By Rabbi Judy Schindler
Two weeks ago, Charlotte’s Briar Creek Road Baptist Church was a victim of arson. It is less than three and half miles from my home. Their children’s choir sang at our Beth El MLK service three years ago and my kids were close friends with the kids of their former minister, Dennis Hall. I was moved to worship with them the first Sunday after the fire.
In Charlotte, where the painful past of the Jim Crow South is still felt and racial mistrust can be high, I feel a religious mandate to “love the stranger” and to make that stranger into a neighbor and friend. With the freedom of Sundays without our own worship services, I also choose to help break down the racial barriers in our churches, fighting the maxim that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in our community of some 700 houses of worship.
Briar Creek Road Baptist Church is small. When I visited, there were about three dozen church members and a dozen visitors. I was moved by the optimism and faith of Senior Pastor Mannix Kinsey, Co-Pastor Rhonda Kinsey, and their entire congregation. With dance, song, preaching and prayer, they offered gratitude. Here were some of their messages:
- Our children’s building was set aflame but thank God no human life was lost.
- An arsonist set a fire last Wednesday but we will set a greater fire of spirit in our sanctuary.
- We don’t need lights or power to worship God.
- We are grateful for so many churches that are ready to help.
- Tragedy will not stop us from being a unifying force.
- We don’t have time to worry about whomever, whatever, or however the fire was set.
While Briar Creek Road Baptist Church does not have time to worry about whomever, whatever, or however the fire was set, we, as the Reform Movement, do have that time. We should worry not only about this fire but about the six other recent fires at African American churches in the South, including three confirmed arsons. While the fire in the church in Greeleyville, SC was likely set off by lightning, it nonetheless awakened memories of their 1995 fire, started by two members of the Ku Klux Klan. When the sanctity of even one church in our country is shattered by racism and hatred, it shatters the sanctity and sanctuary of all of our houses of worship. How much more so should seven fires move us to action?
Praying with our African American brothers and sisters is a start. This summer’s weekly conversations for healing and change coordinated by Mecklenburg Ministries (Charlotte’s interfaith organization) are a next step. But, we need to do more. As a religious movement we need to work towards achieving racial justice on every level: from supporting national, state and local legislation protecting civil liberties to working together in congregational partnerships with the African American community.
For decades, Temple Beth El has taken part in a popular Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon Exchange with African American churches. For several years, the broader Charlotte community embraced that vision and dozens of congregations engaged in an MLK sermon exchanges. For the coming year, we hope to see more frequent youth and parent exchanges among Charlotte houses of worship across lines of difference. We are starting with our Beth El youth and pursuing opportunities for youth exchanges in areas of worship and social action.
My prayer is that in the coming year, as a movement, we can build a greater fire for racial understanding and justice that will create light, warmth, and safe sanctuaries for all.
Rabbi Judith Schindler is Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte. She is on the Interfaith Advisory Council of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, leads the Education Equity group for the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, is past Co-Chair of the Clergy Advisory Board of Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith organization, and served on the Board of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing. She serves on the President’s Rabbinic Council of the Hebrew Union College and is a past Co-Chair of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.
Currently, federal law explicitly protects students from discrimination in school based on race, color, national origin, sex and disability. However, no federal law explicitly protects students from discrimination based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or their association with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Anti-LGBT discrimination in education takes many forms, including harassment, bullying, intimidation and violence, and often times, LGBT students are denied equal educational opportunities. Numerous studies have shown that anti-LGBT discrimination at schools has contributed to high rates of absenteeism, dropout, and academic underachievement among LGBT youth. A recent study found that 55.5% of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 37.8% because of their gender expression. The Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) would address this issue by explicitly prohibiting public schools from discriminating against any student on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, or their association with LGBT people.
This week, the Senate began debating the Every Child Achieves Act, which would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the most expansive education legislation ever passed by Congress. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) submitted SNDA as an amendment (S.Amdt.2093) to the Every Child Achieves Act on July 7 and the Senate is likely to vote on the SNDA amendment in the coming week. Urge your Senators to vote for the SNDA amendment now and protect LGBT students from discrimination!
Judaism teaches that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27). This belief that the stamp of the Divine is present in all humans is fundamental to Reform Judaism; we cannot tolerate discrimination against or bullying of any person for any reason. That is why the Reform Movement has long been an advocate for the Student Non-Discrimination Act and recently coordinated a letter of thirty-six faith-based organizations and religious denominations in support of the Student Non-Discrimination Act amendment. Urge your Senators now to vote for the SNDA amendment!
To learn more about the Jewish values that inspire our work for LGBT rights, visit the RAC’s LGBT rights webpage.
by Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur
It was truly a “standing at Sinai” moment.
Despite geographical challenges, limited financial resources, and a national holiday, more than 650 Reform Jews came from around the world last weekend to reconnect with URJ Kutz Camp, the sacred place so many of us have called home over the years. We numbered 350 alumni from the last 50 years of Kutz’s existence, plus 200 current high school participants and 100 dynamic, dedicated staff members.
It was a gathering of the generations unlike any other in our history.
In planning this milestone event, we made a deliberate and perhaps bold decision to hold our celebration during the regular camping season. Although this decision meant we might be limited in our ability to program – the expected attendance would double the camp’s population for the weekend – we felt it was crucial to bring Kutz’s past and present generations together.
As a result of this sacred mifgash (interaction), today’s Kutz participants came to understand that the precious days that they spend at camp will profoundly affect them for years – decades, even – to come. Equally important, our alumni witnessed the extraordinary caliber of today’s participants, and they understand that the impact of Kutz is as strong as it was for them in their day.
Together, we heard the inspiring words of former director Rabbi Allan Smith, who reminded us to “be outrageous” and not afraid to make a significant impact on the world.
We honored the steady work and strong vision of Paul Reichenbach, the URJ’s director of camp and Israel programs, who has been a mentor and friend to so many of us and who continues to play a crucial role in supporting and advising today’s Kutz leaders.
In partnership with the Campaign for Youth Engagement and NFTY, we participated in a think tank, the results of which will be models to engage NFTY and Kutz alumni in significant social activism and prayer.
We played the holy game of Shabbat softball, a Kutz tradition that links generation to generation.
We took an intentional hour to share with each other the impact this place had on us, how it continues to affect its current participants, and how our vision for its future will ensure a similar experience for generations to come.
We sat in pagodas and we studied Torah. We sang. We reconnected and forged new connections. Each of these activities is central to our collective Kutz experience.
And we listened intently as our innovative, creative director, Melissa Frey, talked about what an extraordinarily beautiful place Kutz is. From late fall into the spring thaw, she said, the camp’s gorgeous autumn leaves, white snow-capped trees, and sparkly, frozen lake make for a breathtaking view – but without those who love it walking the grounds and caring for its facilities, Kutz is simply a place.
Only in the spring and early summer, when staff and participants return through the gates, is camp’s neshama (soul) breathed back into her, and she once again becomes a home.
As someone who has been involved with camp for the last four decades, it was only after this weekend that I truly began to understand that every person who steps through the gates of the property leaves an indelible mark on the institution. Without each and every one of us, Kutz would be an ordinary piece of real estate. Instead, we have made it a holy space, and when we enter its gates – physically or spiritually – we maintain that holiness for the generations yet to come.
As a believer in the philosophy of Martin Buber, I contend that when people are in relationships filled with kindness, compassion, understanding, mutual respect, and love, God is surely present. This philosophy holds all the more true when a place is filled with such overwhelmingly positive emotions. I have no doubt, indeed, that last weekend, God came home to Kutz.
For another dimension of the Kutz@50 weekend, listen to this song, Open the Gates, written by Jacob “Spike” Kraus, a Kutz songleader and assistant director of youth engagement at Temple Sinai of Roslyn, in honor of the anniversary weekend.