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.
This week marks the 21st anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots. When these riots took place in 1991, I was ten years old, and living in the predominately African American and Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Now, sitting in my office in Jackson, Mississippi, another community historically rocked by racial tensions, I feel the same loss and fear that I did that summer long ago.
I feel the loss of Gavin Cato, the 7 year old son of Guyanese immigrants who died when a Jewish car-driver ran him over, and Yankel Rosenbaum, a young Yeshiva student who was targeted and killed because of his Jewish identity. I also remember the fear each of the two communities had for the other. The fear that comes along with the lack of experience with and knowledge of another group of people. The fear that sat on the minds of community members for years before the riots broke out and that ultimately led to mistrust and violence.
But while remembering this fear, I also remember a very hopeful message.
A few years ago, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I was asked to reflect on Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement. I wrote something not only about how it was then, but how it should be now. Jewish communities have played a critical role to play in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice – and must continue to do so.
The piece I wrote also followed a visit by two Freedom Riders, Hank Thomas and Lewis Zuchman. They came to the ISJL’s office to discuss how the Jewish community can be involved in this important commemoration of the anniversary of the Freedom Rides. Early on in the conversation, it became clear that the scope of their request was not limited to the particular event or to the city of Jackson. Hank Thomas delivered a message delicately framed as an expression of hope.
His message, “Reengage,” was rooted in his desire for Jewish participation as he educates others about the roles that Jews played in the Civil Rights Movement and aims to proactively counter anti-Semitism. More pertinently, it is based on a vision of global communities where Jewish communities and African American communities, in particular, are not isolated from each other. Instead, a strong foundation of meaningful and personal friendships and community relationships are present in all aspects of our daily life.
The 21st Anniversary of the Crown Heights Riots calls on us to reengage. We can pursue a racial reality that moves beyond structured programs such as interfaith dialogues. These programs often present information about groups of people and what “they” believe and “they” experience.
To reengage is to develop strong personal and communal relationships based on strengths, capabilities, knowledge, experience, compassion and interest. Re-engagement is an exchange of personal stories, concerns, losses, struggles, triumphs and priorities that collectively represent the unique “I”s and “you”s that sustain our communities. Generalizations disappear when we are not afraid to come out from behind the shields of “we” and personalize our discussions.
In 1961, the Freedom Riders were on a clear mission: Civil Rights for all. The risks included death and there were many Jewish men and women who courageously participated. In 2012, as we mark the 21st anniversary of the riots, let’s work to build relationships—they are certainly not life-threatening and are, in fact, life-enhancing. It is our privilege to have a history of participation in the Freedom Rides. It is fear that pitted neighbors against each other during the riots.
The work of re-engagement, and civil rights, and all of this history, is complicated. But just because something is difficult does not mean we should avoid it. We must continue in this important work, always seeking not only to make our world better, but also to work more effectively and meaningfully with our neighbors as we collectively engage in the work. That is what will ultimately help eliminate such schisms that lead to painful events like the riots in Crown Heights.
Let us therefore carry on the mission of the Civil Rights movement and the appreciation of all people for who they are–and not the color of their skin, their economic status and all other barriers that keep people apart.
It is my hope that the message of Hank Thomas carries the weight of a directive that travels far beyond the walls of our office here in the Deep South, and Jewish organizations everywhere: Reengage!
In the South and beyond, there is important work to be done to repair our world. What are ways that you are engaging and re-engaging in bettering your community?