BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (ABP) — Members of both Jewish and Baptist communities joined together Friday at a luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly to share stories and encourage an interfaith relationship.
And the effort, according to Jewish and Baptist leaders, is just in time.
The relationship between Jews and Baptists began “to atrophy” in the 1980s, according to Jonathan Levine, national director of community services for the American Jewish Committee, and since then, they have been like strangers to each other.
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, which sponsored the luncheon, said the relationship between Southern Baptists and Jews has hit “rock-bottom” in the last 25 years. Recently, Southern Baptist leaders have injured the relationship by refusing to participate with Jews in interfaith services after the Sept. 11 attacks, prioritizing conversion of Jews on their high holy days, not acknowledging any anti-Semitism in the movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” and comparing Judaism to a deadly tumor.
That is “more Christian love than any group ought to bear,” Parham joked.
Scott Hausman-Weiss, a rabbi at Temple Emmanu-el in Birmingham, said he came to recognize the “evil menace” as Baptist at Rabbinic school as a result of the Southern Baptist attempts to proselytize Jews.
However, soon after Hausman-Weiss became a rabbi, his congregation's need for a place of worship led them to Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham. He said the church's building — which he may have considered to be the enemy's headquarters — became his own synagogue.
“When I saw the huge, purple banner above the door that said, 'A house of prayer for all peoples,' I truly thought, 'Oh, my God,'” Hausman-Weiss said. During the time of worship with the Baptists, he said, he considered the experience “truly a godly moment.”
Steve Jones, pastor of Southside Baptist Church, said his congregation received criticism from Christians for opening its doors to the Jews. While many looked at the Jewish presence as an opportunity to witness and convert them to Christianity, Jones said the Jews have already been accepted by God.
“We're not going to change [the Jews], but we will be changed by our relationship with them, and they will not change us, but they will be changed by their relationship with us,” Jones said. “[Hausman-Weiss] has said to me, 'You have been a Christian witness to us.' And Temple Emmanu-el has been a Jewish witness to us as well.”
The presence of two religions in one building has created situations that provoked both laughter and distress. Jones chuckled as he said he once found a yarmulke in the baptistery. For the Jews, however, the cross was a painful reminder that they chose to cover during their services for their first couple of months at the church.
“It wasn't out of a need to defy or deface the Baptist church,” Hausman-Weiss said. “The problem with the cross … is it has historically represented the opposite of salvation and life eternal [for the Jews] … It's mayhem, murder and institutional hatred.”
Considering the deeply opposite sentiments tied to the cross for Jews and Christians, a bond between the two religions is “a relationship to be celebrated based on history, common humanity and good neighborliness,” according to Arnold Belzer, a rabbi of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Ga.
The interfaith movement, according to Belzer, began with Congregation Mickve Israel's establishment in Savannah in 1733. Congregation Mickve Israel has a special relationship with First Baptist Church in Savannah that, Belzer said, is a wonderful example of interfaith dialogue.
Valerie Paul, a former member of the Savannah church and attendee of the luncheon, told Associated Baptist Press the attitude of Baptists toward Jews in Georgia is much more comfortable and knowledgeable than her current church in Alabama. By learning about other religions, she said, one can understand them better and form relationships — not attempt to convert.
“Nobody ever won someone to their point of view by saying everything you do is wrong,” Paul said. “If there's no trust, no basis of friendship, it's dishonest. You obviously don't care about that person if the only reason you're there is to convert them.”
Levine, of the American Jewish Committee, also said Baptist mission work has traditionally been dishonest. “I understand the importance of mission work for Christians,” he told participants. “Jews don't look kindly on it. … We're not fond of Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jews. We believe that's dishonest. I'm not going to tell you you shouldn't do mission work, but do it honestly.”
Not all Christians believe Jews need to be proselytized. Jeff Hensley, pastor of King's Mountain Baptist Church in King's Mountain, N.C., attended the luncheon and told ABP he hopes to form relationships with the Jewish community and learn from his Jewish brothers and sisters who received God's word before Christians did.
“I don't believe that Jews are going to hell. I don't think that's true of any religious body as a whole,” Hensley said. “I have a suspicion that some Christians are Christians only by name.”
In response to scriptures like John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the father except through me,” Hensley said Christians can't take that one verse, which is a unique text in comparison to the other gospels, and believe that an entire group of people is rejected by God.
“There's much more in the words of Jesus than that,” Hensley said.
An interfaith movement will take work on the part of Jewish and Baptist congregations, but Levine said it is necessary for both groups.
“For those of us who look outward, coalitions are crucial,” he said. “The only way to break down stereotypes is ongoing dialogues. … My organization is absolutely committed to re-engaging with moderate Baptists. We really want to, and it's important for both of us.”
The Baptist Center for Ethics luncheon, though not officially part of the CBF assembly, was one of several CBF-related events involving Jewish relations. The CBF's ecumenical task force met with Huntsville, Ala., rabbi Jeff Ballon prior to the general assembly. And a CBF breakout session June 24 dealt with “developing a healthy and productive Jewish-Christian dialogue.