Last week, we added the final (for now) video clip to the Oklahoma section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. The interview excerpt comes from a great conversation I had with Paula and Malcolm Milsten last summer at Tulsa’s Temple Israel. Malcolm, a Tulsa native, and Paula, who moved there before marrying Malcolm in 1959, have both served as temple president. In the clip below, Paula and Malcolm recall a 1984 flood that seriously damaged Temple Israel, as well as the outpouring of support from the entire city in the aftermath of the disaster.
Malcolm, like many people who have contributed their stories to the ISJL Oral History Project, remarks on his congregation’s positive relationship with other local synagogues as well as the general community. These themes—inclusion and cooperation—are common in our interviews. Where someone from outside the South might expect to find stories of isolation, I find, more often than not, exactly the opposite.
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, so when I came to work at the ISJL, I knew that I would need to modify my Shabbat observance. During my interview, I remember thinking that my compromises would be well justified by the chance to share meaningful Jewish experiences with our partner communities. Though I anticipated that this would be difficult, I have been surprised to realize that changing my practice is the easy part. The biggest challenges for me have been the contradictions between my new experiences and the mindset that I developed in day school—beliefs that I never realized were so ingrained in my thought.
The biggest struggle has been reconciling my views on intermarriage. The belief in my community at home, at least among my teachers, is that intermarrying is the worst thing a Jew can do. It is better to separate completely from those who have intermarried, become more insular, and focus on perpetuating Judaism, than it is to accept such a transgression and risk the erosion of traditional Jewish identity and practice.
I don’t think I ever truly believed that this was the best response to intermarriage, but I realized one day during a webinar with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from the Jewish Outreach Institute that I had been deeply affected by what I heard when I was younger. My mind latched onto Rabbi Olitzky’s words, understanding that the way to include Jews in Judaism is to accept those who intermarry, embrace their spouses and help them teach their children how to be Jewish. My body, however, was tense and uncomfortable. The thought kept cropping up—that intermarriage will bring about the end of Judaism.
I understand why the community I grew up in was so insular. It is easy to believe other Jews are less Jewish if you don’t know them, haven’t spoken to them, haven’t seen them be Jewish. On a recent community visit, I spent the weekend with a family in which only the father is halachically Jewish. The mother, who referred to her own family as interfaith, and I had many conversations over the weekend about religion and Judaism. Three years ago this woman knew very little about Judaism; now she is the only teacher in her children’s religious school. She has gone out of her way to understand Judaism and figure out the best way to teach it to her children as well as the other children in the community. During one of our conversations she again referred to her family as interfaith. We both laughed out loud, recognizing how absurd it was that she should still separate herself out, still hesitate to claim a stake in the Jewish faith. I was impressed with this woman and her awareness that some people just could not get over the fact that she is not halachically Jewish.
I understand the reasoning behind halachic Judaism. I understand that Orthodox conversion is important for halachic and traditional reasons. However, I cannot accept the stark lines we draw and the barriers we place between different factions of what is supposed to be one people. I don’t think that the Orthodox should change their standards and tell their children it is OK to marry anyone they want, but now I also don’t believe that people should only be considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish or they had a conversion with a beit din and went in the mikvah.
I knew that spending two years at the ISJL would challenge me, and truthfully I was looking to be challenged. My experiences on the road have fundamentally changed the way I think and who I am. Now I feel like I am trying to live simultaneously in two worlds, but I am not sure if that is really possible.
What are your thoughts on pluralism, and the “multiple worlds” of Judaism?
We hear a lot about “interfaith” and “outreach” programming. In fact, I spend a lot of my time promoting it. But why does it matter? If it might lead to some difficult conversations and such – why bother?
Well, my experiences not only as a director of programming, but also as a proud New Orleans native, have shaped my understanding of the value and vital need for these sorts of efforts.
“….Temple Sinai is a house of prayer for all people and all who enter our doors in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood are always welcome and that includes the members of Greater St. Stephens Ministries.”
These words were spoken by Rabbi Edward Cohn. Since becoming the Rabbi of Temple Sinai in New Orleans 25 years ago, Rabbi Cohn has made interfaith and outreach programming a priority for the congregation. His efforts have led to a strong New Orleans Interfaith clergy group which meets on a regular basis to discuss theological, ethical and political issues as well as forming strong bonds of friendship which have served all of these congregations well. Often times, our opinions or convictions may conflict, but there is always respect and love. In times of celebration and in times of tragedy, these congregations have stood with each other side by side.
In fact, when the Greater St. Stephens Baptist Church burned down, Rabbi Cohn reached out to Bishop Paul Morton and Senior Pastor Debra Morton and offered the Temple Sinai sanctuary as a … sanctuary!
I attended several of the services to see what it was like while the St. Stephens congregation was worshiping in my synagogue. Sitting in the back of that 1,100 seat-sanctuary (completely filled twice each Sunday while they were there), I was blown away by the full Gospel choir and the spirit. Whatever your faith, God was in that place, and I knew it.
That’s why interfaith and outreach programming matters. Because in times of triumph, and in times of trial, it enables us to be better neighbors and experience modern miracles … like when the trial becomes the triumph, and two communities can share one sacred space.
What has been your very best interfaith experience?