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Chizuk Amuno Congregation

In Honor of World Religion Day

I loved that job! From December 1, 2015-March 15, 2016, I was the interim rabbi at Beth Tikvah in Toronto, a congregation similar in size to Chizuk Amuno. I would be covering for the rabbi while he was on a short sabbatical. We overlapped one day so that he could give me an orientation. He went over the calendar with me. We talked about procedures, divrei Torah, the role of the executive director, and how to handle the one Bar Mitzvah that was scheduled for the winter (almost all of the grandparents were in Florida for the winter, so B’nai Mitzvah during the winter months were a rarity). We spoke for hours, and I took detailed notes. As I was heading to the room that was to serve as my office, he added one more calendar item.

“Oh yes,” he said, “There is a group of students and staff that come to us on the Friday night closest to World Religion Day. They are from a Christian High School in Belleville, about 180 Kilometers North of Toronto. I usually meet with them for an hour before services, give them a tour of the synagogue, and answer their questions. It’s a nice group. You’ll enjoy talking to them. I don’t have the date, but I will ask my assistant to tell you before they come.”

So, in the middle of January, I’m walking to shul for Friday night services, which begin at 6 pm. It was about a quarter to 6:00, and I see two buses in the parking lot, and a large group of students through the chapel window.

I smiled to myself. I guess it’s World Religion Day.

Waiting for me were 50-60 students and chaperones from the Quinte Christian High School in Belleville. They were seniors.

I greeted them and told them that they will join us for a 45-minute service welcoming the Sabbath, and then it will be my pleasure to talk to them about Judaism. I asked their teacher about how much time I would have. Twenty minutes was the reply.

Twenty minutes to talk to them about Judaism. That’s all. Twenty minutes.

After services, I asked the students if any of them had ever met a Jew.

Only one raised her hand.

So, for almost all of them, I was the first Jew they had ever met. What an awesome responsibility, but also a potentially awesome opportunity.

So, here is my question to you.

If you were in my place, what would you have said to them?

In 20 minutes, you can’t teach everything.

Some of you have an advantage in answering this question, because some of you have already served as volunteers, meeting with visiting school groups. God bless you for doing that.

So, what would be the most important things to teach a group of lovely, respectful non-Jewish high school students about our faith, our people, Israel? And if you are not Jewish, what questions do you have about Judaism?

Take a few minutes and talk amongst yourselves.

Now, as you can imagine, I’ve had the opportunity to do this before.

The first time was when I was in high school and served as president of the Junior Roundtable of Christians and Jews.

I was invited to a Catholic school in a depressed area of Detroit. I still remember some of the questions from the 1960s.

‘Why do Jews own all the department stores?”

They didn’t.

“Why do all rabbis have beards?”

Why do think that’s the case, Rabbi Wechsler?

“Why are all Jews rich?”

I wish.

But, these students from Belleville came from a different place. A place of respect and learning. I had a good feeling about their preparation for the session.

By the way, in talking to non-Jewish groups, I try to work within organizing principles, such as-

“Al shelosha d’varim ha-olam o-made.

The world stand on three pillars: the study of Torah, worship and the performance of deeds of loving kindness”. So, during those 20 minutes I could talk about each.

How many of you were thinking along those lines-talking about the importance of Torah and Jewish study? The centrality of the synagogue? Tikkun Olam?

Given that I only had a few minutes, I decided to highlight the features of the chapel, I began with the focal point of the chapel, which also happens to be the focal point of Judaism.

I told them that the Torah is God’s gift to the Jewish people, and that is what we mean when we talk about Jews as the Chosen People- we are chosen to receive Torah, and, in turn, teach it to the rest of the world.

I opened the parochet, and showed them a Torah scroll. If there were more time, I would have taken one out and let them see the Hebrew lettering.

Next, I taught the Belleville students that the Ner Tamid symbolizes the Menorah in the ancient Temple, that the Ner Tamid radiates God’s eternal presence

And because I am a storyteller, I shared the time when I was teaching a group of elementary school children in the Chapel in the school where I worked in Baltimore and the Eternal Light went out. The bulb burned out at a most inopportune time. The students were very upset. If the light is out, God must have left the room. And they had never been in a world without God watching over them.

I told them that everything will be OK. In our world, sometimes lights go out. As long as we know how to rekindle the lights, we will be OK.

Then I pointed out that on the bimah in the Chapel were two seven- branched menorot, because the menorah in the Temple had seven branches, unlike the special menorah for Hanukkah, with which they may be familiar, that has 8 branches, and the shamash.

Now, the Aron Kodesh in that Chapel was magnificent. For the next five minutes, I just worked my way down that structure.

At the very top, guarded by the lions of Judah, were the Eseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments. Judaism and Christianity both hold the Ten Commandments in a place of special prominence.

And then there is a verse above the doors,

“For out of Zion shall go forth Torah, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”

I saw that as an opening to discuss the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem

I talked for a few moments about the significance of Israel in our sacred literature, in our prayer book, in our history. I pointed out that the ark in the Chapel and in that Sanctuary were on the Eastern Wall, because when we pray, we face Mizrah, East, towards Jerusalem.

I briefly discussed the miracle of Israel’s rebirth after the destruction of a third of our people in the Holocaust, our commitment to safeguarding Israel’s security, and how complex the political issues are.

I did not know if this school was related to an Evangelical Christian church, in which case it was pro-Israel, or whether it was affiliated with a liberal Protestant Church, in which case the school might be  a less enthusiastic supporter of Israel.

But, I did want them to understand the depth of the connection between Israel and the Jewish people.

The next verse on the Ark over the doors was the most important teaching  in all of Judaism.

Shema Yisrael

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.

This was my opportunity to tell them that one of the most important gifts of the Jewish people to the rest of the world was Ethical Monotheism.

I talked about what that meant. There is only one God, and that God is concerned with how we behave, how we treat each other.

And I talked about the Jewish imperative to bring justice and healing into the world. Tikkun Olan.

I took a moment and shared another story. After 9/11, as head of a Jewish day school, I gathered all of the students into the Sanctuary, I held up a balance scale (you know, the zodiac sign for Tishrei) and I told them that Judaism encourages each of us to see the world in balance, and that with the destruction of the Twin Towers and the attack on the  Pentagon, and the downed plane in the field in Pennsylvania, and all of the innocent people killed, the scale was way out of whack, so much evil had entered the world. And I told them that it was up to everyone, included them, to embark on a campaign of ma-asim tovim, good deeds, to restore the balance.

Now, there were only ten minutes left.

I walked over to the memorial plaques on the wall, and talked about how we honor our dead. Yizkor prayer. Yahrzeit candle.

That led to my talking about my own father, who died in 1993, and his experience with pogroms growing up in the Ukraine in the early 1900s, and my grandmother’s experience with pogroms in Lithuania, and her immigration to Canada.

And I explained that that was why my parents and grandmother had difficulty warming -up non-Jews, and how difficult it was for me and my brothers to grow up in such a world, and how we were able to overcome the prejudice within our own home.

Now, only 2-3 minutes left.

I asked for questions.

“Do Jews pray from their prayer books, or from their hearts.”

Great question, no? The words in the prayer book lead us to deep, personal prayers from the heart.

“What was the prayer in your heart tonight?”

That Jews and Arabs can live together in peace, that all people can live together in peace.

“What is that red couch in the front right corner of the Chapel, and why is there a ribbon preventing it from bring used?”

Another great question. That is Elijah’s chair, and it is used only when there is a bris, a circumcision. The person who holds the baby sits in that seat of honor. Gratefully, they all raised their hand that they knew what a circumcision was. This was an opening to discuss one of the main differences between Judaism and Christianity.

I explained that one of Elijah’s jobs is to announce the coming of the Messiah, and that Jews are still waiting for the Messiah to arrive, while Christians are waiting for Him to return.

“How will we know when the Messiah comes?”

“You’ll know it first in your heart, and then you will see it in the world” I replied.

Time for another story. After all, they need to know that we Jews have a sense of humor.

So, since we were talking about Messianic times, I told them that the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem had an exhibit with a wolf and a lamb in the same cage. Over the exhibit was a verse from Isaiah, “And the wolf and the lamb shall dwell together…”

So, a visitor to the zoo, impressed by this exhibit asked the zoo keeper how he was able to accomplish this.

“It’s easy,” he said. “We put a new lamb in the cage every morning.”

A few more quick questions, some polite applause, and I stood at the door and bid each student and chaperone farewell, hoping that I did OK.

One of the chaperones introduced himself to me as the pastor of the local church, and said that he, too, had a question for me.

“Oy,” I said to myself. “Am I going to be asked some complicated theological question comparing some esoteric point in Judaism with a teaching of his church?”

Where is Dr. Shualy when you need him?

“Rabbi, tell me. Are those Torah scrolls insured?”

“Well,” I explained, “Do you see how massive that ark is? It’s designed to make our scrolls Safer Torahs. And yes, I’m certain that the scrolls are insured.”

How did we do? Did we agree on what were the most important things to teach? Were there things that you included that I did not cover? Were there things that I covered that you would not have mentioned?

Let me know during the coming week. I look forward to hearing from you.

Shabbat Shalom.