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Jewish, Baptist congregations join together in Shabbat worship service

 “At last!” said the Rev. Happy Watkins, quoting words fitting on the occasion of New Hope and Morning Star Baptist churches joining the Shabbat service Jan. 20 at Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane.

“Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite song was ‘Free at Last!’” he reminded, and then greeted, the congregation:  “Shabbat Shalom!”

“There is no substitute for the excitement felt as some women from the temple called me and wanted to bridge our communities,” he said.  “At last!”

Knowing Rabbi Jack Izakson as a friend, he knows his favorite steak is rib eye, a steak with fat around it.  Happy used that to segue into saying that “an understanding of ‘fat’ in my community is to say, ‘the rabbi has put some fat on my head,’ meaning that he has given me some knowledge.  I love him for that.”

The Rev. Arthur Jarrett, interim minister at Morning Star, Happy said, has also “put some fat” on his head.

 “If we get to know each other something great will happen.  We will dispel our fears.  It will be great for the community,” he said.

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted everyone fed and people to respect their cultural differences, Happy said. “It’s  not where we stand in our comforts and conveniences but in our conflicts and controversies.

“At last!” he repeated.  “I hope this will be an ongoing relationship that will mean great things for the community.”

Arthur then told of meeting King 62 years ago when King was 15 years old, a brilliant student who skipped grades to come to Morehouse College.

“He said he wanted to be like me,” Arthur added.  “We shared great times and had the same mentor.”

Then he told of living in San Mateo, Calif., where he met and befriended the rabbi of Temple Beth El who took him to Israel, where they visited his wife’s family in Haifa.

 “We live in extraordinary times,” Arthur said. “ We will miss the opportunity to be brothers and sisters, to be as one, if we do not grasp it.”

“We can claim our heritage, our oneness from God’s law and word.  God declared we should be one.  We can claim it when we understand, accept and relate with each other,” he said.  “If we do that, God will be glorified, and God’s kingdom will be realized in our relationships here in Spokane or wherever we are. We are one.

“We belong to each other.  If we embrace that, we can meet not just on special occasions but also in our daily lives, sharing love together,” Arthur concluded.

Next on the program, Rabbi Jack followed his tradition of teaching and posing a question, a challenge for people to act on, not discuss.

The theme for the Shabbat service was, “You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Those words on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia are in Leviticus 25:10.

“The words were spoken by G-d after G-d revealed the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, where the Israelites gathered to hear them,” Jack taught.

“Where were they seven weeks before that?  They were slaves in Egypt swinging pick axes and making bricks.

“How could the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah be slaves in Egypt?” he asked, explaining that the congregation starts each fall with the first words of Genesis and by the end of the year reaches the end of Deuteronomy, and then starts over.

“Abraham’s family was amazing.  They were fruitful and multiplied.  They did well.  In the famine, Jacob led them to Egypt.  How did they become slaves?

Jack said the answer is in Exodus 1:8-9.  A new king reigned over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

“Joseph had been prime minister of Egypt for 80 years.  How could the new king not know him?  It would be like going through the 1960s and not knowing who Martin Luther King Jr., was,” he commented.  “It would be impossible.”

The new pharaoh decided to enslave the Israelites, considering them a threat--, because there were too many of them, and they were too wealthy and too powerful.

“It’s amazing he could ignore the prime minister who saved Egypt,” Jack said.

“How does that relate to our theme?  The question is:  “If we are to follow the call of the pastors, we have ground to cover.  Are you and I like the new pharaoh who did not know Joseph?”

Growing up in Houston in the 1960s, Jack knew a rabbi who went to Alabama to march with King.  He was fired by the temple, but was hired by a new temple.

“That wouldn’t happen today, not because we are enlightened, but because few rabbis would put their jobs on the line to join a march,” he said.  “Are we like the pharaoh?

“Jews marched, died and bled because they marched arm and arm with blacks and whites in the 1960s.  Where are we 40 years later?” he asked.  “The black community 40 years later also has some people who do not like Jews.  Are we like pharaoh, not acknowledging Joseph?  This is a hard, troubling question.”

Jack then questionedwhy this was the first time the congregations were together.

“On the one hand, it’s cause for great celebration.  On the other hand, why did it take so long?

“We need to be honest when we say we are one; we have a long way to go,” he said.  “I call us not to ignore what came before, the foundation laid by those before us.  If we do not do that, we will wind up as slaves as the Israelites did—not physical slavery, but slavery of our hearts, minds and wills.

“We need to look in our hearts and be sure we are not pharaoh.  If we are, let’s overcome that sense of inertia, let’s answer the call, let’s walk arm in arm and act like brothers and sisters.

“May this be Shabbat Shalom!”

Just as African-American Baptists joined in Hebrew words of prayer and praise, the Jewish congregation joined in singing “Amazing Grace.”

After the service, people came up to strangers and introduced themselves, sharing bits about their lives, concerns and commitments.  Some exchanged names and phone numbers.

Both the Jewish temple and the two Baptist churches have extended invitations to each other to attend their regular worship services any time.

 

 

By Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - © February 2006