Part I: From Shades of Yale to IFO: Finding My Humanity at Beth Am Synagogue
Since I first wrote about my chance encounter with the Beth Am Synagogue in January of this year (https://baltimoreblackwoman.com/2016/01/18/honoring-dr-martin-luther-king-day-shades-of-yale-rock-beth-am-synagoIgue/), a remarkable thing has happened to me: I have come to view Beth Am as a personal sacred space and a spiritual family! It is hard to believe that I have come to this point at all, but it is even harder to believe it’s been a mere 10 months since this first encounter.
After my Shades of Yale article received a warm and positive response from the Rabbi, I was contacted by the woman who brought the group to her Synagogue, inviting me to meet her for tea at a new café in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood near Beth Am. We immediately hit it off, and a few months later, I was invited to join the Board of IFO (In, For, and Of the Neighborhood, Inc.), Beth Am’s nonprofit community outreach organization! Over the last 6 months, I have attended several open programs sponsored by the Synagogue, as well as several of the monthly Board meetings. I have begun to reach beyond my comfort zone by speaking up about issues raised in the meetings and participating in some of the community programs the Board supports, such as a voter registration drive last spring and a local school support project. And although these have been little baby steps, they have helped me to find ways to meet my own goals for this year—to reconnect with my West Baltimore roots and to find ways to give back to this part of town that nurtured me in my youth.
I am nurturing seeds of friendship, not just with my fellow Board members, but also with people in the Reservoir Hill community. There is an irony to this situation. First, that it has taken a Jewish congregation located in a Black community to help me reconnect with my Black community. Second, that I have felt more accepted by this Jewish congregation than I have felt in my own Black United Methodist congregation—that is located only a mile or less from the Synagogue. And third, that despite my Christian upbringing and faith, I feel a greater spiritual kinship with the Jewish worship experience than I do with the current worship experience in my own Christian congregation.
This irony was brought home to me on Wednesday (October 12), as I worshiped at the Synagogue on their Holiest of Holy Days, Yom Kippur. In preparation for this service, I actually looked up what this Day means in Judaism. It is The Day of Atonement, ending the Jewish New Year celebration that begins on Rosh Hashanah. Coming from a Christian perspective, I could only liken the service to the season of Lent, during which we atone for our sins, culminating in the Good Friday services that commonly focus on the Seven Last Words of Christ.
I know that such a comparison demonstrates a core difference between Judaism and Christianity that could shut down any dialogue between our two faiths: Judaism does not recognize the core precept of Christianity: that Jesus was the Messiah that had been promised to the Jewish people. In fact, this point was mentioned during the Martyrology Service (a special part of the Beth Am Yom Kippur services) which, this year, honored Elie Wiesel, the noted Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. As recounted during the service, Mr. Wiesel’s very decision to speak out about the Holocaust was ignited by his recognition of this chasm of faiths after a conversation with a French Catholic prelate he had befriended after his release from a concentration camp: The prelate attempted to compare the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust to the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.
Yet, I was able to respect this difference, and in so doing, I was able to experience and enjoy the Yom Kippur service. Even though I do not understand Hebrew. I embraced the structure and components of the service—readings from the Torah, liturgical responses, music, and prayers, to the point where I began to recognize and quietly hum the melodies. I stood when the congregation was asked to stand; I sat when they were asked to sit. Just as I would in my own church.
What I came away with was the feeling that, regardless of our differing faiths, we all worship and serve the same God, and we do it in very similar ways, and in remarkably similar sacred spaces.
In Part II of this series, I will share more of what I learned from this experience, as well as reflections on what a "sacred space" means to me.