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.
Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.
These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.
How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”
In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.
To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.
How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way? While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.
As part of Jewish Outreach Institute’s ongoing partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I traveled to Mississippi this past week to serve as faculty at the ISJL’s education conference. I was reminded, again, of how many individuals in these Southern communities might not be Jewish—but are undoubtedly contributing to the Jewish future.
Simply by committing to raise Jewish children, they are contributing to our future; but their involvement goes above and beyond that. Southern congregations recognize this, voting with their feet and extending full synagogue membership to non-Jewish partners. These unsung heroes have joined the boards of synagogues, sometimes a thankless task, and have even become board presidents in some places. They are religious school teachers, and some have even become the directors of their town’s religious schools.
These partners-of-Jews have cast their lot with the Jewish people. The synagogue has become their spiritual home. We welcome them. We applaud them. And we thank so many in the Southern parts of these United States for leading the way, providing an example for the rest of us to follow.
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