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Posted on September 28, 2014

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Apples & Honey, Southern & Jewish-Style

This post originally appeared on this site on September 14, 2012. We re-share it now with our wishes for a sweet year – L’shana tovah to all of y’all!  

The “Apples & Honey (Bourbon)” Challah Bread Pudding recipe I devised a few years ago has become my Rosh Hashanah tradition: a Southern-and-Jewish recipe that celebrates the season, unites my tradition with my geography, and gives me an excuse to stock up on honey bourbon. (As an added bonus, I tend to get invited to more holiday parties, and my kitchen smells awesome.) Enjoy, and may your new year be healthy, happy, and even sweeter than this dessert!

A Southern twist on a Rosh Hashanah tradition!

Beth’s “Apples & Honey (Bourbon)” Challah Bread Pudding

The Bread Pudding – Ingredients

  • Ten cups of challah* (approximately one big loaf), torn into chunks
  • One (12 oz.) can of evaporated milk
  • One cup milk
  • One cup half-and-half
  • Five eggs, beaten
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ cup butter
  • One tsp. vanilla extract
  • One tsp. cinnamon
  • Two tsp. baking powder
  • Dash of salt
  • Two cups of chopped apples

The Sauce – Ingredients

  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup light corn syrup
  • ¼ cup butter
  • ¼ cup honey bourbon

Step One: Prep the pudding

First, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9″x13″ baking dish. Place the challah chunks in a large mixing bowl. In a different bowl, mix together milk, evaporated milk, half and half, eggs, sugar, butter, vanilla, cinnamon, baking powder & salt. When thoroughly combined, pour mixture over challah chunks. Let it sit for about 10 minutes so the challah can absorb all the deliciousness. Then, add the apples, and spoon everything into the baking dish. Bake for approximately 35-45 minutes, until the bread pudding is a beautiful light golden color. Remove from oven and let cool 5 minutes before topping it with sauce.

Step Two: Simmer the sauce

While the bread pudding is cooling, make the sauce! Just combine sugar, corn syrup, and butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer; cook for about a minute, stirring it constantly. Remove from heat; stir in the honey bourbon.

Step Three: Serve it up

Immediately drizzle one tablespoon of sauce over each serving of bread pudding … l’shana tovah! (If you’re traveling with the dish, you can either bring the sauce and re-heat there, or go ahead and drizzle it over the whole bread pudding – it won’t be as gooey-and-fresh, but will coat the dish nicely and still be delicious when eaten.)

*Side note: sometimes I make apple challah to use as the challah loaf, in which case, I omit the two cups of apples from this recipe. Whatever is easiest for you – and leftover/almost-stale challah works great, since traditionally, bread pudding was used to moisten and make edible bread that was getting a little tough. Perfect, huh?

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Posted on September 24, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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