When Temple Beth El first came onto my radar as a potential future workplace, I sent my father (who spent his entire career as a reporter for the Associated Press) on a mission: research this and other synagogues I was interested in, and report back with findings. One of the first articles he uncovered – and thus one of the first things that attracted me to this community – was a Charlotte Observer piece outlining TBE’s 2016 Comparative Religion Series.
Now that I am here and can claim it as part of “what we do,” I have learned just how simultaneously remarkable and unremarkable this program is. That might sound strange, but CRS’s “unremarkability” is not a knock on the program; bear with me here.
On the one hand, our Comparative Religion Series attracts people from all over the city and offers people opportunities to learn new perspectives. It isn’t just “open to the public” – the public actually come! As I looked around the sanctuary a few weeks ago before introducing Imam Atif Chaudhry, I noted just how many new-to-me faces peered back at me. What a phenomenal treat and opportunity to invite guests into our space! Remarkable, indeed.
And yet. I was walking a young couple out of my office after a meeting one night, just around 6:45pm, and the building was buzzing. I explained that we were hosting a speaker from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that night, and the couple’s faces exploded into smiles – “this is what I love about Judaism,” one exclaimed. “Jewish communities put real effort into learning about other traditions.”
“Well,” responded his fiancée, “THIS Jewish community does, at least.”
For her, the program was entirely unsurprising – the presence of a Mormon leader, standing on the bima in our sanctuary, teaching about the Mormon understanding of ethical responsibility, simply made sense. Temple Beth El is known and beloved for our commitment to interfaith work.
According to Rabbi Judy Schindler, Charlotte boasts 914 churches with street addresses – second only in churches per capita to a city in Italy. A Jewish community in a setting like that could decide to gaze entirely inward, to focus only on topics of Jewish interest, to bolster and strengthen solely its own congregant community. But Temple Beth El and our Shalom Park partners have shown me, time and time again, that we understand that we strengthen our own community when we strengthen our connections and build deep and lasting relationships with the larger Charlotte community.
My tenth grade confirmation students at Hebrew High love spending Wednesday evenings with their Jewish friends. Most of them do not attend schools with significant Jewish populations, and some of them are the only Jews many of their friends know. On Shalom Park, these teens don’t have to explain the subtle and sometimes not so subtle differences of what it means to grow up Jewish in the south. Their time with us, among other things, gives them a place to ask questions they might not feel safe asking out in the larger community.
As February comes to a close and we enter March, our Comparative Religion Series concludes (on Thursday March 9th with a phenomenal speaker, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the Executive Director of the Religious Action Center in Washington DC – you should definitely put the date on your calendar!) but my interfaith experiences in Charlotte will have only just begun.
On March 1st, Temple Beth El’s confirmation class will begin a series of our own – four visits to different houses of worship all over the city.
Together as a class, each teen surrounded by their Temple Beth El peers, with Temple Beth El clergy and staff present, we will spend time in churches and mosques, meet with religious leaders of various faiths, and observe and reflect on our experiences. We look forward to telling you more about what we learn, both about other faith traditions, and our own.