I stood before a class of high school students in a rural town about an hour away from suburban Minneapolis.
“Please raise your hand if I am the first Jew you’ve ever met.”
One by one, at least half of the kids raised their hands.
Next question: “Who here plays sports?”
Nearly every hand went up.
“Does anyone strive for second place in their sport?”
Every hand went down.
I smiled at them. “Well, today I am striving for second place. I hope that when I’m done speaking I will be your second-favorite Jew.”
Slowly it dawned on the all-Christian class what I meant.
With that, I began a presentation that I have given hundreds of times. I speak as a fellow Minnesotan, a neighbor, who has come to class to explain what Jewish life is like.
These presentations are mission critical work for the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas. I co-direct the JCRC Speakers Bureau, which began in 2003. Our volunteers speak to thousands of people every year.
Recent bomb threats against scores of JCCs, desecration of Jewish gravestones, and more require us to combat anti-Semitism with enhanced security and close cooperation with law enforcement. But these steps must operate in tandem with ongoing efforts to reach out to our fellow citizens. Not only now, when we are alarmed. We should be taking positive, pro-active steps as a matter of course. That means acquainting people with Judaism, a religion they may know little about.
It means telling our story as a people and as a faith.
That is why I — and the rest of the Bureau — gladly hit the road at dawn to travel to schools throughout the Twin Cities and beyond.
Pope John Paul II praised Jews as “our elder brothers in the faith of Abraham.” By anchoring Judaism in history as the oldest of the monotheistic faiths, students begin to see what we share. The Jewishness of Jesus comes as an ‘aha moment’ for many Christian students. Muslim students recognize at once the similarity in our dietary laws. They hear echoes of the Arabic zakat in the Hebrew tzedakah.
The presentation is no dry recitation of theological principles. Rather, it is an engaging explanation of Jewish values, beliefs and rituals, and how they play out in our everyday lives.
Students learn of Israel’s central role as our ancient and modern Jewish homeland. The land of the Bible, the place where the Jewish story began. A land that today is a thriving democracy and home to over half of the world’s Jews. A place where Jews live as part of the majority culture. How do I drive that point home? By showing them a picture I took of a Coke bottle, with ‘Chag Sameach’ printed on the side in Hebrew. As I tell them, in Israel even the Coke bottle is celebrating my holidays.
Personal anecdotes make the information relatable and memorable. I don’t only tell them about Shabbat, I show them. On the screen behind me are enormous photos of our family at Shabbat dinner. The challah cover, kiddush cup, and candlesticks in the photos are the very ones I pass around for them to look at.
They see how Judaism plays a central role in lifecycle events, using my own children as examples. The child photographed reading Torah grows into the bride or groom signing a ketuba. That bride and groom become parents, holding a baby at brit milah or a baby naming.
Kids are fascinated by the Hebrew Tanach and prayerbook I bring (“the books are backwards!”). They love to hear an authentic Hebrew prayer chanted for them. They learn how Jews engage with text by trying it out for themselves. Working in small groups, I ask them to grapple with the meaning behind Leviticus 19:14: “Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.”
Students know that they are free to ask me anything…and they do. I welcome questions on sensitive topics, such as the Shoah, anti-Semitism, or the Jewish view of Jesus. And in the end, I have a question for them: What did you learn today? As class concludes, I stand by the door as the kids file out. Each student has to tell me one new thing that he or she learned.
You can’t imagine how many times a student will look me straight in the eye and offer a heartfelt thank you along with their answer.
I can’t imagine a higher or better use of my time.
Every Jewish community has people with the warmth, knowledge, and talent to do this work.
We have a compelling story to tell. Let’s get busy telling it.