Sacred Conversations

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Sunrise in Charleston, 6:13AM

Hope pierces through the darkness. I arrived in historic downtown Charleston a half hour earlier, thinking I’d have time to catch the sunrise along the colorful Rainbow Row. Little did I know we’d create rainbows of our own later in the day. By the time I arrived, hundreds had assembled, from as early as 4:00AM, to join together as a community mourned its Reverend, Clementa Pinckney. Word had spread that only a thousand or so members of the general public would be allowed in to TD Arena (capacity of 5,400). Mother Emanuel AME congregants, AME clergy from around the county, dignitaries on the state and national level, would fill the remaining seats. I quickly found a spot in line to begin what was to be a five hour wait to enter the arena.

Who shows up before the crack of dawn? These weren’t people who wanted to catch a glimpse of President Obama, or the Reverends Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. The people who assembled came to mourn. They came dressed to go to church- to ask God for guidance, to ask their spiritual leaders for answers.

My day-trip to Charleston was as spontaneous as it gets for me. I’m not an impulse shopper or a last minute vacationer. But last week I began to wonder how I as a clergy person could carry out a sacred task of nichum aveilim, of comforting the mourners. How could i delve deeper than a few moments of self-reflection. I debated telling my family that our Fathers Day plans had changed, that it was more important for me to go bring hope and support to those who were now fatherless. In the end, with an opening in my schedule and the confluence of it being the day of Reverend Senator Pinckney’s funeral, I made the decision to make the four hour drive to Charleston. To be there. To be in the moment. To listen. I didn’t have answers other than the answer of the call to be there for one another in the most troubling of times. I reached out to clergy in Charleston and clergy from our own ICARE congregations- they appreciated my willingness to make the journey and to represent the Jewish faith and our coalition in showing solidarity. Was I invited? No. In a world where we often “pray by proxy,” being a morning drive away equaled an opportunity to pray together, to build relationships and to create a lasting memory.

Waiting in line for 5+ hours became the day’s greatest gift. Individuals came in their Sunday best- dresses, suits. People wore robes and sashes to represent their church affiliation. I wore a suit (until I convinced a gentleman in front of me that if he took his jacket off I’d do the same). I wore a kippah, as I do everyday. In Jacksonville, wearing my kippah by-and-large is a way for me to express my Judaism publicly. It is also an identifier- “there’s the Cantor” if someone had to double take my attire, new hairstyle or facial hair. The kippah is woven into my public and spiritual persona.

I waited in line three hours before someone asked me why I was there in Charleston that morning. This was aided by the fact that I said I was from Jacksonville, Florida, but more significantly by the fact that I wore a kippah as a member of the Jewish faith. The first person to ask me that question was a news reporter. The second person to ask me that question was a news reporter. The third and fourth persons to ask me that question were news reporters. Why would a Jewish clergy-person wait in line for hours to attend an AME funeral service for a pastor he never met, in a city he does not call his own?

I was glad to have those questions asked because it offered an opportunity to express my voice as a representative of my community and faith. But I was also glad that for the majority of my time in Charleston, I was just another person in line waiting to pay tribute to a remarkable man and to show my solidarity by my presence.

Those first three hours of standing in line were the most meaningful for me. You don’t wait in line for hours with a group of strangers without striking up conversation. Eventually, the talk shifted from the weather and the parking to something deeper. I mentioned that the last time I waited in line like this was for American Idol auditions a dozen years ago. You get to know your cluster of the line because you inherently share a common goal and interest. When the conversations shifted, I didn’t have to say “As a Jew” or “As a White American”- those were implied by my outward appearance. But my responses, my demeanor, and my sensitivity to the moment, impressed on those around me that I as a Jew, as a clergy-person, as a white american, cared deeply about the issue of racial discrimination, of fighting for rights for all.

I mentioned to the gentleman next to me that I spent the night at Quality Inn in what he described as the “booming metropolis” of Hardeeville, SC, population 4,291. He was from Harksville, NC, population 106. Next to us was the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher who brought her daughter and mother to pay tribute to Reverend Pinckney. She mentioned her baptism having taken place a few miles from where we stood, creating what was the start of a number of “sacred conversations.” We talked about the power of water across faiths, how the full immersion in water is a metaphor for weaving God into our every being. There was Darrell, the diabetic (you learn that when you wait in the sun without food or drink for a few hours), who was also not a member of the AME church, but who grew up in Jasper County not far from where Reverend Pinckney had his roots. We talked about growing up in South Carolina- how it’s changed, how it must continue to change. He spoke of his love for Charleston- the city, its culture, its people.

As the sun began to pound the city street, volunteers began passing out waters. Umbrellas opened to offer shade to those who needed. Love filled the line. Dozens of reporters converged on us, hoping to poke and prod with pointed questions of why we were there? What were our thoughts and emotions about the past week?

News reporters are smart. They are calculated. I woman in front me wore a gorgeous yellow dress (pictured below).

imageShe was made for the camera. The reporters agreed. I was a well-dressed, not-yet-sweaty Jewish guy. It made for a good story. When they found out I was clergy from Jacksonville, Florida, it made for an even more compelling one. I mentioned my affiliation with the Jacksonville Jewish Center, with ICARE. I mentioned how I felt compelled to not only come to pay tribute to a great man, but to show my support for a community torn by tragedy, broken by the racial hatred of one man; whose hatred was fostered by so many others. I spoke of Reverend Pinckney’s openness to and support of the LGBT community (he was quoted as having said,  ‘loving God is never separate from loving your brothers and sisters.’) I stated how we in Jacksonville still fight for a comprehensive Human Rights Ordinance; how I greatly admire how he guided his flock on and off the pulpit.

When the MSNBC correspondent asked how I answer those who ask “Where is God in a moment like this?” I responded humbly that we all have different perceptions of the divine. We live in a broken world. To me, that means that God isn’t perfect. At the same time, however, we are all created in the image of God. It is our responsibility to repair this world as much as we can. When it’s been asked, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” theologians like Martin Buber (in Glimpse of God) responded by saying that God hid his face, as in the story of Esther. Buber was right in one way- God looked away. As a collective created in his image, we all looked away. So when tragedy strikes, we must never look away again. We must never hide our faces. For injustice and intolerance are never polite enough to hide their cruel faces from our world.

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For a short while, the line clumped together as the crowds awaited entry into the TD Arena.

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Voices rose up behind us. I thought the joyful sounds were rising to counteract any protestors that may have found their way into the crowd. I looked down at my phone- the Supreme Court had just announced its decision to making same-sex marriage a right across the land. The celebration outside would soon be mirrored by the celebration of a man who championed rights for all.

A few moments later, as we were about to make our way through the security checkpoint, I felt a friendly tug on my shoulders. For a half-second, I thought “I don’t know anyone here- who is tugging my shoulders?” It was Darrell. We gave a “bro hug”- one signifying we hadn’t seen each other in quite some time. Being separated for 20 minutes after standing together for 5 hours can do that to you. And so with an embrace of a stranger, the embrace of a man I met on a sunny morning on Meeting Street, Charleston S.C,

I entered the make shift sanctuary to remember a man I never met.

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Funeral: “Handle our grief while holding on to faith”

After an hour of music brought to us by a chorus of combined choirs (I did surprise a few people when I began singing along to the Choir’s rendition of Total Praise, a JTS choir favorite thanks to Cantor Debbie Bletstein), the service began with the words from Psalm 118: “Zeh Hayom Asah Adonai , Nagila V’nism’cha Vo” This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice in it.  Having only attended a handful of non-Jewish funerals, this was an experience filled with rowdy celebratory cheering. This was a celebration of life. For roughly five hours, God was praised, Reverend Pinckney was praised, and a community rejoiced in a life well lived. As the VIPs sat below us, I found great meaning in sitting next to a retired cop originally from Chicago, an associate Imam originally from India, and a reverend born and raised in Charleston. I was the rabbi (I didn’t go into the “kh” of Hazzan). We celebrated and mourned together. We weren’t VIPs, but we represented the thousands who waited outside who did not get in- the thousands who mourned and celebrated a great man and a great city.

Towards the end of the funeral, Bishop John Richard Bryant, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church from Baltimore, referenced Psalm 118 again when he stated, “Historically, we are the stones that the builders rejected…but we keep rising.” A day of celebration- knowing of the SCOTUS decision, I took this quote to heart- that for too long we have limited minorities in this country. We have discriminated based upon gender, race and sexual orientation. Generations believed that these groups were the stones that the builders rejected. On Friday, emboldened by the work on the Supreme Court and the words of our President, we took a giant step towards building a sanctuary of hope and healing, of equality and understanding. A sanctuary in time and space solidified by and for all humanity.

My decision to attend Reverend Pinckney’s funeral was not influenced by the anticipated presence of our President, but it was forever shaped by his words and his song.

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After the Lord your God you shall walk

            Deuteronomy 13:5

The great sage Maimonides broadens the Talmudic view of this verse as an exclusive reference to the practice of lovingkindness. In his mind, “walk in his ways” refers to both the performance of acts of lovingkindness and the cultivation of moral dispositions, towards the development of a greater social harmony. As one eulogizer put it, Reverend Pinckney “walked the talk.” And so must we do the same. As President Obama mentioned that for too long we ignored these “uncomfortable truths.” We can no longer barricade ourselves behind preconceived notions.

Running to my car (Shabbat started at 8:11PM), I came across a group of protestors wearing t-shirts that read  ‘get with it’ on the back, “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” on the front. Seeing my kippah, it gave them the false assumption that I as a religious person would somehow nod my head in approval. I reassured them that this was not the case- God created all of us in his/her image. We are all God’s creatures and we all have the right to live and love in peace. I normally do not engage with people who have hate in their hearts, but having a morning to think and process, I could see no way in which I could not speak up.

Final Thoughts 

Having visited Charleston a few times as a tourist, I never really got to see the grandeur of its people. Their love shown brightly during these troubled times. It reminded me of the love and support New Yorkers gave one another following the tragic events of 9/11. An hour after the second plane hit, I was racing to the closest hospital, Beth Israel, to give blood to those who were in need.  The line stretched around city blocks. Eventually, we were told that they had as much as they could take. The staff said “come back next week, the week after. That’s when we need you.” Whenever tragedy strikes, the goodness and love of this great nation shine through. The goal is to keep that brightness so it does not whither over time. I never went back to give blood- days, weeks, years later. It’s time that we continue to fight for rights for all. Fight hate. Fight injustice. These demons never take a vacation. Our goal is to fight with every fiber of our beings. Each and every day. When the news reporters leave, when the story is elsewhere, we must continue to write the story of love and fellowship on the streets in which we live, in the places we know well and in the discomforting unknown spaces. Love comes from an ever-beating heart that needs us to supply blood. Not just today, each and every day.

*You’ll notice a lack of high quality photographs. While cameras were allowed, I felt that hiding myself behind a lens (which I often do) would limit the scope in which I could interact and converse with the masses as a person of faith and a person of sincerity.

Posted on June 28, 2015, in View from the Pew. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Shirley Bielski

    Beautifully written dear Haz! Thank you for representing us and for your caring. Thank you for ” walking the talk”!

  2. Amazing story teller .. Next time let us know you

    are going and we will join in! Dena Heyman

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