Four rabbis, three Baptist ministers, and lay leaders from the Jewish and Christian communities traveled to Washington, DC recently to explore, to learn, and to bond over a shared experience. The trip was part of an ongoing dialogue between the two communities, spearheaded by Rabbi Mark Schiftan and Dr. Jon Roebuck, executive director of the Charlie Curb Center for Faith Leadership at Belmont University. The two-decade long friendship between Schiftan and Roebuck has led to the development of a Jewish Engagement Program at the university that seeks to deepen understanding and build relationships between the two faiths.
The visit to the museums was a prototype of what will ultimately be a key part of the program. This group included Schiftan, Roebuck, Rabbi Joshua Kullock of West End Synagogue, Rabbi Flip Rice of Congregation Micah, Rabbi Michael Danziger of The Temple, Debby Sprang, Associate Vice President for University Advancement at Belmont, Dr. Bernard Turner, professor of social entrepreneurship at Belmont, Tom Gholson, pastor at Brook Hollow Baptist Church, and Philip Moody, chaplain of Bluegrass Care Navigators, and a reporter for The Jewish Observer. Some participants had already visited both museums, some only one, and some neither.
The trip began with an early morning flight, landing in Washington to sunny skies. First stop was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Participants were asked to pair up with someone from the other faith. Everyone made their way through the dimly lit museum, stopping periodically to share reactions. The permanent exhibition spans three floors and covers the chronology of the Holocaust beginning with the rise of the Nazi party and culminating with the liberation.
At the end of tour, the group met in the Hall of Remembrance to reflect. Turner, who is African American, had not been to the museum. He said, “I felt shock, and disbelief, anger, shame. It was like the civil rights movement with book burnings and dogs chasing people.” Sprang said she was surprised by the intentionality of Hitler. “He put the building blocks in place over many years. The genocide was absolutely intentional.” And Moody simply felt pain. “I wanted to cry by couldn’t. I just feel deep sadness.”
For some, the similarities to the current climate in America were stark. Kullock said the propaganda used by Hitler seems to be from the same playbook, “It’s the same as what is going on now after October 7, and before then on January 6. There seems to be a blind spot about what we all see clearly now and yet it got a lot of traction. We have a lot of work to do.”
But Gholson said he felt the sense of helplessness. “From history we can see this is the world we live in, and I wonder what I can do.”
Sitting amongst memorial candles in the quiet of the hall, Schiftan asked how the experience impacted the Christian participants. Roebuck said he became open to connecting with those different from him. “In my journey I got to the point where I stopped saying I only care about people who love Jesus and start caring for people Jesus loved.” Gholson said he was inspired to use his position to help educate. “I feel embarrassed to know I have the power of the pulpit and I’m not addressing more current issues. It’s been easier to skip over it.”
As the conversation slowed, talk turned to the current rise in antisemitism. On the walk to the museum, the group spotted a flyer posted on a lamp post calling out Israel for the murder of a Palestinian. Gholson said it was not something he typically sees in his Nashville neighborhood. “To see it today with my Jewish friends was chilling.” And Kullock said the flyer was a reminder of what could be. “It could happen again. I don’t think you could that a few years ago. But today, it could happen.”
Day two of the interfaith trip included a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum building itself is striking and symbolic, consisting of bronze latticework that wraps the entire building and represents the work of enslaved African Americans. The interior is filled with light and according to the museum website is designed to symbolize open dialogue about race, reconciliation, and healing.
As with the Holocaust Museum, this one also focused on history, starting with the origin of the slave trade 500 years ago, and ending with the modern civil rights movement. This time the group toured together, with some breaking off here and there to explore more deeply, or to share thoughts and reactions.
At the end of the day, the group gathered to recap once again. Sprang spoke first, saying the memorial to Emmett Till had the most impact on her. “What struck me was the strength his mother had. I was thinking about the fear she had to deal with, and after learning about the fear of Jewish Americans, it’s just not right.”
Turner, who has visited the museum several times, said he learns something new each visit. This time it was the focus on dehumanization. “I look at how Black folks were treated for hundreds of years. Today some factions want to go back to that.” He also had another new observation. “Today I took note of the fact that twelve of the first 18 presidents were slave owners.”
Danziger said he was struck by how the legal system played a role. “This was systematic, legal dehumanization. Not from one particular leader but from the people being enriched by slavery.” And Schiftan said he observed how the legal system is not the same for Jews. “Law enforcement protects Jews, but the same can’t be said about Blacks.”
Although faith played a central role in the lives of enslaved people, Rice was surprised to learn it was illegal for Blacks to be religious leaders. “The role of clergy was apparent in a variety of ways. Blacks were not allowed to preach. I can’t believe how hard that was.” Schiftan said strong faith among Blacks was similar to that of Jews during the Holocaust. “Here we see how Christians used the Bible as justification for enslaving other Christians. And their faith was strong despite the fact they had to ask where God was, just like Jews did.” Gholson said he is surprised there is still faith in the Black community.
Moody was deeply saddened by the losses inflicted on the Blacks. “I think about the cultures we tore up. We basically raped and tortured their culture. They had art, education. We took all that. Even as the law changed, we continue some of that today.”
As the day wound down, the group made their way back to the airport for the flight home. Ten individuals from two faiths who just a day before were merely ten individuals. Now, ten friends from two faiths and different backgrounds, ages, and professions. In a follow up email, Kullock said, “In these challenging times, it feels good to know that we are not alone. May we see better days ahead.”
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