My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
The last thing I imagined to find when I moved to Mississippi? A tabernacle.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the Mishkan, the encampment the Israelites set up in the while wandering in the desert, the physical space where God dwelled among them. But I never thought I would see a life-size replica… let alone in Pearl, Mississippi.
I read about it online, and was immediately tempted to go see it—but I also felt a bit strange about the fact that this “life-size replica of the Mosaic Sanctuary that God gave instructions to Moses to build in the wilderness” was constructed by a Seventh-day Adventist organization. I wondered what the agenda might be, as the group travels with the tabernacle across the nation.
But my curiosity got the best of me. And so I went to see the Mishkan.
Located in the middle of a large open field, next to a church in Pearl, Mississippi, sat several large tents. Two kind older women welcomed me and handed me an admission ticket that read “tribe of Benjamin.” My father’s Hebrew name, I observed silently. The women asked me why I was in Jackson, where I worked and I told them about the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Although I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that I’m Jewish, I realized I was a bit uncomfortable. Was I coming here “as a Jew”? Was I walking in as a student of religious studies?
Either way, I was probably not their intended audience.
Our tour guide began by explaining the history of the Temple, and Jewish worship at the Temple. I was impressed with the guide’s level of knowledge. He had a lot of dates and important figures memorized, and his information seemed consistent with what I learned in my Jewish day school education.
We walked into the tent, stopping to look at the altar made of “brass” (or plastic spray-painted to look like brass). An unfortunate plush-toy sheep was awaiting a demonstration. The guide explained to us the process of sacrifice, starting with the sin, and ending with the fats and innards burnt on the altar. He shared all the information I was familiar with, but his interpretation was different: for the tour guide in the church’s re-created tabernacle, every part of the sacrifice and worship to God somehow connected to Jesus’ ministry.
We made our way through the tabernacle, beginning from the least holy spot to the most—the Holy of Holies.
Inside the Holy of Holies sat items I knew were supposedly there, but had never pictured. This was perhaps the most interesting thing for me; to see things like manna and Aaron’s staff, depicted in material terms. Manna is something I’ve always learned about as maybe bread, or maybe grain, but definitely heavenly, other-worldly. To see it in a bowl, so obviously of this world, was confusing. Some of the mystery, the ineffable quality was lost.
Perhaps the most jarring interpretation of all: the tour ended in a tent where the High Priest was dressed in a breastplate—and instead of pomegranates and bells around the bottom of his frock, instead Christmas ornaments dangled from the garment.
It was an odd experience, but I’m glad I went. I left this Mishkan feeling confused, but also full of pride. Though our religions look very different today, the Christians who created this tabernacle share many of the same historical roots that connect me to my faith. For my tour guide, the Mishkan was an extraordinary thing that led the way for Jesus’ salvation. For me, it was something that helped shape my people, as a people. Christianity and Judaism both changed drastically over the years, and neither look much like the religion practiced in the desert for 40 years—but both still find meaning in memories and experiences of the Mishkan.
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.