Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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“Did you hear about the rabbi getting thrown out of a Jackson restaurant?”
Everyone at our office has been asked that by friends and family near and far, after the story made national news last week.
Of course we heard about it. Some may have even wondered if I was involved, since I am a rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are only so many of us. But I am not the rabbi in this story; it was my colleague Rabbi Ted Riter, the interim rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation here in Jackson.
Rabbi Riter went to a small Greek restaurant—one he’s been to before—and placed a to-go order. The owner made an anti-Semitic slur regarding the size of the side salad. The rabbi, puzzled, asked for clarification. Rather than change course, the owner just dug in deeper, asking if Rabbi Riter was Jewish. When he said yes, the owner responded by cursing him out and demanding he leave the establishment store. News of the incident travelled quickly, from social media to local media to national coverage.
The Jewish community sometimes gets criticized for being overly sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. History teaches us that, unfortunately, such heightened sensitivity is necessary – but it’s important to balance vigilance with reason. In a country as large as ours, there will always be individuals prone to words and actions that we find objectionable. As disturbing as these cases may appear, they should not be our real worry. One person’s ignorant comments do not represent an entire city.
Further, if we turn our attention toward every isolated attack, we give such people more power than they deserve while giving ourselves unwarranted and unending anxiety. Instead, as a Jewish community our attention must be focused at how these individuals are received, not just by us, as Jews—but by everyone else in our community. The reactions are even more important than the initial action.
In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:
I am so sorry that this happened to you.
Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.
I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!
Let’s boycott this restaurant
Unbelievable…it makes me sad
Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!
Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.
I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.
Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.
That’s the real story here.
May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.
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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.
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.
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.