Reflections on the Tree of Life Synagogue and the Healing of the World

Until recently, my wife, Jennelle, worked as clergy assistant for a local Jewish congregation, Temple Beth Zion (TBZ), here in Western New York. It seemed a good fit. Jennelle understands the needs of clergy. She being the spouse of a United Methodist minister albeit one on disability leave at the moment. So, it was no surprise to see her thrive in this role. She enjoyed her work and made many friendships. In fact, we both built bonds of friendship among our friends at TBZ. Like us, I believe, they are kind, caring, and loving people. Great people of deep faith.

Moreover, they were welcoming. They were welcoming not just of Jennelle, though, they were welcoming of me. Due to my increased limitations, I would often tag along when Jennelle went to work. I could be seen sitting at a table in front of the entrance way on many days; something I was quite self-conscious about. After all, Bring Your Spouse to Work Days, are not normal, regular practice at most places.

Still, they were welcoming of this stranger in their midst and, for the record, they never made me feel self-conscious even if those ideas invaded my own mind. Quite the opposite, actually. I would grow to tell my friends there, “We love it here.” We grew to love them. We attended services on occasion including many family celebrations. We were part of them. I am part of them. We are one.

When Jennelle decided to leave her employment there, regrettably largely brought on by the continuing care needs of my disability, it was an extremely difficult decision. She is happy and doing well in her current job, Jennelle is great at adapting, but we both knew we’d miss our friends. I even commented as Jennelle’s time of employment at TBZ neared its conclusion, “I wish we could have dual citizenship.”

That’s part of my story too. I’ve always been a sort of searching theologian. I’m a connector. I’m a Christian because that is how I found God’s love. I’m a connector because I believe that love is something we all share and deserve no matter who we are or what we believe. I’m an inclusionist. Besides, Jesus was himself a Jew.

This in no way implies coopting of another’s religion by the way. I’m not ok with that. In fact, I went out of my way to tell my friends at TBZ as they shared their faith with me, “I want to learn about your faith tradition without superimposing my own faith tradition lens as best as I can.” Something I acknowledge doing imperfectly. I am who I am, after all, complete with all my experiences and understandings. However, I did try.

What I found is a deep and rich faith; just as I had found deeply loving friends. I found a faith connected to life. In fact, based on my experience, they sit amidst the questions of life much better than we of the Christian tradition. This is no slight. I’m one of you. It just seems that we, too often, want to hurry past the tensions and struggles of life claiming, “We have the answer,” when we might do better wrestling with life’s questions. I think that’s what faith is about.

Some of the most meaningful services I have attended have been at TBZ. One that sticks out in my mind was from Yom Kippur service 2017. In the message, Rabbi Adam Scheldt wrestled with life’s questions returning repeatedly to a tenet of his faith by repeating the phrase, “Through it all, the sky was still there.” I’ve come to rely on this words increasingly in our troubled times.

So, when I read news of the recent Pittsburgh synagogue killings, I thought of my friends immediately. Frankly, I’ll tell you, I am angry and afraid and I’m angry that I’m angry and afraid. I’m afraid for them, my family, myself, our country, and our world. It could have just as easily been them, my wife, my 12 year old daughter, or me. It could have been anyone.

It wasn’t anyone, though, it was these people. I hope you’ll read this list and say their names, uncomfortable as it is to do so.

Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger.

These are their names. These are the people murdered as they came together to worship; their lives taken as a result of violence, hate, and exclusion.

I’ve repeated their names often adding my own name to the list. What if it was me, you, or someone you love? Would that be enough for you to call for change?

Since I’m here, I have a choice. I have a choice that impacts and includes every area of my life. This isn’t a game. These are people. Say their names and think it over. Oh, how I hope you will join me in this endeavor.

I have a choice to be paralyzed and/or consumed by fear and anger or I can say, “Enough!” and make choices that lead to love and inclusion of all people. These choices are before me every day. I can call for these better choices for myself, others, our leaders, and our world. You have these choices too. I pray you will not make them lightly and without considering the people impacted by each choice before you. It’s not easy but maybe wrestling with the questions of life isn’t supposed to be easy.

In the end, I’m reminded of the words of another person with whom I was fortunate to be acquainted briefly. Cantor Susan Wehle, who died in the crash of air-flight 3407 near Buffalo, NY in February 2009 said something that stays with me, “May we all work, in whatever way suits us, toward tikkun olam, the healing of the world.”

Let’s make it so, together. Let no one be afraid or excluded for who they are.