Today’s guest post comes from Bob M. Schwartz, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. His thoughts can be found at bobmschwartz.com as well.
On April 28, 2014, a tornado cut a path of destruction through Tupelo, Mississippi. Many buildings were damaged and destroyed. Houses of worship were no exception.
A tree punctured the roof of Temple B’nai Israel. A few blocks away, St. Luke United Methodist Church was hit much worse. Thanks to an outdoor security camera, the world has seen dramatic video of the church playground being blown away. The tornado also tore off the roof of the church’s sanctuary.
B’nai Israel missed only one Shabbat service for repairs. At St. Luke, Sunday services for the 800-member congregation were held in the Family Life Center. But many classes and groups had to look for temporary homes elsewhere.
That’s where the story of friendship begins- or really, where it continues.
B’nai Israel has been an integral part of the Tupelo community since 1939. It is the center of Jewish life for a broad region stretching all the way into Alabama. When the current building was dedicated in 1957, it was a development supported and celebrated by institutions across northeast Mississippi, including many of the local churches.
Openness has marked the relationship between B’nai Israel and the churches that surround it. So it was natural that when St. Luke Church needed a place for its Sunday School, it would come calling at B’nai Israel. But there is much more to this story than just a convenient location.
Bettye Coggin of St. Luke Church is the primary teacher of what is called the Friendship Sunday School. It is an adult education class that includes about sixty congregants, mostly in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Three of the couples are “charter members,” having been in the class for fifty-two years. That is where the “Friendship” name came from.
In this case, that was not the only friendship that mattered.
George Copen is a past President and current Board member at B’nai Israel. His family came to Tupelo in 1954, where his parents Reuben and Dorothy Copen played a major role in the growth of the congregation. George attended school in Tupelo, and it was there in 8th grade that he first met Bettye Coggin.
Continuity has been until recently a hallmark of Southern life and Southern Jewish life. And even with the increased mobility of the last few decades, Tupelo and other Southern sites still seem to have a hold on the people born or raised there. So maybe it is no surprise after decades that Bettye Coggin and George Copen should still be in Tupelo, worshipping in buildings just a few blocks apart, serving leading roles with their congregations. They also continue to share the principle that in extreme circumstances they should get together to help serve their congregations and their faith.
There are differences in particular beliefs, of course. On the most fundamental of human concerns, though, those differences vanish in the face of need and service. Bettye Coggin points out that current curriculum for the Friendship Sunday School concerns the Old Testament, and studying that inside a Jewish synagogue adds a special dimension to the learning. While these particular lessons may not include Ecclesiastes, part of the biblical Ketuvim (Writings), that book has something appropriate to say:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
This blog post comes from Linnea Hurst, who interned in the ISJL’s Community Engagement department last summer.
I wasn’t raised with religion. Growing up, I always learned about religion through my friends or communities I have lived in—including through my internship experience at the ISJL last summer, where I gained a much richer understanding of Judaism.
This winter, my religious education took a new twist. I had the opportunity to travel around Spain after studying abroad in London. The first stop on my Spanish adventure was a sleepy medium-sized Southern city named Córdoba. To my surprise, I learned that in the 10th century Córdoba was the largest city in Western Europe, boasting 500,000 inhabitants. Even more spectacular than this fact was the fact that at the request of King Alfonzo, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars were all brought to his court in Córdoba to learn together and translate books from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin.
These three religions clearly existed in Córdoba without serious strife during the 10th century; a fact that today seems far-fetched. Although there is no synagogue left in the city, there is a large mosque which dates back to 784. Yet as with almost all non-Christian religions sites in Spain, something was built atop this mosque: in this case, a large cathedral sits smack dab in the middle. The contrasting architectural styles of the Cathedral and the Mosque depicts how although the Jews, Muslims, and Christians learned from each other as scholars in Córdoba in the 10th century this peace did not last long.
Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Only a lucky few synagogues and mosques, such as the mosque I saw in Córdoba, did not get completely destroyed.
When I reached central Spain, I still had not seen a synagogue and was curious if there were any still in the country. Jewish life seemed more like a memory there. In every city I visited in Southern Spain, there was a “Jewish Quarter,” where a thriving Jewish community had once lived very long ago, and none remained. When I visited the city of Toledo, which used to be Spain’s capital before Madrid, I finally found something more than a sign saying “barrio Judío”. In Toledo I visited Synagogue El Transito, founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia who was the Treasurer to Peter of Castile. The building was not big, but as soon as I entered I could not take my eyes away from the ornate stucco decorations covering the walls. As I got closer I noticed that the walls were beautifully inscribed with both Hebrew and Arabic, a testament to the close ties between Judaism and Arabic culture in medieval Spain. The synagogue was temporarily turned into a Catholic Church after the expulsion of the Jews.
Leaving Spain was hard, and on the last day I decided I needed just one more adventure, just one more new city. I took a day trip to Segovia, where I spent all day entranced by the larger than life cathedral and imposing yet beautiful medieval castle. It wasn’t until the sun had set that I chanced upon a landmark from Segovia’s 14th century Jewish community. I was following a hiking trail back down a hill where I had watched the sunset when I came across two large pits with stone slabs. I knew immediately they must be something very old and very important and I just had to figure out what. Not far from the slabs were historical signs mostly in Spanish but with a little English. “Old Jewish Burial Ground…” the title read. It turns out that the Jewish quarter of Segovia, which was right across from this hill, was where the burial procession would originate.
I don’t know if I would have looked for those hidden remnants of Jewish life if not for my summer in the South, working for a Jewish organization. That was one great exposure to culture, which many might find unexpected; and now this, learning about three religions simply by walking the old medieval streets of Spain, where I learned there is something about being right there, something about the weight of history, that is truly unique.
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.