What’s Jewish about…
- The N’awlins phrase “Where Y’At?”
- Eating cheese grits soufflé in Alexandria, Louisiana?
- Cheering “Roll Tide” on Wednesday, “Go Tigers” on Sunday, and in between, enjoying an interfaith gathering at a Methodist Church in Pensacola Friday?
Well, those expressions and experiences were all part of the twelve-lecture, ten-day, four-state tour covering 1,200 miles that I embarked on with Dr. Ron Wolfson last month. In New Orleans, “Where y’at?” is a question that starts many conversations … and in the Torah, the first question is “Ayeikah?” – most often translated as “Where are you?” but in N’awlins, it’d be “Where y’at?”
Moments like that one, connecting Jewish learning, community, and Southern hospitality, were hallmarks throughout the trip.
There is nothing that can’t be accomplished when we keep in the forefront of our minds that all Jews are responsible for one another and share our resources, working together to make greatness happen for everyone involved. The January lecture tour of Ron Wolfson through the South, exemplified Klal Yisrael and the regional, communal programming approach of the ISJL .
The cooperative spirit was contagious, and along the way Dr. Wolfson addressed over 750 people, across four states in ten days including Jews and Christians, in tiny congregations like Gemiluth Chassodim in Alexandria, Louisiana (88 members) up to large Southern congregations like Temple Sinai in New Orleans, LA (700 members) and everything in between. The youngsters in 4th – 8th grade in Birmingham, Alabama were every bit as enthralled with his afternoon Be Like God workshop as their parents and grandparents were with the evening lecture, God’s To-Do List.
What makes Ron so brilliant is his ability to touch everyone and leave them with a renewed awareness of what it means to be made in the image of God, as well as what we can do to honor that in everyday life at home, in our synagogues and in our communities. He is joyful with everyone, greeting each individual with a handshake, which begins breaking barriers before he is even introduced.
Ron doesn’t deploy heavy handed preaching, or one definition of God. Christians, Jews, and even those without a particular faith learn from him. The overwhelming feeling at the end of each lecture – renewed and refreshed, so glad to have been there and thirsty for more!
Speaking of “more,” I am thrilled that Dr. Ron Wolfson is spending some more time with Southern communities this coming week; you can see the schedule for his Virginia tour here.
That’s where I’ve been recently … so, where y’at?
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?
Hurricane Katrina (and the man-made disaster of the levee breaks) struck Louisiana and Mississippi seven years ago today, with devastating effects. Now as the region prepares for Hurricane Isaac, we also remember Katrina.
In 2005, when Katrina struck, I was still living in the New Orleans area. The city and her surrounding suburbs were all affected. The Jewish community felt the wrath of the storm – particularly the Modern Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel, which was destroyed.
At that time, I was Executive Vice President of Temple Sinai in New Orleans. As a practicing Reform Jew, I had become involved with the local Federation, but, until then, I had not thought much about how our small Orthodox congregation benefited the whole Jewish community. In the aftermath of the storm, every congregation, including mine, reached out to them to provide temporary worship space until they could figure out what to do next. I found myself thinking about the interdependence of New Orlean’s Jewish community. and wondering how the loss of Beth Israel Congregation would affect the rest of our largely Reform contingent.
After Katrina it quickly became apparent that the Jewish community would either come together and survive as a whole or fall apart in individual efforts. Nearly a quarter of local Jews permanently relocated in the months after the storm. Those who remained had to embrace pluralism in a whole new way. We needed each other to survive and thrive as a Jewish community.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Robert Loewy, Metairie Reform congregation Gates of Prayer and Beth Israel formed a historical partnership, with the Orthodox congregation meeting in the Reform synagogue for the last seven years, until this past weekend. Shared space, increased understanding and partnership between the two congregations taught the entire Jewish world the importance of community.
But why does a city need a full range of Jewish observance? If it wasn’t for the Orthodox community, there would be no community day school. Without a community day school, the Reform and Conservative congregations would never have been able to attract the current roster of Rabbis, Cantors and Educators who moved to the New Orleans area since Katrina. Congregation Beth Israel also brought the amazing Rabbi Uri Topolosky, an asset to the whole city who moved to New Orleans in 2007, and has led the congregation’s rebirth.
Of course, benefits go both ways. Without the Reform and Conservative Jews in the city purposefully patronizing the two Kosher restaurants in town, they would not be able to stay in business in order to serve the Orthodox Jews (and many Reform and Conservative Jews) who keep Kosher. And our efforts to reach out to the greater community are strengthened by our partnerships in the larger Jewish Federation.
In order to maintain a thriving Jewish community and give back to the city as a whole, we need each other; we are absolutely interdependent.
In August of 2010, I was privileged to attend the ground breaking ceremony of Congregation Beth Israel. After sharing a space amicably, Congregation Gates of Prayer sold a parcel of their land to Beth Israel to build their new synagogue and permanent home.
Last weekend, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a great miracle happened there)! After seven long years in the lovely wilderness of Gates of Prayer, Beth Israel joyfully paraded its five Torah scrolls out of the temporary space and into the Ark of their very own synagogue. Dignitaries from federal, state and local government, along with well-wishers from the entire community were invited to be a part of that glorious day. Yes, it was the seventh anniversary of hurricane Katrina, but much more importantly, it was the first day for Beth Israel in their own home once again.
While the congregations are now in separate buildings, they made a conscious decision to share the children’s’ play yard, so this generation and the next will never wonder quietly to themselves, “Why are the other ones important to me and the world around me?”
They will already know.