Today’s reflective post comes from Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
The end of summer can be a whirlwind for ISJL Education Fellows, as many of us spend the majority of our time traveling throughout the Southern region, getting to know Southern Jewish communities and preparing for the upcoming year of religious school. It is an incredibly exciting experience, and it has really energized us, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, and still, now – throughout the remaining autumn Jewish holidays. Wonderful as energy is, though, at times reflection is what we crave.
Thus, while in Houston with two other Education Fellows, we decided to take a couple minutes away from the excitement to engage in a little bit of meditation and self-reflection. Now, we could have done this just about anywhere – no specific venue is required to be introspective, nor are there any necessary supplies. But we had heard about a fascinating place called the Rothko Chapel, a multi-faith center for contemplation and prayer, and we decided it might be worth checking out.
We were not disappointed.
The Rothko Chapel is truly one-of-a-kind. As we walked into the lobby, the first thing we did was sign in to the Chapel’s guest book. Looking at earlier visitors, we saw people from all around the country. We proudly added our names, and our home base of Jackson, Mississippi, to this vast and varied list of places, and we headed towards the prayer space.
At its entrance, there were a number of books, humbly resting side by side. Some might not think much of this, but it certainly caused me to stop and think. Next to one another were traditional holy texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and others. They were carefully placed side by side, with none taking precedence over the others. Implicit to me was the idea that none of them was “more correct” or “truer” than the others. This table made me stop in awe, because on it lay eight or nine texts that are, together, the basis for thousands and thousands of years of tradition, all over the world. There they were, quiet and ancient, for all to explore, analyze, study, or question.
What struck me about these books even more was that they were very well-worn. Where the covers might once have been shiny, they were now a little bit duller. Some of the pages were a little yellowed, and maybe even torn a little bit. I thought about this not because it makes the texts any less beautiful. On the contrary, I think it adds a great deal to them. There is something unbelievably tragic about a brand new book, impeccably shiny, being placed on a shelf only to go unused for years and years. These, however, through daily exploration by visitors from around the country and the world, have given new wisdom and growth to countless people. They have earned their scratches.
Next, we went into the chapel itself. There were only a couple of others inside as we entered, but we spread out to a few different corners of the octagonal room. There were benches in the center, mats for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and, most interestingly, fourteen black paintings on the walls. The paintings set the tone for a space that felt incredibly spiritual. I sat there for a while, my mind wandering from the texts in the lobby to how I might best do teshuvah (repentance) over the High Holidays, and eventually, to nothing. I sat there and thought about nothing for the first time in almost forever.
After awhile, the other Fellows and I got up to go. We rose at precisely the same moment, without speaking or gesturing, despite the fact that we had been facing in different directions and did not know exactly where the others were.
Visiting this chapel was an unbelievable experience. Through the texts, I saw quite literally what it looks like when Judaism exists peacefully, side by side, with other world religions. It reminded me of the delicate balancing act we engage in as we attempt to maintain a level of Jewish distinctiveness while simultaneously playing a role in the betterment of the world more generally. As we walked out of the building, I returned to my work for the ISJL, an organization adeptly and simultaneously carrying out both of those missions.
L’shanah tovah, y’all.
August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
The speech that immediately preceded Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech 50 years ago was delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz.
As Rabbi of Berlin, Rabbi Prinz was expelled from Nazi Germany. Since this speech, which you can read in its entirety here, will receive less attention I wanted to spread Rabbi Prinz’s message on that day. The entire address is inspiring, but this line, in particular, stands out for me:
“The time, I believe, has come to work together — for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together.”
Those who know me will not be surprised by my choice to discuss this quote.
It is a quote that articulates the importance of relationship building, and cooperation. This idea is repeated in some of my prior blog posts, after all: real social change is most often the result of the efforts of many who work in partnership. The members of different churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship may have different traditions or political perspectives, but there are almost always overlapping hopes, particularly for their children. Across religious differences, we want our youth to have access to a good education, to be healthy, to be safe, to have the opportunity to live peacefully and pursue their lives and passions. We can make assumptions based on these beliefs, and hope together – or even pray together.
But to work together, we can’t just make broad assumptions (even good, positive ones!) about our hopes and goals. To truly cooperate, we need to have a good understanding of what exactly is driving all of the parties involved. It is the only way to be certain that we are all, in fact, aiming for the same ultimate outcome. On a truly basic level, to work together we have to know each other. We have to know our neighbors’ names, and have their contact information, and not just talk about being a community – but do the work it takes to become a community.
Occasionally, I’ll hear from a synagogue that is skeptical about working with local churches. This is often fueled by a fear that the church members will try to proselytize. I wonder what Rabbi Prinz would say? I suggest that both congregations get together, and discuss what each group needs to feel respected and accepted. It is important to give cooperation a chance. There is too much work that has to get done. We cannot afford to only work with people who think like us. We are all better off when we work together.
May this line serve as a source of inspiration for all of us to commit to working with one another. Martin Luther King, Jr. provided a directive and a vision – and Rabbi Joachim Prinz reminded us of the work that goes into pushing that vision forward. 50 years after these great leaders, and their peers, rallied a crowd of thousands, we must hear the call today. We must be united by a shared dream, then roll up our sleeves and share in the work.
Photo credit: New Jersey Jewish Historical Society
I saw a post on my Facebook feed yesterday that confused me. The post was from a friend who happens to be a Jewish educator, and this is what she shared:
“Dear JC Penney, I am sorry the rest of the world is so bananas! I think your new kettle looks lovely and it NEVER crossed my mind that it looked like Hitler!!! Seriously people!!!!!”
Clearly, I hadn’t spent enough time on social media this week, since I had no idea what she was talking about. So I Googled “JC Penney Hitler kettle.” I found lots of articles, and the image in question – and I have to say, I agree with my educator friend.
The billboard has been taken down, but Twitter and Reddit and Facebook are all still full of people boiling over, whistling about how offensive this is; Jeffry Cooper, the Mayor of Culver City, CA, where the billboard appeared, issued the following statement: “As a Jew, I am offended, [and] as an elected official, I am mad that the city I represent is linked to this.”
Really? As a Jew, I’m not offended, and as someone who used to work in advertising, I’m picturing the poor creative director out there somewhere who signed off on the billboard. She’s surely shaking her head and saying “Oy! I never saw Hitler when I looked at it.”
I’m sure she (or he) didn’t – because quite obviously, there was no malice intended here. I seriously doubt there was some subliminal pro-Nazi message embedded in this ad. If anything, for a big ol’ corporation, JC Penney has taken lots of surprisingly inclusive stances. So why are they being put through the ringer for this?
Growing up in the rural Midwest, and living for more than a decade now in the Deep South, I’ve been someone’s “first Jewish friend” on more than one occasion. I’ve come to appreciate but also be wary of over-sensitivity. When people go out of their way to make sure that I’m not offended or excluded, it’s incredibly sweet. What I worry about is when we (in this case, Jews and our protective friends) swing that pendulum a little too far, and get up in arms over something that’s actually harmless. While it is everyone’s job to be as kind and sensitive as possible, it’s also our job to sometimes say “No, no – in this case, it’s really okay! I get it – no offense intended, and no offense taken!!”
Don’t get me wrong; cultural sensitivity is incredibly important. But if we make a mountain out of every mole hill, how will we be taken seriously when we’re trying to fight for what really matters?
What is seen can’t be “un-seen,” as they say, so at this point it’s best that JC Penney took the billboard down. What else could they do? Once the dictator was pointed out and a furor over the alleged resemblance to the Führer went viral, JCP wisely responded by saying buh-bye to the kettle – but you never know when something might backfire: the billboard is down, the item is no longer selling on JC Penney’s website… but the now-infamous “Hitler Kettle” is currently going for $199 on ebay. Oops, y’all.
Do you agree, or disagree? Was this billboard culturally insensitive – or a silly mistake? Share your thoughts in the comments below!