“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.
What makes our home Southern and Jewish? If you were blindfolded and brought into my home, it wouldn’t take you five minutes to understand that I am a proud Southern Jew.
I recently got married; my husband is not Jewish – nor does he claim any religion. Over the last several years, he has grown to respect and appreciate my Reform Judaism, and has enjoyed being a part of our Jewish traditions and community, a community which has welcomed him in with open arms. Together, we are creating a new Jewish home.
When we moved into our new home, we joyously went about displaying all of the things we love. With boxes unpacked one of the first things we did was to hang our mezuzzot. Like Jews around the world, “the door posts of our home” bear the first sign that ours is a Jewish home. Because my husband pays attention, he asked me a great question:
“Why aren’t we putting a mezzuzah on our gates?”
The answer: a mezuzah is placed where there is a ceiling and two doorposts; most of our modern day gates do not have ceilings, and so there is no requirement to place one “upon your gates.” A great question!
Beyond the mezuzzot, we have many Jewish symbols that would likely be found in any Jewish home across the world, including our Shabbat candle sticks and the Kiddush cup and kippot from our wedding. On the dining wall is a poster of an IDF soldier praying at the wall; beside that, we have a signed and numbered print entitled Shabbat Cotton, which embodies both Southern and Jewish beauty. I also have on display mementos from serving as President of Temple Sinai of New Orleans, and a beautiful menorah from the mayor of our sister city in Israel, Rosh Ha’ayin, given to me on the occasion of stepping down as chair of Partnership 2000.
Adding to the Southern-ness, there’s a den wall displaying my prized Mardi Gras posters (I’m a New Orleans native), and there is a Texas star from my husband’s home state, and of course, several fleur de lis! As they say, New Orleans Jews really are different than any other Jews in the world, because we live in Parishes and pray for Saints (the state of Louisiana is divided into Parishes instead of Counties because of its French and Catholic roots, and our beloved football team is the New Orleans Saints).
Enjoy a little photo-tour of our home, and a little taste of our own personal Southern Jewish life. After all, what really makes our home Southern and Jewish?
We live in it!
According to the National Jewish Population Survey, there are approximately 1.5 million non-Jews helping to raise Jewish families in the United States.
Certainly, this reality is prevalent in the Southern Jewish communities I work with, and we often face the question: “To what extent can these non-Jews participate in the rites of Judaism?”
This question becomes front and center as a family prepares for a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. With its focus on the “transmission of Torah,” this event is full of symbolism. Recreating the Mt. Sinai moment, the rabbi often will take the Torah from the ark and pass it to the grandparents, who then pass it on to the parents, who finally give it to the child.
But, which family: non-Jews, or just Jews?
Obviously, this question is highly charged, religiously as well as relationally, both for the family and the officiating clergy. Because, how can one honor a child’s entire lineage while maintaining our unique Jewish legacy? Recently, officiating at a Bat Mitzvah held in a 100 year-old Mississippi Delta congregation, I approached the challenge in this way, attempting to honor both family and history:
“Here stand the generations of this Bat Mitzvah’s family. Though all may not be able to trace their lives back to Sinai, surely all have transmitted Torah to this child. For some, it was done through the written word. For others, it was done through action, as they maintained a life in accordance to the eternal values of our faith. There are those who say this is odd; our Sages disagree. For, they questioned, ‘Why was Torah given to the people on Mt. Sinai and not in the land of Israel?’ Because, they answered, ‘had God delivered Torah in Israel, the Israelites may erroneously think it as their sole intellectual property. But, as Torah was given in an ownerless place (i.e. the wilderness), it is and should always be open and available to all.’ [Numbers Rabbah 1:7]”
Thinking and acting as if Torah belongs to Jews and Jews alone would have been a mistake then, and now. Sure, it is our honored responsibility to ensure Torah’s existence from generation to generation, but we do so in order that others may have the opportunity to freely live by its lessons. That what’s occurring in this family, and so many others throughout the Jewish world, where non-Jews are actively molding the next generation of Jews.
So, we all must ask ourselves: how are we ensuring that the blessing of non-Jews within the Jewish community is being celebrated?
How do you (or your congregation) work to include non-Jewish community members in your midst? Share your thoughts in the comments below!