The Yiddish reads: אין חודש פעברואַר ווערט געפייערט ביי אונדז אין לאַנד די וואָך פון ברידערלעכקייט In khudsh februar vert gefeyert bey aundz in land di vokh fun briderlekhkeyt. Which in English means: “In February, we celebrate the week of brotherhood in our country.” “Yungvarg”Magazine (1949) – This is a cartoon titled “Briderlekhkeyt (Brotherhood),” from the Yiddish youth magazine of the International Workers Order (IWO). In this cartoon a child insists: “What’s the difference what nationality he is – HE CAN PITCH!”
Did you know it’s National Brotherhood Week? Actually, it should be the time for observance of national brotherhood week. It used to be recognized and celebrated as such… until it was discontinued a few decades ago in the 1980s. Though I am among those who contend that we need to bring it back!
In 1934 an organization known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews – which was an inter-faith and inter-cultural organization founded in 1927 to “bring diverse people together to address interfaith divisions” – they came up with the idea for Brotherhood Week.
The NCCJ was an organization founded back in 1927 in response the racial nationalism that was rising up in the country, and specifically to respond to the anti-Catholic religious bigotry which at that time had injected itself into the national politics when Catholic politician Al Smith was running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party.
In 1927, The New York Times reported on the founding of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, represented by community leaders from different faiths including US Supreme Court Chief Justices of the United States Charles Evans Hughes, a Catholic; and Associate Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, a Jew; as well as the “mother of social work” Jane Addams. Their members were committed to bringing diverse people together to address interfaith divisions, race relations, and social and economic barriers between people of different faiths, cultures, and ethnicities.
And for decades they organization would continue to partner Jews and Christians in both public policy and inter-community bridge building.
The rise of Brotherhood Week would be because of the work of three of their spokesmen known as “The Tolerance Trio” – Father John Elliot Ross, Protestant minister Dr. Everett Ross Clinchy, and Rabbi Morris Samuel Lazaron. In 1933 they traveled across the country to rally people together and calling on people everywhere to embrace intergroup understanding. They traveled over 9,000 miles on their mission of brotherhood, and visited with 129 audiences across the nation.
The spirit of all this caught wind of the administration of President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt.
The next year in 1934, the president made an official declaration for “National Brotherhood Week.” Which was to be celebrated towards the end of the month of February; in the 1930s it seems to have been the third week of the month, and by the 1940s it seems to have been celebrated in the fourth week of the month (February 19-28th).
Brotherhood Week (February 19th to 28th, 1943) declaration, this year’s statement in the context of the conflict of World War II.
In declaration of this observance President Roosevelt was declared its first Honorary Chairman of National Brotherhood Week. And the NCCJ would continue to sponsor it for over four decades.
However, since the Ronald Regan administration, there has not been any declaration for Brotherhood Week. We have not been able to look to our leaders to set even one week aside to focus on promoting brotherhood in our country, not for the past three decades. And we are all the worse off for it.
Indeed much racial and religious intolerance has injected into politics in recent years. As nationalism and bigotry again raised their ugly heads. We need such a week of focusing on brotherhood and sisterhood in our communities.
I also believe that we desperately need to revive partnerships after the model of the National Conference of Christians and Jews once again.
The NCCJ did not entirely disappear. Though not long after Brotherhood Week came to an end they became re-branded as the National Conference for Community and Justice, in the early 1990s. Keeping the acronym but updating their branding and reconstituted their mission to doing community work “dedicated to fighting bias, bigotry and racism in America.”
ANYTOWN USA Youth Camps
Though the NCCJ newly re-branded themselves in the 1990s, their work in communities had already been the bread and butter of the work of the NCCJ for decades.
For instance, what is often under-appreciated is the crucial work which the NCCJ did working with youth in Los Angeles.
In 1956 they created ANYTOWN USA, a diversity and human rights camp which brought youth together from various parts of the city. ANYTOWN was originally created by the NCCJ-Los Angeles chapter to help Los Angeles area schools address desegregation; becoming the experts in providing essential anti-bias training.
Though I am told by my friend Miguel Duran, a former veterano gang leader in Boyle Heights turned expert in gang intervention, that the NCCJ would also play an important role in addressing the “anti-social behavior” we know as gang violence. It would bring cholos from East Los Angeles, black gang members from South Central, and even ruffian white kids from Beverly Hills; all to focus overcoming social barriers and empowering youth leadership skills.
I was once told by Jack Serna, who worked closely with Duran in those years, that this all had a real impact in the world. That many of these kids came to camp from totally different life experiences, though by the end the “kids went home as friends…. and sometimes back in the streets a fight would be brewing and one of those kids would step forward and greet a friend from the trip and both gangs would stand down.”
ANYTOWN by all measures was a great success. So much so that it was eventually replicated first in Arizona, and then in over 64 cities and regions across the country.
According to Duran, ANYTOWN USA would have great successes through their diversity camps from the 1950s and early-1960s. Though their work would start to become thwarted and challenged by Los Angeles civic leaders who fearfully insisted that youth needed to be kept in their own communities after the explosions of the 1965 Watts Riots (meaning they wanted youth of color to stay in their own neighborhoods); and so they at that time turned against such programs based on new social theories which rejected the benefits of group interventions.
However, the program would continue to be modeled, and still exists in other cities across the country.
So what is the legacy of the NCCJ today?
In 2005 the NCCJ national organization was dissolved, however some of their regional offices continued to operate independently, under names which are more reflective of their regional identity.
In 1967 Tom Lehrer of piano and satire song fame in the 1950s and 60s recorded a song called, “National Brotherhood Week.” A song which People Magazinecalled, “perhaps one of the most lacerating and hilariously trenchant pieces of musical satire ever… Lehrer’s deft skewering of the idea of a week established to promote unity in a country where the KKK was still lynching people was decades ahead of its time and earned him as many detractors as it did fans.” Tom Lehrer stopped performing in the US in the 1960s, and later became a popular teacher of musical theater and mathematics at UC Santa Cruz. He is also often credited as being the inventor of the Jell-O shot cocktail.
Faith communities of Los Angeles come together in resistance after the Trump election
Shmu and Squared at the I Am America Vigil at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, on this rainy day we packed into the parsh church and sat on the floor with the other people coming in to be part of this time of inspiration and renewal.
On Sunday morning the people of the city of Los Angeles came together for an interfaith vigil at Dolores Mission Catholic Church in our working-class neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Hundreds of people came out and lined the pews, the walkways, floors and spilled out the door of the church despite the cold rain pouring outside.
People of all backgrounds came out this day to unite and join our voices as one, to find strength in faith and in each other, to overcome the fear that has gripped us in the post-election season. To unite as one as we see the rise of Trump and racial nationalism threatening the security of us all. We came together – Latino, African-American, Japanese, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and LGBTQ – to stand united. Standing with all our brothers and sisters who feel threatened.
This event was organized by LA Voice – a local interfaith and community based organization. Dedicated to giving voice to all people of faith and advancing the pursuit of dignity for those in greatest need in our community. Co-sponsoring and in attendance at this event were the people of:
As we joined in prayer and song, gave testimony and spoke of resistance, we also committed to doing more than just cry out. We committed to organizing together as one people.
As I came in out of the rain dripping eves and slipped in through the crowd I heard the words of Deacon Jason Welles of the Dolores Mission Parish: “We are here today to lament, and to share our lamentations together. We are here together to form solidarity. We are in solidarity to encourage each other and to ignite a new work. Because our work did not end of November 8th, our work begins now in solidarity.”
This event was also joining in solidarity with other communities across the nation who were also holding #IAmAmerica rallies in their hometown.
Haru Kuromiy spoke of her memories as a 12 year old girl of being interred with he family at Manzanar during the detention of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. She spoke in “opposition to the proposal to register American Muslims. I do not want to see any community suffer like we did.” During this meeting people of all faiths and backgrounds vowed to in the face of Muslim registry, we will ourselves register as Muslims.
As I looked across the crowd I was touched by the sight of people I know from across the city, who instinctively came out to join in solidarity. Though I was even more deeply moved to see walls of people who I have never seen in my neighborhood before, all coming out to give and find strength in each other.
In his article Gordon, an expert on leftist organzing, described this event as filled with “courageous, militant speeches and songs.” I wouldn’t say “militant,” but maybe “radical.” And even then the only thing radical about this event was that it drew people together from across all ethnic and religious lines to stand together against injustice; much like the early political organizing of Boyle Heights from the 1930s through the 1950s. Congregates committing to unite as one people and as part of a single goal, to protect the rights of each person in America. And vowing to neither stand alone nor leave each other alone in the struggle. Something that has been so lost for almost two generations, that it may again seems radical at this point in history.
However, Gordon did a great job on detailing this event journalistically.
So I just want to take a few moments to point out what really touched me and what I felt as member of this very community of Boyle Heights.
Crouched on the floor right next to us was Craig Taubman, Jewish sing-songwriter and founder of the Pico Union Project, who I have worked with for the past year in Pico Union. I was so surprised and glad to see his presence in my own backyard.
When LA Voice had begun to plan the event they had first considered using the fascilities of the Pico Union Project (the oldest standing synagogue in Los Angeles) and the Breed Street Shul (the historic “Queen of the Shuls in Boyle Heights), both located in historically significant, multi-ethnic, immigrant communities. Before choosing Dolores Mission, which would normally accommodate a larger crowd, had it not been for the rain.
As we embraced Craig asked, “Hey, I’m in your hood right?”
I responded, “Yeah. Actually my family was one of the first Mexican land owning families here in the Flats. My great-great-grandparents had their market at the end of this block, at First and Gless, when this neighborhood was still known as Russian Flats. I’ll tell you the truth though, I’ve never in my lifetime seen this diverse of a crowd coming together here in this neighborhood before. This is inspiring!”
Shortly after Craig would be called out of the crowd. He would get the congregation engaged with asking: “How do you say love in Spanish? Amor. How do you say love in Hebrew? Ahavah. How do you say love in Russian? Just checking!” Long had the Russian community left the area and our Mexican families taken root, but he just had to check to make sure no one was left out.
And in the way that only Craig can do, he got the crowd joining in song and motion to the words: “We can build this world with love.” Leaving the crowd glowing in inspiration.
Rabbi Ron Stern from Stephen S. Wise Temple addressed the crowd next. Gordon notes that Stern took to the podium: “remarking about ‘a lot of Hebrew being spoken in Boyle Heights,’ a reference to the fact that this area was at one time the largest Jewish community west of Chicago, and the epicenter of much social activism. He taught the audience the importance of the line from Deuteronomy, ‘Tsedek tsedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ ‘We’ve always said that,’ as he recalled not just Jewish history but the history of all oppressed people. ‘We’ve picked ourselves up, buried our dead if we had to, and we’ve said Tsedek tsedek tirdof. We will not stop. History tells us we cannot give up. We want to make sure that the world we dream of is the world we will live in.’”
I’ll tell you the truth. Rabbi Stern’s astonishment at hearing Hebrew words being spoken in Boyle Heights that day was none less than my own. And it was really moving to me. Though my amazement was more related to seeing people from the Jewish community coming out to be more that just tourists of their grandparents history, but to actually be part of a living movement and to join in direct social action in the present; and that was something I had never experienced like this before in this neighborhood.
This neighborhood of Boyle Heights is one of Los Angeles’ most historic immigrant communities. And as a large immigrant community of mostly Mexican-Americans today, this community is feeling even more vulnerable and also fearful in the wake of this election.
Though this event had deep impact in that it brought to the forefront the struggles of so many of our other neighbors and friends we need to be mindful to support in the face of Trump’s demagoguery.
Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América.
People like Marta Galadery, from La Asociación Latina Musulmana de América. As a convert to Islam, who helped found the association decades ago to find fellowship among other Latina Muslim women. I’m glad that she was there to speak up for Latina Muslim community, which is most vulnerable in that many people in our community don’t even know they even exist. It was important to hear from her. She spoke of finding herself in fear of discrimination on two fronts, as Latina and as a Muslim. Addressing the crowd she asked and asserted, “How are we all together going to help each other?… G-d has the last word, but we have to act.”
And she’s right we as people of faith and social action we need to act. And we need to consider how we are going to do it, and do it together.
And that was really the important thing about this event, it was all about doing it together as one people.
Rahuldeepgill of the local Sikh community addressed the crowd. Talking about how in his tradition, they had faced the rise of tyrants and persecution. And in the early days their leaders were even eventually put to death for standing up for the rights of others.
Rahuldeepgill passionately stated, “But that is the lesson of my tradition. We take it for one another. The days of standing up for ourselves are long gone. The days of standing up for each other are our future. We need to continue to act.” He words met with cheering and thunderous applause.
He made an even deeper point. That many “confused people” tell him that in the wake of hate crimes that turban wearing Sikhs should go out of their way to let people know that they are not Muslim. So as not be the victims of mis-direct violence, but that it isn’t right. We are in it together.
Preacher André Scott also spoke, saying “Donald Trump, if you make us rally together. G-d bless Donald Trump!” Scott was a former gang banger and also faced the corrections systems, and now ministers to those who are also coming out of those hardships.
Though what gave me the chills was to hear Brother Scott say these words I’ve been waiting for any community leader to have the courage to say: “It’s not about black power, or any of that anymore. It’s about us power!”
That needed to be said. Especially here and now.
One of the realities is that this most vulnerable neighborhood of Boyle Heights has long felt isolation because of prejudice and injustice, but also because it has long been obsessed with simular “brown power.” A neighborhood which has all but forgotten their rich history of inter-cultural social and political activism, and has long been gripped in sole pursuit of our own ethnic and nationalistic self-interests ever since the Chicano rights movement.
The fact is that we can’t counter the rise of the white nationalism as seen in this election with any other form of racial nationalism. We cant counter white power with brown power. In fact it is plainly obvious that all racial nationalism only feeds into the likes of racial separatism and exclusivity. That all needs to end.
So I now repeat what needs to be stated, what is long overdue to be said: It’s not about brown power. Those days are over. It’s about us power now!
And that was the power of that event, to me. That on that day we came together to commit to stand as one. We have risen above self-interest and divisiveness. Above religious, racial and nationalist exclusivity. Not about brown power or black power anymore, but about us power. We stand united.
From the front of the church, a view of the crowd that packed in to the parish church.
Facing the back, from my vantage point on the floor of the church. Individualsd from the audience sharing with the crowd.
One thing that the locals and even the organizers of the event didn’t know was that they vigil they were having that day mirrored another monumental event in Boyle Heights history, which had taken place almost 78 years ago to the day on November 22, 1938. When Los Angeles groups organized a parade protesting the Nazi’s rise to power and their wave of violence against Jews in the events of Kristallnacht. And to raise their voices on behalf of Jewish refugees, who were being denied entrance by the US and the world powers.
On that night came together people Jewish and non-Jewish, brown and white, black and Asian, adult and children; to show support and stand in solidarity with the Jews who were facing Nazism not just in Europe, but also in Los Angeles.
I think in this event I got a prevision of that experience. It’s now up to us to continue to come together to make our actions into a movement, in our days and in our time.
Check out these videos of the event, posted on Facebook by the Dolores Mission. They capture about the first two hours of the event.
Some of my favorite footage is from when Pastor Delonte Gholston of New City Church of Los Angeles address the crowd and lead us in songs of resistance. I was deeply moved by his song based on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, “Night cannot turn back the night, only light.” That is also the right message for these darkening times. I’ve had this inspirational melody stuck in my head ever since.
The story of the new menorah from an old Jewish shop founded on the eastside
The joy of the holidays are found in that warmth we get from remembering holidays past, and the magic of the season is found in how we rekindle these memories anew.
During the winter months the cultural and religious traditions of the area seem to shine the brightest. When during the winter months people of our various cultures display their festive ways to bring brightness to the darkest time of the year. When the days and short and the night are longest, the spirit inside of us just longs to brighten up the darkness.
Catholics brighten up these winter nights in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights with las posadas(processions) and bright nativities; from Christmas time and through Three Kings Day. For Catholics celebrations with candles begins at this time and continues though Día De La Candelaria, or Candlemas on February 2. Protestants as well, with their stirring candlelit Christmas vigils. And our Armenian neighbors too, with their celebrations of the eastern orthodox Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany also on January 6th; when their churches will light lamps and the faithful will hold candles according to their ancient custom, symbolic of the presence of the holy spirit in their lives (yes, we even have an Armenian Catholic church in the area as well!).
These are commonly shared themes in many faith traditions.
And the holidays are nothing if not about tradition! If you haven’t noticed, I’m a pretty old school cat. So I get a lot of joy out of keeping the old traditions alive.
One of the ways I have been connecting to our old school Jewish heritage of the area over the past few years has been to light old classic style olive oil Chanukah lights with my friends in the community of Boyle Heights. To share the celebration of the miracle of the oil lamps – commemorating when in ancient times Jewish rebels recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, relighting the Menorah’s sacred oil lights that were miraculously sustained for eight days on one day’s oil, until more sacred oil could be made.
This is a bright celebration of culture and faith, overcoming imperialism and hegemony. And as the haftarah reading from the prophets for this holiday reminds us: “Not by might, nor by power but by My spirit says the L-rd of hosts.” (Zechariah 4:6); this is a festival when we celebrate the power of spirit over militaristic might.
This is a message many of us around here can identify with culturally, if not religiously. Among my friends it has been a time to share Jewish traditional holiday treats and stories of our warmest memories of years gone by, sometimes joined by a few local Jews who grew up in the area and who are still found in these parts.
This year we were intent on lighting the Chanukah lights up on top of the Sixth Street Bridge for the last time, before the bridge comes down. As the viaduct is set for demolition over the next few weeks. Ordinary I do havdalah on the bridge, so figured I could pull it off with Chanukah lights. So I brought with me a most beautiful, silvery chanukiah to light – a traditional Chanukah menorah, and lit it on the Boyle Heights side of the bridge just east of the river.
Maybe you had seen me and my friends out there in the first few nights of the festival (before the rain came in), lighting the menorah in view of the bright Los Angeles skyline:
In previous years, I have brought travel sized menorahs and done guerrilla-style lightings around town. Though last year I had promised that I would buy a new, big boy’s sized menorah, to add some beauty to the mitzvah of lighting with olive oil lamps; one which is reminiscent of what many Jewish families of the area would have used in the classic days of the Yiddish eastside.
The question is, where do you find such a thing around here? Are there any Jewish bookstores or Judaica shops in the area? Aside from the small gift-shops at our local synagogues, where does a local find their religious Jewish items?
One of my favorite shops is Solomon’s Judaica and Bookstore, on Fairfax Ave. in mid-city, but was originally founded right here in Boyle Heights. In fact, I often find myself buying from shops off Fairfax which used to be located right in our own eastside community when Boyle Heights was then the heart of the LA Jewish community!
Solomon’s was founded in Boyle Heights almost 80 years ago, operating a shop on Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar E. Chavez Ave.) just a couple of doors down from the original location of Canter’s Deli. They were among the businesses which later relocated to the Fairfax with the mass migration of Jewish families heading that way some 70 years ago.
Today as both Boyle Heights and Fairfax are once again going through tremendous changes which seem to be jeopardizing the classic and cultural character of these neighborhoods, it’s nice to know that some family run businesses like these are somehow managing to remain in loving service to our changing communities.
After having a wonderful time lighting the new menorah on the old Sixth Street Bridge in it’s final days, people keep asking where I’m going to do a public lighting for Chanukah next year.
The suggestion I really like the most is that maybe next year we should do a public lighting off of old Brooklyn Ave. itself, where the story all started. To really bring this cultural history which we share together completely full-circle!
Happy holidays and a blessed new year to one and all!
Some nice shots of the Chanukah menorah from the LA eastside:
Getting off the bus, and on to the streets. A metaphor for inter-community engagement.
The former “Congregation Tiferes Jacob – Congregation Talmud Torah.” 59th and Brentwood, just east of Broadaway.
The religious and cultural history of our lesser known neighborhoods always intrigues me. I learn something new everyday. And I see amazing sights nearly everyday. However, what I have learned the most has come not from tour bus excursions. It’s from getting off the public buses, and by making my friends pull over to see something usual which catches my eye.
A few days ago as I was taking the express bus north towards Downtown Los Angeles I found myself staring over the rooftops before Slauson Avenue. Looking for the landmark which has kept me intrigued for a while now. Until I spot it. And as I exit the bus at Slauson Metro Station – disembarking at the station right in the middle of the 110-freeway – I keep my eyes on this almost gleaming beacon.
Just east of the 110-freeway, beyond the rows of speeding freeway traffic in front of me, and down in a residential community below, I can clearly see this great building with two blue copulas, one bearing a Star of David and the other a Christian cross.
After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. Following leads from old city directories and oral histories.
So I have spent the past couple weeks returning to the site. Talking to people in the neighborhood, to get to know the history of the area. Also collected some pictures and video of the local sites. This day, my unplanned stop is spurred on by pure impulse and curiosity.
This object of my curiosity is just a couple of blocks away, which is easily walkable. So I descend the freeway’s Metro station platform, making my way over to Broadway.
Here in this area right here off of Broadway, there are a lot of churches right on this thoroughfare. Some of these house of worship are really impressive, like the Greater New Canaan Church of G-d in Christ – just a block over on Brentwood Street, she’s a real beauty!
Though most of the churches here are more humble – being just converted storefronts and former commercial buildings. Small make shift congregations, as it seems to have been in this area since its earliest days.
Though churches of today are more dense. Several of them are directly next door to each other, all smashed up together on the very same corner in some cases. Side-by-side storefront churches, reflective of the diversity and divergence in religious thought found in fundamentalist sectarianism common to the area.
Just at the corner of 59th and Broadway alone, there are two interesting churches. They are just in eyesight of an old synagogue.
The first is the very dispensationally named Concilio de Iglesias Pentecostales “La Nueva Jerusalem (sic).” Which seems to have been a African-American church which has more recently changed their signage to Spanish, and which is now seemingly renting back space from their own meetings from the Spanish congregation. A striking example of the more recent demographic changes in the area.
Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish elements and symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).
It’s the second church – the one right next to it – which really caught my eye. “Iglesia Cristian ‘El Dios de Santidad.‘” A fundamentalist holiness church. More precisely, my attention was grabbed by their proudly placed sign emblazoned with a Star of David, that is morphed with a menorah.
Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).
Many of these churches are outgrowths of church-splits over such doctrinal differences dividing them. This well positioned signage here therefore serves as a notice and warning for people entering the door of this congregation’s firm doctrinal stance.
This artifact revealing that the range of religious thought and questioning in this area is more nuanced than many mainstream white people expect.
Now I notice that the first church, “Nueva Jerusalem” Pentecostal Church, they had a person standing in the doorway. A young black gentleman holding religious tracts and doing some street preaching.
So I ask him if he has lived in the area long. As this has historically been known as a black neighborhood for many years, I ask if his family might have a bit more historical connections to the area than the people I’ve been talking to so far.
I begin relating to him that I’ve been speaking to a lot of the Spanish-speaking residents lately, but that most tell me they are quite recent immigrants. Many of them being central-American families – may of them from Guatemala – who tell me they don’t have enough time living in the area to know the history. Families telling me if I learn the history here, to come back and share the story with them!
The young man says that he’s lived I the area his entire life. And says he knows a bit of the history, which other locals have related to him. Saying that he might be able to help.
As I lift my hand and gesture towards the old building with a Star of David just a block away he quickly blurts out, “Oh, that used to be an old synagogue! It started out way back in the day as a Jewish temple. Today it’s a Baptist church. It’s really old and awesome looking on the inside!”
Without me even doing so much as making a suggestion as to what the site used to be, he instead begins to tell me the story of the site. Telling me in brief how the church purchased the old synagogue building in the 1950s, and then later remodeled it in the 1960s.
He insists with excitement, “You really need to visit on Sunday, to see the inside and talk to the pastor.” Saying that he had once been given a tour and told the history by the church pastor.
I tell him that I find this all fascinating. And that I’d love to hear about the old Jewish history of the area.
And then I mention that for me to hear all this from a non-Jewish person really is even more fascinating. As the Jewish community really seems to be unaware that this site is here and seems to have forgotten the history of this community.
I relate to him that the very thought of this area once being home to a sizable working-class Jewish community really touches something within me, both as a Jewish person and as an ethnic person of color. And that witnessing it, even from the outside, really moves me. Explaining how I’ve been by several times recently with other Jewish friends of mine.
When he hears I’m Jewish his ears perk up. He then asks me: “Have you ever considered Christianity?” Of course, he’s a street preacher so this response does not come as a surprise.
I respond with the same confidence he’s showing in the marketplace of faith: “I do consider it quite often, but honestly, I more often discuss the topic with people who are converted from Christianity to Judaism. And with inter-faith families who are exploring faith.” And I begin to tell him how much of my work is related to helping a diverse spectrum of people return to their historic Jewish faith. And also teaching Judaism to new converts, who are seeking out the Jewish faith.
The guys jaw drops. Surely, he’s never received this answer from someone before! He’s never gotten a response this chutzpadik. So for a while he was just stunned and listening. But I could see that he began to become intrigued hearing of the diversity of race, nationality, language and cultural expression in Judaism. Something he said he had never heard of or considered before.
I tell him how I appreciate the philosophy and teachings of Christianity. And though I love to talk about this faith, I don’t believe it is the path for me. And begin to remind him that the bible says Jews are to be true to our own G-d and not follow after the gods our ancestors did not know. (Deuteronomy 13) That it’s important for me to be faithful and true to the Torah of my G-d, which the scriptures call an eternal covenant between the Divine and the Jewish people. (Genesis 17:7)
He then related to me that he knew a few Jewish people. And that he had several Jewish coworkers. But that his impression of them and their families, was that they didn’t know much about the bible. And so they didn’t really seem Jewish enough to him, as far as he could see. Having a disconnect in his mind between his Jewish acquaintances, and what he understood Jews to be from his reading of the bible.
And he was further troubled and unable to understand how less than pious people could still consider themselves Jewish.
So I took a moment to hear him out. And to consider where he was coming from. In this case, standing literally in the doorway of a “holiness” church – a church which fundamentally believes that even most Christians aren’t really “saved” from hell, because they believe they are lax regarding sin. A group which especially preaches against people who drink, smoke, or even those who listen to secular music. This group has especially become fixated with castigating gays and lesbians in more recent years.
For these people, sin is all around. And to give in to it, means loosing your salvation and place in heaven. This is an old school doctrinal position, which is still quite common in the hood.
So I begin to speak to him one-on-one as a person of faith doing outreach in the inner city. To show him that I both appreciate his beliefs, and truly believe that the power of faith needs to be shared with a society so badly in need of hope. But that I believe we need to transform the way we communicate our faith to people.
And for a while, I begin to make the case that our relationship with our faith and G-d is not an all-or-nothing affair. And that to have this type relationship with G-d is unhealthy, as it would be in any relationship.
I relate to him how I have always been taught by my rabbis that the Jewish faith is not all-or-nothing, it is choosing to embrace holiness one mitzvah at a time. Making inspired and righteous choices, one little act of goodness at a time.
For a while I begin to talk about the realities of society, and our very inner city communities here. Pointing out that there are so many people in need of faith in their lives. Especially here, where life is so very hard for many. And yet for some reason when people can’t live up to some standard of perfection, they are rejected. Shunned and tossed out of their faith communities.
I begin to relate to him the stories I hear from people in these neighborhoods, how many faithful and soulful people feel rejected by their religion. How many who cannot live up to such high ideals are often ejected into a world with no moral guidance. Sent lost and stumbling into an underworld of real danger.
I tell him that many religious people always complain how so many have no moral compass, when we tend to be the very ones taking it away from people and sending them wandering into a wilderness of doubt.
I began to speak to him about my passion for faith and righteousness. And that I feel we need to open the doors wide, to welcome people back to reclaim their spiritual core. And to even rediscover faith anew.
And from there we begin to talk about religion and the bible for about the next hour-and-a-half. For some time him asking questions, and me responding with patient answers. To which he responds with signs of agreement and nods, to his noticeable surprise and delight.
Having heard me mention righteousness and holiness before, he says that he notices that I use these words differently than he’s ever heard before. So I spent some time talking with him about demystifying words of the bible, and understanding them by their clear and obvious meaning.
How righteous is when people decide to do the right thing, not if they believe the right thing. How righteousness is when we do right by G-d and man. As that is the true and literal meaning of righteousness.
And how holiness is not attaining some sense of ethereal perfection. But how kedusha – holiness as described in the Torah – is when something is set-aside for a divine purpose. When we take something that is mundane and ordinary, and we do something extraordinary with it.
I express how I feel it’s very important to understand that when the words of the bible are taken at face value, they call us to do right by others (which is righteousness) and to infuse spiritual inspiration into the ordinary things we encounter in our world (which is holiness).
However, there was one thing which still left him wondering. So he ventured to ask me, “What about salvation? Do you believe you are saved? What about leading people to salvation?”
So I ask him to really consider that word again. To really think about what that word means. To consider the words of the bible and contextualize its meaning. How salvation means saving people from harm and danger.
I ask him to consider how the Jewish people from the time of the bible until present have been troubled by so many hardships. Suffering enslavement, persecution, war, occupation, and near-annihilation; the Jewish people have always understood salvation as being saved from these calamities. For this is the word’s true meaning, and my people’s true reality as Jews.
Then I begin to relate to him in-depth about how my inner city experience has also reinforced this clear view of what salvation is for me. As a person of color, from a struggling working-class community.
As I see the need and challenges in our urban communities, I cannot help but be reminded of what salvation means. As salvation literally means saving, helping and rescuing people from their disparity. Salvation from sword (violence), plague (disease), famine (hunger) and woe (grief, sorrow, sadness).
I contented that leading people to salvation is not helping people attain some abstract religious and philosophical ascent. Insisting that is something which most of the common man here doesn’t really have the luxury to entertain and worry about anyhow. The people of these communities here need saving from real life troubles.
I begin to tell him how we all need to get back to the basics of faith and religion. And begin to remember salvation is in the true sense, and not just as a metaphor.
I see him continuing to nod his head in agreement. Smiling and laughing as I describe my faith in my own very urban and colorful fashion.
Then we get back to talking about people reclaiming their roots and about fostering communal interconnectivity. And about how exploring this history here can help us have more appreciation for the spirit of our historical working-class communities. Discussing my desire to uncover our shared history as a multicultural Los Angeles. With him agreeing that there is an important story to tell here in this community.
The gentleman then tells with excitement that he hopes I will return to see the inside of the old synagogue soon. Asking for my business card. so he could pass it on to the ministers of the church which owns the building.
And saying that he also wished to keep in touch, to talk again sometime. Before shaking my hand heartily, as I departed and continued on my way to explore the site.
One of the things that I could not help but be shaken from this interactions, is the fact that the story of Judaism is being told here. It’s just that so far we aren’t being part of that discussion.
Now all I need is more people to be willing to get off the bus with me. To be continued….