Tag Archives: interfaith relations

View from a (non-) Jew

by Tammy Bleck (Oak Park, CA)

During the twenty-five years that I was married to a Jewish man, I was often called an honorary Jew. I’m not exactly sure why. In all those years my husband never attended Temple or practiced his faith. No high holidays were ever observed, no Hanukkah candles lit. So why does almost everyone I meet assume that I am a Jew, and why do I sometimes feel like one?

It could be because I shlep, kibbitz, and have done many a mitzvah, and since my divorce ten years ago I have found love once more with a mensch. For almost two years I have been going to Temple with this wonderful man. In that time I’ve witnessed a faith that is open, accepting, loving and giving. I would like to think of myself as all those things.

Each Shabbat I listen to prayers that are offered up asking for God’s blessings for all men and women, for peace and strength, for favor and healing. But mostly I hear prayers of thanks. There is a lot of gratitude in the Jewish faith. I think we could all stand to be a little more grateful.

My father raised, baptized and confirmed me as a Catholic. My mother taught, baptized, and took me to her Baptist church each opportunity she had. I know my catechism, the Stations of the Cross, and I know my Praise the Lord renditions of the old Baptist way. I am not uneducated in the world of organized faiths, but there is no church that has me as a member. I consider myself to be a faithful person but shun the term “religious.”

I am open, and I appreciate all faiths that are open and patient with me. Faith is a good thing, and God, whatever name you choose to call him (or her), is gracious and loving. I have to say, in attending synagogue, there’s something to be said for attending a worship service and not being aggressively recruited or reminded of how much I’ve sinned. I appreciate both of the omissions.

There is so much about the Jewish faith I won’t even pretend to understand. I may study it one day. I’m sure I’d be the better for it. But I do understand the foundation, the music, the feeling of gratitude that fills the synagogue. It uplifts me and it encourages me.

When I attend Shabbat services, I do so without any reservations. I am there with an open mind to support the man who has my heart. With so much of the evening service in Hebrew, I greatly appreciate the rabbi’s woven explanations of the prayers. They are beautiful, positive, hopeful and gracious–all things that I aspire to be.

I am motivated to come back by the music and by the man who sings it. He is called a cantor, and I learned very quickly that we don’t applaud after he finishes singing. Too bad, because he sings with such love, such emotion and such intent, that I want to leap to my feet and put my hands together loudly. (I imagine that the old Baptist way of raising your hands up in the air and swaying to the music would be deemed inappropriate!)

I listen without understanding a word, but I read along in the book (definitely not called the Bible), and am able to get a real translation. I appreciate the words almost as much as I do the voice. I don’t understand why Jews don’t pass a basket in the service for contributions from the congregation for the synagogue. After listening to the cantor, if a basket were passed in front of me, I’d be putting in some big money. It’s what thankful people do: contribute (at least in a perfect world).

It occurs to me that if we really want to make it a better world, we should support those people and those things that do right by us. Synagogues and churches are among those ‘things,’ along with family, friends, and country. Jews live this, and they vehemently support their synagogues and their homeland, Israel. I can only imagine what they are feeling in watching the events unfold in the Middle East. In some strange way, I feel it too; the fear, the uncertainty, the need to prepare and to pray.

The feelings Jews have for Israel are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They are committed to Israel in a quiet, precise, and serious way. It feels very American to me. The dedication and quiet resolve is a little off-putting, but in a good way. While I don’t pretend to understand it, I can feel the passion, the purpose of it all, and I share in some of that. I guess you could call me an American-Catholic-Baptist-almost-Jew.

I’m happy just to be invited. The people, the message, the peace, the food–don’t even get me started on the food. Oy Vay! (What do they do to those cabbage rolls that make them so heavenly?)

I have lots of questions. They range from matzo balls, black hats and long curls, the Book of Life, to the sounding of the ram’s horn, the bris ceremony, and bar mitzvahs; all for another time, another discussion. Until then, I will learn, enjoy, eat and try to be a good (American-Catholic- Baptist- almost-) Jew.

Oh, and yes, I will pray.

Tammy Bleck is the author of the book Single Past 50 Now What? You can read more of her writings at www.WittyWomanWriting.com, where a slightly different version of this piece first appeared. It’s reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Expanding the Boundaries of Faith

by Emily Goldberg (Ft. Lauderdale, FL)

I am extremely motivated and determined to explore the things that fascinate me in life. From faith-based experiences to leadership opportunities, I am constantly involving myself in programs and groups that will inspire me to be an open-minded Jewish leader in the future. Throughout my years as a high school student, I have chosen to surround myself with driven people who share the same values as me. I am different from other teens my age, however, in the sense that I do not believe that anything in life is out of reach. But my belief was tested recently when reading an incredible book that has both changed my spiritual perspective and enabled me to grow in my faith.

The book, My Jesus Year, chronicles the spiritual journey of Benyamin Cohen, a modern Orthodox Jew who sought inspiration in his daily religious life by exploring the various denominations of Christianity. From interviewing Mormon missionaries to standing among thousands in acclaimed Baptist mega-churches, Cohen, with a yarmulke on his head, compares his “Jesus-filled” experiences with those of Orthodox Judaism. In the end, Cohen realizes his underlying passion for his own faith, but now approaches spirituality with a new and open-minded perspective.

Benyamin Cohen is unlike typical observant Jews for he dared to expand his faith in unimaginable ways. Determined and passionate, Cohen dared to discover the places and people that fascinated him. He opened himself to unique opportunities that would have otherwise remained unattainable if ignored; he then recorded those memorable experiences and shared them with readers all over the world, leaving an impact on spiritual seekers like me.

His book inspired me to take my faith to new boundaries; my Jewish beliefs needed to be taken to new locations, new levels, and new directions. After reading about Cohen’s ability to grow as a Jew through his encounters with non-Jews, I realized that Judaism is not about attempting to come as close as possible to the line without crossing it; it’s about seeing that line and turning in the entirely opposite direction.

Judaism is a religion that’s filled with lines and limits. Practicing Jews find themselves in situations every day where their religious values are challenged. Whether it’s refusing to indulge in a slice of pepperoni pizza or an opportunity to see a popular concert on a Friday night, Jews face cultural issues that affect their personal practices on a daily basis. Intermarriage, conversions, and future non-Jewish generations are just a few of the deeper “lines” that devout Jews try to avoid. Today, the biggest misconception that faithful Jews have is the idea that they must always fit themselves somewhere within these lines. Like Benyamin Cohen, I am a spiritual seeker, always searching for theological enlightenment in some of the most daring ways, whether it is standing among thousands of worshippers at Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale or sitting on the floor of a local Hindu temple, willingly coexisting with other faiths in order to discover my own.

I vividly remember my unique “crossing the line” experience when I first entered Calvary Chapel, the most dominant mega-church in the area. This worship center, filled with large screens, innumerable seats, and people of all ages and backgrounds, serves as a weekly spiritual haven for Christians all over South Florida. I stood among hundreds of church goers, a neophyte to the concert-like service that united everyone around me. As the band on stage began to play popular gospel songs, congregants sang along with the lyrics projected on the peripheral screens. I watched in awe as average people suddenly felt humbled by the communal voice that echoed through the church walls. Connected to the powerful music, some people began to raise their hands in the air, while others fell to their knees in prayer. Of course, I first felt uncomfortable and out of place. Growing up in a Jewish bubble, I had never once stood before a large conspicuous cross glowing in a dimmed sanctuary. In fact, I had always been told at my Jewish school to refrain from speaking about “J.C.” or Christmas. I had never known that Jews were even allowed to stand inside of a church.

But there I was, surrounded by hundreds of worshipers who believed in a savior and theological being that differed from my own. I realized that I had stepped outside of my limited Jewish bubble to experience a new form of spirituality, and it was ok that I was not surrounded by hundreds of religious Jews. While I initially worried about my Jewish friends’ reactions to my church visit, I quickly put those thoughts aside as I focused on the service that was taking place before me. It was truly amazing to see all types of people uniting to worship something greater and more empowering than themselves. Communal faith not only connects worshipers of one religious practice, but also people of different beliefs. Religion is truly beautiful when it unifies people.

Some of my friends considered my church visits threatening to my Jewish identity. They assumed that my one visit in church would lead to a life of Christianity, intermarriage, and church membership. Since I had been known among my friends as the “super Jew” or “future rabbi” because of my passion for Judaism, many assumed that my one visit to a new worship service meant I was no longer interested in pursuing a career in the rabbinate or Jewish education. My fellow classmates even asked me if I had converted to Christianity. Amused and entertained by the terrified looks on their faces, I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, “I like it. You should come with me next time.”

While I am appalled by the abundance of ignorance toward other religions in my own community, I have become more motivated to explore new religious practices in order to be more open- minded.  After undergoing what seemed like apoplectic shock, all of my friends and family decided that I am and will forever be that spiritual seeker who “goes against the grain” in order to find her purpose in the world. I refuse to recognize the boundaries and limits of faith that others fear.

Why did I seek opportunities to cross these lines? I explored new spiritual havens and worship services in order to reconnect to my own. Standing among hundreds of Christians made me truly appreciate the significance of a tight knit Jewish community. When I took my faith out of the familiar lines I had grown up with my whole life, I became more inspired to reconnect myself to them. Suddenly, those meticulous lines, like kashrut and Shabbat observances, reminded me of home, where I truly belong. I dared to step outside of my Jewish lifestyle in order to truly appreciate it.

There are aspects of Jewish faith that cannot be found in any other religious “bubble.” While listening to the popular gospel rock songs, I longed to see congregants wearing kippot and tallitot, and I missed the uniqueness of the Hebrew language that unifies the Jewish world. I once considered these practices to be second nature; today, because of my experiences at church, I cherish them. My spiritually enlightening experiences at Calvary Chapel cannot be traded or ignored; I would have never discovered my passion and respect for faith if I had stayed within the lines of my own religion.  Sometimes, the greatest spiritual experiences in life can only be found by walking in the opposite direction, limitless and unbounded.

Through my explorations of faith, I proved to myself that Judaism is ever evolving, and there is no one way to connect with your faith. I learned to appreciate Judaism when it was not right in front of me. I needed to see how other people connect to their religions before truly understanding my own. Spiritual seekers do not settle for the bare minimums in life.  They dare to step outside their personal comfort zones in order to reach inner peace and understanding. Benjamin Cohen and his book, My Jesus Year, inspired me to expand my boundaries of faith while gaining a deeper love and understanding for Judaism.

Emily Goldberg is a high school student at the David Posnack Jewish Day School in South Florida. She loves sharing her unorthodox ideas regarding faith and spirituality through her writing. In the future, she hopes to pursue rabbinics, interfaith studies, creative writing, and social work. Also, she hopes to lead a Jewish community of her own some day, one that encourages creative dialogue similar to that in The Jewish Writing Project.

You can read more of her work at her blog, A Leap of Faith: http://www.faithleaping.blogspot.com/

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Ernestine’s Fudge Ministry

by Sharlya Gold (Sarasota, FL)

Sometimes a kid, not necessarily the best looking or the smartest, stays in your mind long after you leave school. For me, that kid was nose-in-the-book, Bible-reading Ernestine Rogers. She didn’t call attention to herself, but if there was a riff in all the horsing around before our 8th grade math class started, you could hear the soft turn of a page. Or even while the teacher was explaining a problem.

The first time that happened, Mrs. Adams didn’t appear to notice. She was at the chalkboard, her back to the class, until somebody tattled. “Mrs. Adams, Ernestine’s not paying attention!”

The teacher turned around, holding the chalk like a baton, and I felt sorry for Ernestine. She’d only been in class for a week; still, she should have known better.

But instead of scolding her, the teacher fixed the rest of us with an angry glare. “People, my job is teaching, and yours is learning. Do you have to write it 100 times to make it stick in your brains?”

“No, ma’am,” we mumbled, and after that we just pretty much ignored Ernestine. When she read her Bible, we just kept quiet, and most of us pretended not to notice.

I noticed, though, because Ernestine was a wonder to me. Imagine! A mousy little thing like that, standing up to the teacher. It began to bug me, wondering how she did it, so one noontime I passed up having lunch with my friends and went to the table near the back wall where Ernestine always sat

I slid onto the bench across from her. “Hi, Ernestine.”

She’d been reading, and now she looked up, keeping her place with a finger. She smiled, a surprised, happy smile. “Do you want to eat with me?”

“Uh…I guess so.”

I didn’t expect to feel so uncomfortable.

“It’s… nice back here,” I managed to say.

“It’s lonely, though.”  She smiled again. “But not today.”

She wasn’t making it any easier, acting like we were good friends.

Finally, I just said it. “Ernestine, I’ve been wondering why you always read the Bible, plus how you get away with it.”

“It’s just something I do,” she said. “When you trust in the Lord, you try to follow what He says which means learning the Holy Scriptures.” She paused. “Let me ask you a question. How well do you know the Lord?”

“About as well as I know math. Why?”

Instead of answering, she reached inside her lunch bag and brought out two neatly wrapped squares. “Homemade fudge,” she said, pushing one toward me. “It’s pretty good.”

Pretty good? It was great! Full of walnuts and not too sweet. I’d never tasted fudge like that–and I’d never met anyone like Ernestine.

While I ate the fudge, she read the Bible to me, all about the eternal damnation lying in wait for people who don’t seek salvation through Jesus Christ. “I’m going to help you get saved,” she said, and later, much later, I realized that Ernestine’s ministry had begun with me.

We had lunch together the next day, too, along with a little conversation, more fudge, and Bible reading. My two best friends got mad. They said I could eat with that girl my whole life and wouldn’t let me walk with them to our next class which Ernestine wasn’t even in!

I hadn’t told them about the fudge, but it really was the high point of having lunch with Ernestine. It certainly made listening to the Bible easier. Although I’d gone to Sunday School, those Biblical stories were totally new to me, and before long they started interfering with my sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I’d see those poor tormented people. I had to stay awake to keep them out of my dreams.

But Ernestine didn’t always read the Bible.  Sometimes, she’d just talk. She’d tell me about regular people who’d played into Satan’s hands. Like the doctor who was too busy saving lives to get himself saved. And the pilot who intended to get saved, but died in a plane crash before he got around to it. And the kind, generous couple who believed that good deeds alone would get them into Heaven. “They’re all in agony this very minute,” Ernestine would assure me. “I just pray that their lives are a warning to others.” I didn’t have to ask what others. She meant me.

After one especially tragic story, I raced home, threw myself into my mother’s arms, and burst into tears. The story of what I’d been going through for almost two weeks tumbled out as did my overwhelming fear: our family was going to Hell. “We have to get saved!” I cried, half-choking in my hurry to spur my mother into action, “We have to do it right away before we die. You and Daddy are already old!”

My mother stroked my hair and held me close until I stopped crying. “Now, listen to me. There are many different beliefs about God and many different ways to interpret the Bible. We Jews believe in God,  but not in the existence of Hell or Satan.”

“Are you sure we’re not going to burn forever and ever?” I asked.

“I’m sure, but if you talk to the rabbi, you’ll understand more. He’s better at explaining than I am. Want me to call him?”

I already felt better. I trusted my mother. She didn’t lie to me. She never said that medicine wasn’t bitter when it was or that a shot wasn’t going to hurt when she knew it would.

“That’s okay, Mama,” I said. “I was just so scared.”

She tilted my wet face so she could look into my eyes.  “Is there anything else?”

“Yes. One thing.” I took a deep breath. “Ernestine says we have to pray to Jesus.”

My mother thought about this awhile before she said, “Jews pray to God. Not to Jesus. Jews believe that Jesus was a wise teacher and a good, kind man. But a man. Like Abraham.”

I started to cry all over again. “But what’ll I do about Ernestine?”

“I don’t know that you have to do anything but be respectful of her beliefs. You can do that without accepting them for yourself, can’t you?”

I said yes, kissed my mother, and went to wash my face. But I couldn’t wash away what was really bothering me.  It was the fudge.

My conscience pointed out that I couldn’t go on accepting Ernestine’s fudge since I had no intention of accepting her salvation.

But I’d be earning the fudge by listening, I argued.

My conscience wouldn’t give up. Is it a fair trade, knowing what you know? it asked

I preferred not to answer, and in the end my conscience was no match for the fudge. Ernestine and I had went on having lunch together. I never told her what my mother said and made sure I was respectful as always. Still, something had changed, a subtle shift in our positions. I think she sensed that I was no longer frightened by her stories or in awe of her. The day she stopped bringing fudge, I knew it was over. I made up with my friends, and Ernestine went back to reading the Bible to herself.

She moved away after that year, and I lost track of her, but, recently, a friend from junior high told me he’d heard that Ernestine had become a preacher. She even had a church of her own.

I hadn’t thought of Ernestine for years, but I didn’t have to dig deep for the memory of how I’d dropped her like a lead weight when the fudge ran out. Guilt has never lain much below the surface in my psyche.

But hearing about her success sent a burst of relief through me, much like the time my mother allayed my fears of Hell. All those years, I’d carried the secret fear that I’d ruined Ernestine’s life. How silly it seemed now. How egotistical to imagine that she’d given up because her fudge ministry with me had failed. Good for you, Ernestine! I felt like shouting. Good for you!

And good for my mother, too, I thought. She could have discouraged our friendship, viewing it as a threat to my spiritual development. Instead, she took the occasion to teach me respect for others and their beliefs. That lesson stuck, even though my passion for chocolate fudge faded. My heart and mind—and waistline—have never been sorry.

Sharlya Gold, the author of The Potter’s Four Sons: A Fable and The Answered Prayer and Other Yemenite Folktales, writes books for children, and articles and memoirs for adults.  She teaches ”Writing your Life, Without Starting at the Beginning” at Temple Emanu El in Sarasota, Florida, where she lives with her husband, Len (“who deserves a medal,” she says, “for Support, Endurance, and Patience”).

“I had always considered this personal experience distinctly Jewish,” Gold says about the experience that she shares  in Ernestine’s Ministry of Fudge. “Two children, one with an early calling to proselytize, the other frightened into rejecting her own belief system. But as I learned after sharing this story,  many non-Jews, too, had their own childhood conversion stories.”

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

Ambassadors

By Susan L. Lipson (Poway, CA)

You may be the first Jew—
The first they’ve ever seen in person.
You may be the only Jew—
The only Jew to whom they’ve ever spoken.
You may be the one Jew—
The one to disprove their preconceptions about Judaism.
You may be that special Jew—
Special enough to make a lasting positive impression on them.
You may be the exemplary Jew—
An example of our entire people, in their eyes….
So be a light unto others
As God commanded you.
For you, alone, can cast a mighty glow—
Enlightening shady images,
Illuminating the invisible for the blind,
Counterbalancing darkness
With your goodness.
Goodness embraces and inspires others,
While dogma squeezes and restricts.
Let them remember goodness,
That potential we all share,
Not how you differ from them.
Let them remember nonjudgmental, loving you
Whenever they think of a Jew.

Susan L. Lipson, a children’s novelist and poet, has taught writing in the San Diego area for more than ten years. Her latest books are Knock on Wood (a middle-grade novel) and Writing Success Through Poetry. She writes two blogs: www.susanllipson.blogspot.com and www.susanllipsonwritingteacher.blogspot.com.

Lipson also writes songs, including Jewish spiritual songs, some of which have been performed by synagogue choirs and soloists.

Contact her via Facebook or MySpace (Susan L. Lipson).

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