France Can Take A Lesson in Religious Tolerance from Detroit’s Interfaith Council
On these snowy days I admit I have done way too much trolling on my Facebook news feed. One alarming video clip that came across my newsfeed was a very disturbing video of Fascists in France waving a red swastika flag, shouting Jews Out! Jews Out!
Do they have the right to march peacefully and express their views in a democratic society? Maybe. Have these French citizens forgotten the history of WWII when the Nazis themselves goose-stepped through the streets of Paris shouting the same hatred? Absolutely.
Today’s Germany would not stand for such hate marches, free speech or not. In fact, it is illegal to fly the Nazi Flag anywhere in Germany or have a Nazi rally.
I wonder, in this country which proposes to ban the wearing of any religious symbol or clothing, what they teach their children about religious tolerance.
A few weeks back, I had the honor of attending and covering a “Face to Faith” Journey to Judaism sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Greater Detroit. Sitting in the massive sanctuary of Temple Israel of West Bloomfield with 150 seventh graders, I felt right at home. And you know something, so did the kids. Even if they never set foot in a Jewish house of worship. Even if they never had a Jewish friend.
Cynics might wonder if such interfaith explorations organized by Detroit’s Interfaith Council really teach tolerance. But, after you watch the disturbing and disgusting video of Fascists marching down a street of what is supposed to be the world’s most civilized city shouting “Jews Out!” consider the alternatives.
Here is the article which ran in the Detroit Jewish News
What does a rabbi look like? To the uninitiated, a rabbi wears a long black coat, grows a long beard, and therefore must always be a man.
Temple Israel rabbis, teachers, and other volunteers at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield helped to dispel this and many other misconceptions about Judaism as they guided a diverse group of 150 seventh graders from six school districts through a “Jewish Religious Diversity Journey.” The trip was part of a series of explorations into different religions created by the Interfaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit.
According to the council’s administrator Meredith Skowronski, Religious Diversity Journeys for the past 11 years has taken young leaders – 25 handpicked students from each school district – on six trips to a different house of worship to foster understanding and a celebration of cultural differences. Participating school districts include Berkeley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, West Bloomfield, and Walled Lake.
Gail Katz, a retired Berkeley teacher and the director of Religious Diversity Journeys, explained that the program fits in perfectly with the World Religions unit of the seventh Grade curriculum.
“The Journey only extends what they are learning beyond the textbook and the classroom,” said Katz as she mingled with the students during a morning icebreaker. “We strive to increase respect and understanding among all students.”
Rabbi Josh Bennett – who is clean-shaven and does not wear a long black coat – kicked off the formal component of the day of learning in the temple’s large sanctuary. Students, impressed by the large golden ark on the bimah, learned about the three different branches of Judaism and the belief in one God, learning Torah and the connection to Israel, which unites Jews across every level of observance
Later in the morning, groups of students took turns touring the building and listening to Rabbi Ariana Gordon explain the cycle of Jewish holidays, the complexity of having a Hebrew calendar that is both lunar and solar, and the odd phenomena this year that was “Thanksgivingkah.”
The students also visited the building’s mikvah and viewed an open Torah Scroll with Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny.
“These trips are an invaluable lesson where kids get a hands-on learning experience and are made to feel welcome in different houses of worship,” said Kaluzny after teaching a group about how a Torah scroll is made and written.
Over a Mediterranean vegetarian lunch prepared by Mezza of West Bloomfield and sponsored by Temple Israel, students expressed their appreciation for the program, which allows them to explore other traditions and pose questions that would seem inappropriate or uncomfortable in a classroom setting.
Ben Johnston of West Hills Middle School came away from the program with a better understanding of the different branches of Judaism and the customs and holidays his Jewish friends celebrate.
“This program is important to me because we have a diverse society,” Johnston said. “We go to school with different kinds of kids, and as we get older, these are the people we’ll go to college and work with. We must have the knowledge of their backgrounds so we can be more tolerant and understanding.”
Ben Johnston, a student at West Hills Middle school, learns about the role of a mikvah in Jewish life during a Religious Diversity Journey.
Ashley Liles and Maddy Merritt, both of Sashabaw Middle School in Clarkston, do not go to school with many Jewish kids. The program allowed them to peer into a Siddur and not feel embarrassed to ask why it opens up backwards or why the letters look different than English.
Maddy Merritt left, and Ashley Liles, right, seventh graders from Clarkston’s Sashabaw Middle school, examine Hebrew letters in the sanctuary at Temple Israel at during a Religious Diversity Journey.
The “journey” gave them a better perspective of the history and origins of the Jewish people. Not only did it widen their understanding of Jewish holidays beyond Chanukkah, but the lesson with Rabbi Gordon also gave them a broader understanding of a holiday they would otherwise only know as a “Jewish Christmas.”
Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny of Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, displays a Torah scroll to seventh graders on a Religious Diversity Journey with the help of parent volunteer Janet Cummins of Birmingham.
Detroit: The New Jerusalem? “Shul” shopping and Tish B’Av
To my dear readers: This post is mainly about American Jewish culture. It has lots of unfamiliar lingo to those not exposed to Judaism, so my complete understanding if you skip reading this. Or, if you want to get an inside glimpse of what goes on in the minds of practicing Jews in the face of moving to a new place, do read on.
Have you recently entered a house of worship when it is not a major holiday or occasion going on? Chances are there will be plenty of room in emptying pews. Congregations merge with one another as membership dwindles.
This is an age when less Americans seek out organized religion, and regular attendance to religious services in churches and synagogues gives way to baseball and soccer fields. Perhaps it is there, where they understand the cheers for the players rather some antiquated texts and chantings, where they feel the most connection to community.
A rabbi I knew, when confronted with a person who would say: “I feel spiritual but I don’t want to get involved with any organized religion” responded by replying, “Judaism is very unorganized.”
My husband and I go against the grain of our contemporaries. As soon as we move to a new town, and not long after we purchase a home, we go looking for our second home, a synagogue or shul. It’s not because we have kids that need to go to Hebrew school. It’s not because we need a Bar Mitzvah date. It is because, away from family, we need a community.
Fortunately, we have many choices in a city with a Jewish population of about 70,000. That more than three times the size of the Rochester Jewish community we left.
We went to two different synagogues. Were we ignored? Did we sit quietly praying unnoticed?
The first house of worship we entered, about four individuals approached us – during the Torah service to find out our story. Were we from out of town? Visiting? Just moved here, well WELCOME! Eyes in pews across the aisle in faces middle-aged, elderly, familiar and unfamiliar all at once, turned our way to see the newcomers in their midst. One congregant, through family connections to the Jewish community in Rochester, actually was told to look out for us. The men on the bimah threw a stern look our way to be quiet as he whispered about the degrees of separation on how he was connected to Rochester. Another man approached us and asked if our nine-year-old son would like to lead Ein Keloheinu or Adon Olam from the bimah. These are prayers at the end of the service usually bestowed to be led by children. I knew my son knew these prayers cold, and he is not a shy kid. But still, we just got here. As I expected, with a smile, he turned the invite down. He has been such an easy-going kid through this whole process, but he is a kid and it was too soon.
The next Shabbat morning, in the second synagogue we tried on, came an even warmer response. The welcomes. The excitement of the newness of us. An older Israeli woman who sat in front of us explained: “You see? No matter where you go, the siddur, the words, the Hebrew prayers and melodies? They are all the same. No matter where you go you are always home.”
We were honored with an Aliyah to the Torah. In my experiences in our former synagogue, this is not something that was bestowed upon us until we were members for several years.
My son spent some time in the service and some time playing cards with about seven other children in the social hall. The fact that there were seven children in the synagogue in the middle of the summer was a promising sign. During the lunch after services, we were introduced to more people who were excited and passionate to tell us about their congregation.
The third synagogue I went to alone. It was Jewish Detroit’s community-wide observance of Tish B’Av, meaning the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on all of the Jewish calendar. It is the day when in Jerusalem, both of the Great Temples were destroyed, when the Jews in ancient Israel began their exile from their land, an exile that lasted two millenia. On this day history recorded countless other acts of persecution and massacres put upon the Jewish people including the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews.
I only began to observe this somber, little known holiday in the summers my children started attending Camp Ramah. To add to the somber mood, worshipers remove their shoes, sit on the ground. Under low lights, and at camp, with the aid of only a candle or a flashlight, the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, is sung to a haunting chant. If you’ve never heard it, take a short listen here and the sadness comes through even if you don’t understand the Hebrew.
I sat alone on the floor, shoes off as a symbol of communal mourning. Each chapter was chanted from a member of a different area shul. Yet even when sitting alone, I never feel isolated or a stranger within a shul. Even after two weeks, there were some familiar faces. The guy with the Rochester connection who was told to look out for us sat nearby. The young woman rabbi from the first shul. I watched her as she sat on the floor, followed along in the prayer book for a while and then watched her as she closed her eyes just to meditate on the sadness of the chanted words.
And the words are indeed sad. It is sadness of Jerusalem likened to a raped woman. Childless and friendless abandoned by all humanity. Her streets are filled with ragged people walking through burned out ruins. It was a time when Gd, because of our baseless hatred and corruption, delivered us into the hands of our enemies.
An ancient, outdated story?
As I read the words of the Book of Lamentations, both in Hebrew and English, another city came to mind. The city to where I just moved. With its blighted houses and skyscrapers. With its government on the brink of bankruptcy.
But then, in the last chapter, hope.
In the back of the synagogue were some very young faces. White faces and black faces. But all young faces. These were the congregants of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue. Founded in the 1920’s, it is the last standing synagogue in Detroit proper. And instead of aging and decrepit members, its members were young. Way young. These were the determined young people living in urban Detroit. Waiting for Detroit to come out of its destruction. Making it happen by living and working in downtown Detroit and not like the rest of us in the ‘burbs.
In our shul shopping quest for the ideal synagogue for our family, I know that this synagogue is not the one we will be joining. But out of all the synagogues I have visited or heard about in Detroit, the existence of the Downtown Detroit Synagogue is the one that gave me the most hope.