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After the Tree of Life tragedy, I went to Shabbat services and never stopped

Going to temple weekly for 2 years has taught me profound lessons about Jews and Blacks in America and enriched my own Christian faith
Ed Gaskin (Courtesy)
Ed Gaskin (Courtesy)

On October 27, 2018, I felt a deep sense of wrongness – grief in the very depths of my spirit. Killing innocent, defenseless, seniors on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, while worshiping God, is profoundly wrong. Though cable news proclaimed it as such, I did not think the Tree of Life mass shooting was the worst thing that had happened to Jews in America. I thought that distinction went to not letting the passengers of the St. Louis disembark in 1939, damning the 900 Jewish refugees aboard to return to the hellfires of the Holocaust.

For me, this was different from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in South Carolina. As an African-American, I’m familiar with America’s history of church bombings and arson. I almost expect something like that to happen to African-Americans, but I didn’t want to see what was happening to us happen to another group.

Discovering the killer’s motivation — that the synagogue supported HIAS, a non-profit organization providing humanitarian aid to support refugees on the Mexican Border — made it even worse. Tree of Life Congregation was working to make the world a better place by “loving the stranger.” Deut. 10:19.

I want to share my story of discovering Judaism. It is like learning you are adopted and finally meeting your birth mother. In my case, I discovered my spiritual roots. I am sharing ten reasons I continue, in the hopes some good can arise from even the greatest of tragedies.

Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. – Jesus

The beginning of my journey

After the tragedy, I felt the need to show my solidarity with the Jewish community. The only way I knew how was to attend the next Shabbat service. To my embarrassment, I didn’t know a Jewish person who regularly attended temple. I was apprehensive and uncertain. After all, I wasn’t invited, nor did I see the service promoted. I went to Temple Beth Elohim not far from where I live near Boston out of a sense of obligation and a desire to be found on the right side of history.

I could imagine getting to the door and hearing, “At this difficult time, we ask that you respect our privacy and understand that this is a private service.” I would have completely understood.

But no such thing happened.

The worship experience seemed both familiar and different. Familiar because I could follow the liturgy and was aware of Hebrew from my time in seminary studying for my Master of Divinity and as a minister at the People’s Baptist Church. But I was in an unfamiliar place listening to unfamiliar songs with unfamiliar people, and unfamiliar customs such as when to bow.

The cantors there are excellent, and the music was so beautiful and moving. I knew in my spirit I was truly in a “Beth Elohim,” a House of God.

As a conservative Christian, I was trained to look for false teachings and doctrines. However, at the end of the service, I realized I had not read, prayed, sung or heard anything with which I didn’t agree. I didn’t expect that! The next day I posted on my Facebook page, “I am a Jew.” It was an allusion to John Kennedy’s, “I am a Berliner.” It was my way of demonstrating support for Jews as Kennedy did for the Germans. I didn’t know how prophetic my statement was.

I knew from my own experience that you can’t judge a church from a single worship experience. So, I went to the next Shabbat service. And the next. Before I knew it, I had made it to 52 of 54 Shabbat services that year. I even attended Shabbat services the weekend I was visiting the little town of Woodstock Vermont.

I am often asked if I plan to convert; after all, I’m told, even practicing Jews don’t attend Shabbat that regularly. One of my Jewish friends who doesn’t attend regularly said, “Attending Shabbat is a lot of work for a free glass of wine.” But I tell my Jewish friends who stopped going to services once their children became a bar or bat mitzvah that they don’t know what they’re missing. During these difficult times, we need constant communication with God to remind us that God is bigger than this world.

I haven’t converted to Judaism because I don’t believe I have to make a choice between Judaism and Christianity. In the same way that people have dual citizenships and passports, I propose the ability to be both at once. Children of Jewish and Christian interfaith families have done this for years. I’m thinking my stated religion should be Judeo-Christian. If Jesus can be fully human and fully divine, per the doctrine of the hypostatic union, is it not also possible to be both Jewish and Christian? In the same way good software is forward and backward compatible, Judaism and Christianity are compatible. I joke that Christianity is just the largest Jewish sect, and a friend once shared with me a cartoon that said, “Jesus, just another overachieving Jew.”

∼ MY TEN LEARNINGS THUS FAR ∼

First, attending Shabbat has helped my spiritual growth as a Christian.

A common Christian practice is to attend church more than once per week. In addition to worship, this could include Bible study or a small group prayer meeting. Shabbat is one of the two times per week for me, and worshiping God two times is better than one. Shabbat provides me an additional opportunity to worship God, hear from God and find fellowship with members of the community. Because rabbis are generally more fluent in Hebrew than Christian ministers, rabbis can provide more insight into the Hebrew texts. Because of the practice of teaching from the Torah, I hear sermons from Torah portions I would never hear otherwise. I get the best of both traditions by hearing a teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures on Friday and the Christian Scriptures on Sunday.

Hearing encouraging, inspiring and/or practical messages more often is better than hearing them less.

I’m certain God hears my prayers and accepts my worship whether I’m praying or worshiping from a synagogue or a church. A more pressing concern is, “Am I listening or putting it into practice?”

Second, practicing Jewish religious traditions such as Tashlich has been spiritually meaningful.

Just as the liturgy is well thought out to provide spiritual growth, so are religious rituals. Religious rituals are a tool to help us reflect on or experience God, but God is beyond and outside of them all. The more ways we can experience the inexhaustible God, the better. I’m not Catholic, but I have found it meaningful to pray at the Stations of the Cross, spend time in a monastery, or with a spiritual director. Learning Jewish theology and spirituality can deepen the faith of both Jews and Christians.

During my first year, I went to two Passover seders, one in a family’s home and a community seder at the temple. During the High Holy Days, I attended Friday Kabbalat Shabbat, Saturday Shabbat, Saturday Torah Study, Sunday Rosh Hashanah Eve, Rosh Hashanah first day, and the Tashlich service. Rosh Hashanah second day, Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur services twice, Yizkor, Minchah and N’ilah, five hours of services and a type of break fast service. It was a wonderful experience and the deep spiritual truths of these services contributed to my spiritual growth.

Third, I have gained new reflections on salvation and hermeneutics.

In conservative Christian circles, the teaching is that what God says, what the scripture says, and what the minister preaches are all the same. Thus the preacher can proclaim with authority, and complete lack of humility “Thus says the Lord.” Therefore, if the Church says the Bible teaches the sun revolves around the earth, then it does. If the minister, the “man of God” says segregation is biblical and interracial marriage is a sin, then who are we to question God? There is an underlying belief that clergy can always rightly interpret the Scriptures. Or that ministers, as fallen individuals, never have their own implicit bias biases. The Scriptures may be infallible but those who interpret it aren’t.

The Church proudly points to the history of Christian martyrs. However, there is a long list of others who had a different view of scripture and who were put to death as heretics. It was, after all, Martin Luther who taught that Jews should be treated like the pagans of the Old Testament and destroyed. All scripture should be understood through the lens of God’s Holy Love, meaning holiness, justice, righteousness, and God’s unfailing love, grace, and mercy. God is Holy and God is Love. There are universal teachings.

The Shema prayer flows seamlessly through and is core to both Judaism and Christianity. It’s hard to imagine how Jews could be wrong in praying to the same God Jesus did. Since there is only one YHWH, not two, we both must be worshiping the same God.

Fourth, I never thought about what it must be like to be anything other than a Christian in a “Christian” nation.

As a Christian, I had heard of a few Jewish holidays, e.g. Hanukkah, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and didn’t know there were others. I didn’t know what these holidays were meant to celebrate, nor did I appreciate the need for Jews to miss school or work to practice their religion. while we Christians get all our religious days off. This year I wanted to scream, “It’s Yom Kippur” because for non-Jews, it was business as usual with no acknowledgement that it was a major holiday.

It’s not really a Christian country in terms of the new humanity, the Sermon on the Mount, the Kingdom of God, Jubilee, servant leadership, or “looking after orphans and widows in their distress.” (James 1:27)

Rather America reflects White and/or “Christian” nationalism, American civil religion, and the necessary supporting institutions. This religion influences everything from our textbook selection (e.g. does it include a section on creation?) to the holidays we celebrate and the establishment of Blue Laws. This religious view enables minimizing the perspective from non-Christian religious faiths and secular viewpoints. While clearly being dominant, this religious nationalism sees itself as a victim, and the enemy (or scapegoats) are humanists, liberals, Jews, immigrants, non-Whites, and numerous conspiracy groups.

This religious nationalism was directly responsible for the attack at your temple, because Jews (the “Other”) were helping immigrants, thus helping to make America less White and less Christian. Christian nationalism is threatened by diversity, and because of the syncretism between Christianity and White nationalism, the church is guilty of not being more prophetic. Being sensitive to other faiths must go beyond non-sectarian civic prayers.

Fifth, I have found a wonderful community that has embraced me.

A member once said to me, “Ed, you have no idea how beloved you are here.” The community is wonderful. I have said, if instead of being a synagogue, this community was the badminton club, I would have learned to play badminton. In diversity, equity and inclusion work, one of the core principles is having a sense of belonging. As an African-American, you are always trying to determine if you are in a place where you belong. It is wonderful to be part of the community and know you can relax because you are among friends, and you can reach out to them as they reach out to you. During this time of virtual worship, I miss not seeing my friends at temple, shaking their hand, giving a hug or just being able to see a familiar face smiling back at me.

Sixth, I was able to share the calling of Tikkun Olam.

The community shares my values concerning social justice, and actively practices those values to “repair the world.” To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, ‘To be Jewish is to be socially active.’ With likeminded people, there’s less need to debate “why” and instead we can focus on what to do and how. I’ve grown beyond understanding holiness and worship in individualistic and pietistic ways. Micah 6:6-8. Holiness, righteousness, justice, and sanctification, all come from the same roots. When Rabbi Heschel was asked if he found much time to pray while in Selma, Rabbi Heschel responded that he prayed with his feet.

Seventh, being a part of the Jewish community profoundly changed my understanding of anti-Semitism.

Given the centuries of anti-Semitism and terror, I would think every Jew is experiencing ongoing trauma — like a low-grade fever that never goes away. Hearing an ADL talk about anti-Semitic acts is one thing. It is another to go through security before worship, hearing discussions about whether the guard at the door should be armed, wondering what you would do if someone started shooting during services, and asking the rabbi if members have active shooter training. These thoughts, and regular media reports of anti-Semitic acts, combined with collective memory, are constant reminders to be vigilant and are traumatizing.

Once a fire alarm went off during service. I wondered if there was a shooter in the building. I have never had those thoughts or feelings while in church. Anti-Semitism is so pervasive that even this primarily White, affluent, suburban temple is not beyond the evils and terrors of anti-Semitism.

Years ago, when I was teaching my class, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism,” a student told the class his family’s exclusive country club did not allow Jewish members. Only about 2% of the population have a private country club membership. For one who thought all you had to do was be White and rich, I didn’t realize how wrong I was. Brandeis University and Beth Israel Hospital, like many other institutions Jews established when their access was blocked elsewhere, are a reminder of that reality.

I had to realize the person who is anti-Semitic might be driving a pick-up truck or a Mercedes, may have never graduated from high school or may have a Ph.D. from Harvard. You never know who the ‘enemy’ is. I now suspect that’s why some of my friends weren’t vocal about being Jewish.

Understanding anti-Semitism has helped me understand the anti-Semitism of my fellow Christians, who paradoxically espouse a love for Jews and pray for the peace of Israel because that fits with their eschatological belief, but are anti-Semitic in their daily life and practice.

When I hear of often violent, anti-Semitic attacks in the world, I want to put up a “Jewish Lives Matter” sign to show solidarity, in the same way over 600 Jewish organizations and Synagogues have said, “Black Lives Matter.”

Eighth, learning about a people.

One thing worse than not knowing is thinking you do know. Imagine waking up one day to discover you didn’t know anything, and what you did know was wrong. That describes my understanding of Jews and Judaism. Before I started attending, I would say I had “trace amounts” of understanding, limited to Shalom, Holocaust, Israel, Bar Mitzvah, Torah, and Yarmulke.

One of my degrees was in the History of World Religions. I didn’t take the class on Judaism because I thought I knew what Judaism was: the first half of Christianity. My lament and the reason I don’t know more about Jews and Judaism is because there is no such thing as Jewish history month.

During my journey, I’ve learned about everything from Jewish scientists such as Albert Einstein to Jewish entertainers. In the same way, we have minimized the Jewishness of the early church, yet Jesus, all his disciples, and the first Pope of the Catholic church were Jewish.

We have a way of “Whitewashing” history. As African-Americans, we always felt Jesus was too “White” in depictions. If you Google Jesus and search images, you get “White images of Jesus.” If you want a Jewish Jesus, you must specify “Jewish Jesus.” When I received these results, I told my friend, “Even Google thinks Jesus is White.” In Western art, God is often portrayed as an old White man e.g. Father Time or in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Perhaps a better depiction of God would be a young Jewish woman with small children.

Nine, I developed a new sense of humility.

It would be easy for me to be upset about people’s new-found level of awareness concerning Blacks and institutional racism. I would think, “How could you not have seen the racism Blacks experience?” But I can’t, because not too long ago I didn’t know about Jews and their daily experiences of anti-Semitism.

I was working on a civil rights project that certainly should have had Jewish representation, but I didn’t realize it until too late. So, I can’t expect Jews to know about African-American culture and experiences of discrimination while knowing so little about their culture and experiences of anti-Semitism. But I can commit to being open, learning more, and making changes.

Ten, I developed a better understanding of Black-Jewish Relations.

I was surprised to learn we had so much in common. We both identify with the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, share Diaspora stories, and had the Scriptures used against us. Blacks were cursed because they had the mark of Cain; were cursed because they were descendants of Ham, and that curse was the basis for their enslavement. When slavery was challenged, a Biblical basis for slavery was provided, from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

Jews were said to be cursed because the blood of Jesus was on their hands and those of their descendants. That curse was the basis for the mistreatment of Jews to this day.

In the Black church, everyone from Malcolm X to Huey Newton to Rev. Jesse Jackson identified with the Exodus story and liberation. In seminary, I learned of African, Black and Latin Liberation theology. What I didn’t realize was that Rabbi Heschel was the first liberation theologian! I now have a better understanding of why Rev. King Jr. liked Rabbi Heschel, both personally and professionally. I had the opportunity to pose a question to Rabbi Heschel’s daughter, Dr. Susannah Heschel:

“There are pictures we see of your father marching with Rev. King. Are there any pictures of Rev. King marching with your father? Did Rev. King play a role in anti-Semitism protests?”

She responded, “Yes, Dr. King joined my father in speaking on many occasions to Jewish groups in support of the freedom of Soviet Jews, on behalf of the State of Israel, and much more.”

UNSPECIFIED – MARCH 13: “Leaders of the protest, holding flags, from left Bishop James Shannon, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath.” Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery, February 6, 1968. Published February 7, 1968. (Photo by Charles Del Vecchio/Washington Post/Getty Images)

I didn’t have an appreciation of how extensive Jewish participation was in the Civil Rights movement, nor the extensive Jewish involvement with NAACP branches across the country. Given this history, it seems only right that President Obama was the first president to celebrate Passover at the White House.

Moving forward together

Because of the recent acts of violence in synagogues, I felt the need to show support for the Jewish community. If I thought it would be properly understood, I would put a Jewish Lives Matter Sign in my yard. Instead, I started asking my Black clergy friends about doing a worship service in support of the Jewish community during this time of anti-Semitism. “They were there for us,” I said, “We need to be there for them.”

They all agreed. I had a date, location, and was well on my way to have commitments from the first group of clergy when I had to put things on hold because of Covid. But what I learned in the process was my fellow Black clergy had close relationships with rabbis. One minister said to me, “Ed, we could never thank them for all they have given us, after all, we (Judaism and Christianity) came from the same womb.” Like a mother of twins, you can focus on how similar or how different they are, but what you notice is a result of your focus.

I now understand the tragedy that took place at the Tree of Life synagogue really took place years before. The real tragedy was we didn’t condemn anti-Semitism, particularly the Jewish deicide charge, the first time it raised its ugly head in the writings of the church fathers. That we did not condemn the biblical rationale for anti-Semitism as heresy. That we didn’t condemn Martin Luther when he wrote the book “The Jews and Their Lies” and according to sources advocated setting synagogues on fire, destroying Jewish prayer books, forbidding rabbis from preaching, seizing Jews’ property and money, and smashing their homes. Scholars have argued the Holocaust would not have been possible without Luther’s anti-Semitic writing and teaching.

Some of Christianity’s best-known works on cults and false doctrines don’t include chapters on Nazism, which is clearly a cult, or White-Supremacy, in its various forms such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Arian Nation, Apartheid, or publications such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Therefore, after 2,000 years, Christians are still teaching their children that Jews are Christ-killers and George Soros has something to do with Jesus’s second coming.

As Christians, we can’t forget the Holocaust took place in a Christian country practicing traditional Christian values, and that neighboring Christian countries were complicit. We can’t forget lest we make the same mistake again. But it is hard to “never forget” if we’ve never learned it. Beyond the embarrassment of African-Americans uttering or adopting anti-Semitic ideas is the disappointment of them not seeing the connection between the source of systemic racism and anti-Semitism.

I must confess, I have done little to fight anti-Semitism. To be honest, I had the privilege to not know about it or address it as a problem, because it wasn’t a problem for me. That makes me complicit in what happened at Tree of Life, and for that I am sorry and must ask forgiveness.

* * *

It’s hard to imagine any good coming from such a horrifying event.

I am proposing this coming Shabbat, Christians in general, and African-American Christians in particular, attend Shabbat services in a show of solidarity and a small step toward understanding and transformation of our shared destiny.

This simple step is what started me on my own journey as an African-American Christian, toward a deeper understanding of Judaism. The best way to explain what came next is an analogy: an organ donor dying an unfortunate death, but in turn, giving life. The Tree of Life members who lost their lives gave me a new one. For that I am grateful.

I’m certain Tree of Life’s clergy and congregants are reminded daily of that tragic event, the impact it had on the synagogue, and the families of those lost. Because of COVID, I feel a great loss from not being able to worship in my temple. What it must be like to have your sacred space desecrated so violently is unimaginable to me.

Tree of Life’s rabbi Jeffrey Myers has said that, like Rev. Martin Luther King, he too has a dream, “that the Anti-Defamation League, the Black Lives Matter and the #METOO movement won’t exist anymore, because they aren’t needed.”

Let it be God’s will.

The above is adapted from a letter to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, Senior Rabbi of Tree of Life Synagogue.

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.
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