Reflections: A Day at Temple Shalom Emeth

By The Rev. Christopher Wendell, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Rev. Christopher Wendell addresses a joint gathering with members of Temple Shalom Emeth and St. Paul's Episcopal Church.
Rev. Christopher Wendell addresses a joint gathering with members of Temple Shalom Emeth and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

In last week’s Citizen, many of you read a thoughtful and heartfelt reflection by Rabbi Susan Abramson about the ways that new collaborations and partnerships have begun to deepen relationships across religious differences in Bedford. (Click here to read Rabbi Abramson’s thoughts)  I also wanted to share a little about my experience of this as a Christian faith leader here in town.

Like many in our town and neighboring communities, I was (and remain) deeply troubled by the recurrent incidents of anti-Semitism in our neighborhoods and schools.  As a Christian, I believe that God always wants us to stand in solidarity with those who are being marginalized or targeted, just as Jesus did in his time on earth.  And as a human being and resident of this wonderful town, I felt a little helpless about what to do last year – especially as the pattern of hate-speech incidents kept escalating.

What I realized over the summer is that while I cannot stop such incidents from occurring, I can do more than just be a helpless bystander.  I can act within my own community to do two things:  1) I can choose to encourage those who are feeling uneasy or threatened by reaching out to offer personal support and friendship, acknowledging how difficult and troubling this is not just “for them” but for me, too.  2) I can choose to make an effort to be more curious about the particular cultures and experiences of Jewish people and communities, and encourage others to do the same.

In the spirit of both these intentions, the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church decided to spend our fall adult education series learning more about the history of Judaism.  For many of us, our knowledge of Judaism was limited to a few personal relationships, stories about Moses from our Old Testament, and what we learned about the Holocaust in school.  That leaves out about 3,000 years of fascinating history!  So we waded through this history together while watching the PBS documentary, “The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama” in September and October.   It’s a very helpful resource, and full episodes are available free on the PBS website.

Our conversations following each episode explored not just the historical information we were learning, but also a new appreciation for the beauty and holiness within Judaism, as well as sadness for the recurring oppression and ostracism that Jewish communities and people have repeatedly faced throughout history.  It was especially troubling to be reminded of the fact that throughout history, it has often been other people of faith – especially Christians – who have been agents of Jewish oppression, rather than standing in solidarity.  This is particularly troubling given Christianity’s own early experiences as a persecuted, minority religion, prior to the 4th century.  You would think that a former minority religion would have a special commitment to maintain solidarity with other minority religions.  We, as ordinary Christians, need to reclaim that commitment in the 21st century.

But perhaps the best part of our adult education series was our visit to Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington.  Rabbi Abramson and her community welcomed us warmly for an informal evening of fellowship and discussion on the question of what it was like to be a Jewish or Christian person in 21st century America.   People spoke openly and honestly from both communities – sharing experiences of isolation, victimization, celebration, and empowerment.  What was most encouraging was the tenor of the conversation: naming personal truths without shame, blame, or recrimination of self or another.  We gathered not so much to solve a problem, but to share our different stories and affirm our togetherness in the midst of a challenging time.

I think both the Jews and Christians in the room left with a greater mutual understanding of what it is like to live as a person of the other faith tradition – in both their joys and challenges.  And in that were revealed some interesting points of unity.   Just one example of this has to do with the commercialization of Christmas.  The Temple members spoke about how November and December are often difficult for Jewish people – as Christmas music, sales, trees, and Santa Claus depictions are everywhere.   Some Jewish folks in the group spoke of feeling isolated or marginalized at the assumption that everyone is celebrating Christmas.  Folks from St. Paul’s also shared their frustration with how “loud” and commercialized Christmas has become.  For liturgical Christians (in the west), the Christmas season is actually just twelve days, from Christmas Day until January 6th.  All the visible displays and incessant mall music beginning after Halloween have very little to do with the actual religious event of Christmas.  In fact, it makes it harder for us to observe faithfully the church season of Advent, which precedes Christmas!  I think all of us left that conversation feeling more united about our unease with how “mainstream secular culture” promotes “Christmas,” and more aware of what makes that especially hard for those who do not celebrate the holiday at all.

We are excited to continue our relationship with Temple Shalom Emeth, by returning again to Burlington for a Shabbat dinner, and by hosting our friends at St. Paul’s for an opportunity to explore more about the Christian tradition and worship practices.  We’re also looking forward to this year’s observance of Kristallnacht, the commemoration of the start of the Holocaust, on Sunday, November 9th at 7pm on the Town Common.  This year, I’ll be especially reflecting on what horrors might have been prevented decades ago if Christians around the world had been more faithful and visible in our response to the violence on the night of the broken glass.

Moving forward, my hope, and the hope of many of us at St Paul’s, is that while we may not be able to stop every act of hate-speech and other expressions of oppression, we can choose how we respond.  We can choose to form and deepen relationships with those who are feeling isolated, alone or afraid.  We can choose to listen, learn, share, reflect, and pray for greater unity and togetherness across all lines of difference.   We can choose to get to know our neighbors and their stories, and share our stories with them.

The Rev. Christopher Wendell is the Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bedford, MA.

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