He’s about as stately a guy as you’ll meet: Tall, trim and courtly, with a full head of white hair even though he’s nearing 80; and with a soft Southern accent. That’s Birmingham, Alabama’s Tom Bradford.
A retired businessman and devout Christian, Tom was one of 13 influential Christians from the Southeast US invited to journey to Israel last November on an educational trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF). AIEF is the charitable foundation associated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a Washington-based organization dedicated to advancing the US-Israel relationship through educating Members of Congress and other influential leaders.
Tom and his fellow Birminghamian “Tank” Tankersley were the only two Alabamians on the trip. Subsequently, Tank reached out to the Birmingham Jewish Federation to invite Federation representatives to a recent lunch meeting of the National Christian Foundation/Alabama, a charitable entity that Tom spearheads.
Tank is a reader of our daily Birmingham Jewish Federation e-newsletter and he had read my recent story on friendships I’ve developed with members of Canterbury United Methodist Church as a result of two talks I gave at the church.
The focal point of the lunch gathering, held in a large meeting room at Tom’s Mountain Brook office, was his report on his recent trip. Our Federation Assistant Executive Director Daniel Odrezin and I attended. We were sure glad we did.
Tom’s talk to about 35 influential Christians was outstanding. In fact, it was one of the best Israel talks I have ever heard. He traced the history of the country going back to Biblical times, reiterated Israel’s right to the land by every standard imaginable, and highlighted Israel’s constant search for peace and willingness to make concessions to the Palestinians to achieve a settlement.
I was most moved by Tom’s personal impressions which he delivered with a passionate persuasiveness. He spoke about how much he admired the Israeli people and especially their resilience and determination. He talked emotionally about how he admires the Jewish people, the blessing we have been to the world, and the impact that our culture, intellect and achievements have had on society.
Daniel and I were quite moved and the experience motivated me to meet with Tom a few days later to hear more about his trip and to learn more about him.
It was a great visit as we sat together at a small table in his spacious office. I felt that I was in the presence of a man of tremendous faith and deep spirituality dedicated to improving the lot of others. He was interested in me and our Jewish Federation, and indicated a willingness to consider personally funding requests from our organization.
What affected me the most, however, was something he shared that happened on the trip at one of their group dinners. Tom, who told me that he tries to infuse every aspect of his life with the presence of Jesus Christ, said that as part of that process he is constantly re-evaluating his life. Thus it was at dinner with his tripmates that he said, “I have come to realize I have been anti-Semitic.”
They listened intently as he explained that he has lived much of his life in a culture and world that has deliberately excluded Jews — from growing up in the upscale suburb of Mountain Brook to fraternities at Washington & Lee University to country clubs in Birmingham.
It was profound and moving; no one in my 34 years as Birmingham Jewish Federation Executive Director had ever said anything like that to me. And now in the later stages of his life, it was clear that Tom was struggling with this. Here, I felt, was a man whose journey is far from over. He said that now, “out of a sense of duty,” he is committed to telling Israel’s story far and wide, to whomever will listen.
I gently challenged him, however. “Tom,” I said, “don’t be so hard on yourself. Maybe you were born into a culture and world that excluded Jews and that’s just the way it was. But that doesn’t automatically mean you are anti-Semitic.”
He looked at me, totally focused on what I was saying. “Tom,” I continued, “it’s like saying every white person who lived in Birmingham (a heavily segregated city) in the 1940s, 50s and 60s was a racist. Many were not; they were just living in a culture where racism prevailed.”
I felt in that moment I had comforted this deeply introspective man; perhaps giving him a new way to think about what clearly has become a moral and religious burden. We didn’t talk much beyond that. Coincidentally he had two AIPAC people, who were in town, waiting to see him.
He graciously concluded our meeting by encouraging me to reach out to him again. He said next time he’d like to come over to our Federation and learn more about what we do. That would be wonderful, I said.
It would be.