What is My Passion?

Live Passionately & with Meaning  – Congregant Column #3

By Judy Marx

A few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion on the state of interfaith relations in Atlanta.  I do this fairly regularly since becoming the director of Interfaith Community Initiatives about 18 months ago.  This particular discussion was unusual because the audience was unusual:  We spoke to a group of religious and legal scholars from Saudi Arabia.  I was surprised that this group was interested in Interfaith Dialogue at all; having believed that Saudis would not be very open to religious diversity.

One of the other panelists was a Muslim woman who has been my friend for many years.   What started as a work-based relationship has grown into a deep personal friendship.  We have eaten many meals together, visited each other's homes, celebrated events together, and commiserated over personal and communal woes.  At the end of the meeting the Saudis spoke to each other and to my friend in Arabic. Afterward she told me, "They couldn't believe that a Muslim and Jew could be that comfortable with each other. Was this just for show, or do you really get along that well?"

My friend and I laughed a bit over their wonderment, and we acknowledged that it has taken years for us to become close. In the beginning we were polite and cordial, but always, always we steered clear of difficult topics.  Then personal stories would become part of the conversation; so would questions about religious practices, and especially food; "will you eat food that isn't Halal/kosher?" "How do you make humus?"

And then we began to talk about what we couldn't talk about in the beginning.  No, we haven't resolved the challenging issues between our two communities, but because we've developed trust, we're still talking.

Interfaith dialogues can be both curses and blessings.  As Jews, when we talk to other faith communities we wonder if others want to talk to us only because they want to convert us. We worry that we don't know enough about our traditions to answer hard questions. And we are concerned that we have enough problems on our own. "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"

Honestly, I am not concerned if a dialogue partner has a particular mission.   I enter into dialogue with a secure Jewish identity.  I know that if someone tries to convince me of the "rightness" of his/her faith, what I learn is more about their faith, and about that person.   I try not to feel threatened and  try to show those who seek to proselytize that my faith is authentic and whole.

I also try not to feel intimidated by people of other faith traditions that seem more knowledgeable than me. Particularly those who can quote Scripture, chapter and verse.   As Jews, we come from a tradition that relies not only on text, but on explanation, meaning, significance and impact.  We may not be able to tell someone the exact chapter and verse of the Sacrifice of Isaac, but we can talk about what we have learned from hearing that story every year on Rosh Hashanah.

And yes, our community is small, and there is a tendency to want to isolate ourselves within the Jewish community cocoon. Cocoons are comfortable, but ultimately they are only temporary.  The world we live in now is too interconnected, too interdependent to imagine that any one group can survive, or thrive, without any others.

My Passion for Social Justice with a Musical Lilt

Live Passionately & with Meaning – Congregant Column #2

By Larry Gold

As part of my responsibilities as Chair of The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, I participated a few years ago in what was then called "The Food Stamp Challenge." Simply put,  Margo, and I had to eat for an entire week on a budget of what a two person family would spend for food, limited to what they received in food stamps.  It worked out to about $35 per person for the entire week.   It was incredibly hard.  It brought home to us, as no TV show, book or speech ever could, the graphic reality of hunger.  And that was for people who had access to food stamps.  For many people in America, even that meager amount is beyond their means.  We didn't go hungry each night or each day, wondering where we  can find the resources to feed ourselves and our family.  But  I can tell you, the worry and angst about eating is just as painful as the lack of food itself.  It is constantly on one's mind and affects every aspect of daily life.

I tell that story because it is emblematic of my biggest passion in life – trying to help others help themselves.  My crusade, writ large, is for social justice: and by that I mean freedom from discrimination in any and every form; freedom to vote and to speak and to embrace my religion without fear of harassment or restriction; and letting others do the same.   That's a tall order and speaks to what I believe is the harmony of every living creature with every other living creature.  But, it also means that one has to get down into the "dirt" and muck around with the messy reality of life – helping one person at a time – not just attending meetings or making speeches or donating money to worthwhile causes.

It means bringing food for Operation Isaiah – not just on Kol Nidre, but throughout the year.  It means going to the Community Food Bank and sorting food.  It means taking meals to homeless shelters.  It means serving as a poll watcher on election day. It means attending hunger seders.  It means donating blood at blood drives.  It means talking with children and with seniors about making their lives more fulfilling and meaningful.  It means speaking up when I see injustice, discrimination or denial of basic human rights.  It means going to one's elected officials – local, state and national – and talking with them about serious issues. It means giving $1, $5, $10 to those persons standing on street corners, suffering the embarrassment and indignity of asking for money.  It means giving them the benefit of the doubt rather than worrying that they'll just spend the money on dope or alcohol or both.

Passion for social justice is not just talking the talk.  One has to walk the walk –  every single day.  The famous English poet, John Donne, wrote than "no man is an island".  And Hillel said, "If I am not for myself who will be for me, but if I am for myself alone, what am I?"  Other famous men and women have spoken and written about the inter-connectivity among all human beings.

I believe that among other rights, every human being deserves, first and foremost,  the right to self-respect and self-determination.  I also believe that it is the responsibility of every human being to assure those same rights for his or her fellow human beings.  There is no "other" to provide it.  And nonr of us can enjoy those freedoms unless we work to assure them for everyone else. Freedom is a great concept, but its corollary, responsibility, is a great concept, too, and often overlooked or ignored.  It doesn't take much for freedom to erode or become diminished and the best cure to prevent that is social action and the pursuit of social justice

We talk about Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – and there are numerous ways that one can perform  mitzvot that work toward that end.  But, without social justice, without a framework for living that imbues our society with a drive and a path towards justice for all,  then repairing the world, much less a family, a congregation, a community, a city, a state, a country, is just so much talk,  "blowing in the wind."

Passion for something, indeed for anything, is what helps get one out of bed each day.  It makes individuals feel good about themselves and about their lives.  But at its core, passion brings fulfillment and joy.   Joy is a much overlooked and sometimes derided emotion. But it's very real and very powerful.  So, let me conclude with another passion for me that mirrors the joy that I feel when I have helped someone to make their lives a little better..

I enjoy singing.  It, too, is my passion.  But until recently, I had never taken any voice lessons or spent time learning how to sing.  For my recent "decennial" birthday, I  decided that I wanted to give a concert for my family and friends.  I worked on this for five years ahead of time. As I was taking lessons and practicing  for  this event, my voice coach recommended that I sing before a live audience. So, my first "live" performance was at the Jewish Home.    We arranged to give the "concert"  one mid-afternoon, before nap time and before dinner.  I sang for about 30 minutes or so – mostly broadway show tunes and standard popular music.  To my utter amazement – everyone in the audience stayed awake!!  And I will tell you that  I was so filled with love and joy that at one point, I didn't even realize I was singing. It was a moment of pure, unadulterated joy.  And that was just doing a simple thing.

Helping others, working to achieve social justice, in its myriad forms and ways, can give you that same feeling of joy and, yes, peace.  It still works for me. Whether I'm singing or not.

It's really not hard.  You just have to reach out and give another human being a hand, a lift, a kind word,  and let them know they are not alone in this world.  Both you and the world will be so much better off.