Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me, because I can celebrate it with my Christian family. For many Jews like myself, who have not only friends but also family of other faiths, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come together. It is a holiday embodying values important both in Judaism and American culture.
However, this embrace of Thanksgiving by people of all faiths was not always the case.
Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of the annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional event. It supposedly was first observed in 1631 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Pilgrims breaking bread with the local Native Americans who helped them with their successful harvest. However, this image of the supposed-first Thanksgiving has become fraught with controversy, since history makes clear that beyond the first joint “Thanksgiving,” mutual peace, dependence, and friendship did not characterize Native American/Pilgrim relations—but that’s another blog post.
With time, the holiday came to serve as symbol for national unity, but one that was still rooted in a primarily Protestant Christian understanding. The Continental Congress gave the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777, which stressed that observance would “please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance.” In 1844, South Carolina Governor Hammond called on Thanksgiving for the citizens of his state to join in worship, as “becomes all Christian nations…. to God their creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.” In response, Jews in Charleston protested. They refused to observe Thanksgiving publicly in the synagogues, keeping the two buildings closed on the holiday and accused Hammond of violating the constitution of South Carolina. Hammond’s reply? “I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land.” Rather than continuing an intemperate debate, they resolved to publish all of the correspondence in the press, allowing “public opinion of the country” to decide the issue.
The official federal holiday was enacted during the Civil War when this nation was in the midst of a tumultuous struggle. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials, beginning in 1846, encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving be widely adopted. She hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Her appeal for a national day of thanksgiving was successful, and Lincoln put forth a national proclamation in November of 1863. Secretary of State Seward called on the nation to observe the day “with one heart and voice,” to bring about peace. The holiday stressed the act of a “family homecoming,” and helped ease the dislocations of wars, industrial and commercial revolutions, and social unrest.
It also helped Jews feel more included in the American experience.
Scholars like Beth Wenger in History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage argue that over time, Thanksgiving has proven to be an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot, pointing out that the Pilgrims were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible. Almost since their first arrival in America, Jews sponsored celebrations of American holidays as a way of asserting both their allegiance to American civic ideals and the symbiosis of Jewish and American values. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews even made a practice of celebrating Thanksgiving in synagogues while Christians were doing the same in churches. With time, it became popular to participate in interfaith ceremonies. Indeed, this trend continues across the country in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Sun Valley, Idaho.
Despite its complicated past, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder that even in our troubled times, we can still give thanks. Practicing gratitude in one’s everyday life is as good for a person as exercise or healthy living. It keeps us centered, humble, and ultimately, empathetic. It is that empathy for others around us that defines us both as a Jewish community and country, and it can continue to help all of us, despite our differences, tackle difficulties in the future.
I will be grateful to gather for this ecumenical celebration with my own religiously diverse family. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
Like this post? Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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.
In our corner of the world, Temple Sinai of New Orleans and The St. Charles Ave. Presbyterian Church have been friends for many years now. The friendship between our communities is deep. Our congregations, led respectively by Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn and Reverend Donald Frampton, joined on an interfaith trip a few years ago to Israel. When the church had heating problems one Christmas, they celebrated their Christmas services in our sanctuary.
So when word came down about the Presbyterian General Assembly’s decision about divesting from Israel, the very first thing that Rev. Frampton did was to pick up the telephone and call Rabbi Cohn.
The New Orleans reverend wanted to assure his friend, the New Orleans rabbi, that their local church disagreed with divestment; that they supported Israel, and also their local Jewish neighbors. They wanted to continue the conversation and include their communities, so they immediately arranged for this joint congregational dinner.
The two congregations came together at Temple Sinai for a pot luck supper and discussion. Our lay leaders, staffs, clergy and congregants were all overjoyed at the turnout and the table talk during dinner. After dinner Rev. Frampton took the podium.
“As Senior Pastor of St. Charles Presbyterian Church,” Rev. Frampton said, “I wanted the opportunity to assure you, our valued and trusted friends of Temple Sinai, of our ongoing friendship and partnership in ministry regardless of what happened in Detroit!”
We were also joined by some members of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church, and their Elder, Sue Burge, presented our congregation with a beautiful olive tree to be planted on our grounds. Their community also had an olive tree planted in the State of Israel as a symbol of peace and hope for the future for all of God’s children.
Cantor Joel Colman spoke next, more closely detailing the map of Israel and the current warning times of 15 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how far a city is from Gaza missile launches. Joel’s son, Josh, is currently serving in the IDF… very near the 15 second warning area. “This is a terrible situation for everyone in Israel and most especially the children forced to deal with bombs on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.”
Rabbi Cohn shared his support for Israel and explained that like any country, including our beloved USA, there is history that is not pretty, and he does not agree with every single decision that Israel has made. However, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel is the only country in the Middle East, whose Christian population has doubled and redoubled in the last 10 years. Divesting from Israel, he explained, is most often a thinly veiled cover for anti-Semitism.
The rabbi and the reverend agreed on that point, and on the “big idea” of the evening: No matter what, these congregations will remain united faith communities in the Crescent City of New Orleans, forever friends.
Our missions are both to do good works here and abroad, to support our congregants spiritually, to cultivate community and to continue to make our world a better place! Here in New Orleans, even when times are tough, our bonds are strong.
Thank you to our Presbyterian friends and neighbors here at home for showing their support.