Neighbors. They lend us eggs and sugar and tools in a pinch, buy cookies and wrapping paper they don’t need for endless school fundraisers, and take out our trash and pick up our mail when we’re out of town. If you’re lucky, the relationship with your neighbors is respectful and cordial. If you’re really lucky, your neighbors become family. It is said that “we make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next door neighbor.” I have no doubt that our pick in the neighbor lottery was divinely inspired.
Seventeen years ago, a new family moved into the house 15 feet next to mine. They had 3 boys, we had 3 boys; she was from Northern Virginia, I was from suburban Maryland; she was an avid runner, so was I. Our lawns adjoined and our lives soon followed along.
A traditional Jew and a committed Christian, we lace up our running shoes and hit the road, solving problems big and small as we go. Over the thousands of miles we have logged over the years, we talk. We cover kids, family, and parenting, but also politics, theology, religious practice, and cultural differences. Sometimes we go really deep, like, did the Jews kill Jesus deep. Or, of course her family would have hidden us if we were neighbors in Nazi Germany deep. What I wouldn’t give for a transcript of those runs. For now, my memory will have to suffice.
Let me tell you about my neighbor, who has become one of my dearest friends. From her, I’ve learned much about Christianity and what being a practicing Christian is all about. I also have become, I daresay, quite fluent in Christian jargon and organizations and can translate PTL (praise the Lord), VBS (vacation bible school), and FCA (fellowship for Christian athletes), to name just a few. My neighbor is not merely Christian, she’s “a” Christian, which is much different, like the difference between observant and unaffiliated Jews. She doesn’t swear. Ever. She and her family go to church every Sunday and they tithe 10 percent of their income to their church. She leads Bible study groups on a weekly basis and prayed for students and teachers with her Moms in Prayer group for years when her kids were in school.
Are you envisioning “hi-diddly-ho” Ned and Marge Flanders or the “church lady” from Saturday Night Live? So not her family. They are hip and cool and with it. Their house is way more fun than ours with all of the latest technology, a gaming room, and a fully stocked weight room that also features a full-sized basketball hoop and backboard.
Growing up on the East Coast, I didn’t interact with many committed Christians. Once we moved to the Midwest, where the church to synagogue ratio tilts significantly one way, that all changed. It was eye-opening for me.
Despite how they are often characterized in popular culture, committed Christians are not intolerant and bigoted. Quite the opposite. When I see or hear people paint religious Christians with a broad negative brush, I now become defensive because it is grossly unfair. My neighbor’s positions on hot-button topics are grounded in her faith, but she also recognizes that these are complicated and nuanced issues and that there are other points of view. She is kind and respectful to all, regardless of their worldview.
She knows the Hebrew Bible backwards and forwards and reads the story of Esther with her Bible study. She believes that the Lord will bless those who bless Israel and is eager to visit sometime soon. And no, it’s not because she wants the next Temple to be rebuilt so that Christians can take over the world. It’s because she wants to see the birthplace of her religion and tour all its Jewish and Christian sites. Also because her oldest son visited with his Christian college and hasn’t stopped raving about the pita bread.
Our friendship has tracked along with my family’s journey toward an increased knowledge of Judaism and Jewish practice. She’s learned about the dietary laws right along with me and can read the kosher symbols on boxes and cans like a champ. She now knows to say “Happy New Year” on Rosh Hashanah and “have an easy fast” for Yom Kippur.
She’s gone from being horrified at the fact that we sent our kids to Jewish sleepaway camp for eight weeks every summer to wishing that Christians got on board with that program. She now knows there is a difference between Hebrew and Yiddish and can toss around “shlep,” “shnorrer,” and “shpilkes” with the best of them. She’s learned about our rules of mourning and how we commemorate the anniversaries of deaths.
Sure, cultural differences exist, but our Judeo-Christian commonalities are the glue that bind us. We both are focused on our family and want our kids to keep the faith. She gets that it’s paramount to us that our children marry Jews, because it’s equally important to her that her kids’ future spouses take Christianity seriously. We both believe in personal responsibility and free will, but believe that ultimately our fate is in God’s hands. We know when we turn to each other for advice, we will not necessarily be told what we want to hear, which is a sign of true friendship.
We all need friends in our lives who raise us up and encourage us to be the best version of ourselves. I’m grateful because I have one of those right next door. After all of these years, I am filled with admiration for how she and her family live their lives and truly walk the walk. And although our faiths have different views of God and the afterlife, there’s not a doubt in my mind that we’ll be going for runs together in the world to come.