A Place at the Table: Interfaith Community Relations

In a Medieval tale the Pope challenges a small town rabbi to a theological duel. The stakes are the highest imaginable; the loser shall be put to death. Each succeeding question is more nerve wracking than the previous – yet the clever rabbi answers them all with aplomb and his life and that of his community is spared.

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This article was originally published in the BIJ Bulletin January-February 2010 / Tevet-Shevat 5770.

In a Medieval tale the Pope challenges a small town rabbi to a theological duel.  The stakes are the highest imaginable; the loser shall be put to death.  Each succeeding question is more nerve wracking than the previous – yet the clever rabbi answers them all with aplomb and his life and that of his community is spared. 

This fictionalized story tells a version of real events that took place far too often in every place where Jews lived and in almost every historical period. The Jewish community in Diaspora has endured periods of great danger, including the Babylonian exile in which the story of Esther is set, and from which we derive the joyful spring holiday of Purim.

As contemporary Jews who live in a place and time of relative peace and safety we find ourselves in a remarkably fortunate situation. Yet knowing our tumultuous and painful history we cannot take our good fortune for granted!  Therefore, our Jewish community needs to remain perpetually committed to and fully involved in interfaith community relations. 

As a rabbinical student I attended Seminarians Interacting, a program of the National Conference for Communities and Justice (NCCJ), and the experience reverberates as a profound influence in my rabbinate.  Formerly known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the NCCJ is the organization in which the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel met and marched arm-in-arm for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and Washington DC.

As Jewish San Franciscans we can take pride in our Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) for its tireless effort in keeping Jews safe, visible and engaged in important civic affairs.  The JCRC educates government representatives and business leaders about the remarkable accomplishments of the State of Israel and was also instrumental in the establishment – 20 years ago – of the San Francisco Interfaith Council (SFIC).  It is comforting to know that Jews continue to serve among the Council’s most prominent leaders. 

At the seder table - Photo:  Glazer Family Archives
At the seder table - Photo: Glazer Family Archives

I was introduced to the SFIC during my first year at BIJ when I spoke on an interfaith panel discussing our respective faith perspectives on the religious obligation to alleviate hunger.  Since then I have had the great pleasure of representing BIJ at many SFIF events including disaster preparedness symposia, interfaith meetings at St. Mark’s Cathedral, a monthly Women Faith Leaders group, the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast (at which our Cantorial soloist David Morgenstern joined me this year) and San Francisco’s Annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. 

Whether addressing hunger, poverty, marriage equality, homelessness, worker’s rights, health care reform or a myriad of other social concerns, working and serving with clergy and lay leaders of diverse faiths helps us build communities of understanding, increase tolerance for diversity, and aids us in fighting xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.

At a recent videotaping by our teens in our History Alive project, long time member Arthur Becker, who turns 98 on January 4th, told of a 1958 meeting with his brother Charlie Becker and San Francisco Mayor George Christopher. That momentous meeting resulted in the name change of Stanley Drive to Brotherhood Way and forever sealed our fate and that of our neighbors as preservers of religious diversity in San Francisco.  How fortunate we are to be the Jewish community presence on Brotherhood Way and to have BIJ members sitting on the Brotherhood Way Committee. May all of our interfaith community efforts always bear the fruits of Shalom!

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