Living in the heart of the bible belt some probably wouldn't even think there would be a Jewish synagogue. The reality is Beth Israel just celebrated 150 years in the Jackson, MS area! Below you can see a short video they prepared for their anniversary last year. Take a moment and watch the video as it also gives a short synopsis of its history.
|The Statue of Moses that survived the bombing as mentioned in the video!|
Beth Israel Jackson is lead by Rabbi Valerie Cohen you can click here to read her bio on their website. Below I've highlighted some of the points of our conversation they are not direct quotes unless noted with quotation marks. Though I asked direct questions it was more of a conversation that at times jumped topics a bit which was great. I wrote down as much as I could. (RC=Rabbi Cohen)
What is Reform Judaism?
RC: There are essentially three different branches:
1. Orthodox-Believe both Hebrew scripture and Oral Traditions are from God
2. Reform: Which began in the 19th century as Judaism was trying to adapt and be relevant to the needs of the day.
3. Conservative: These felt that Reform Judaism had to some degree gone too far, and felt that there needed to be more of a middle ground between the Orthodox and Reform movements.
Rabbi Cohen made an interesting point that it was not Reform(ed) but Reform. Reformed gives the meaning that it has achieved and reached a final point of reformation. Yet this is not the 'Reform' belief as they believe that it will continue.
Beth Israel is part of the Union for Reform Judaism. You can click HERE (this website will give you more info instead of me posting it all here:) and read what they say is Reform Judaism.
Part of the difference in Reform Judaism as stated by Rabbi Cohen and the just mentioned website. Is the fact that they were the first to ordain women Rabbi's. "First women ordained was in...1972" stated Rabbi Cohen. Their website also states, "Reform Jews are also committed to the full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large."
How do you become a Rabbi?
RC: You get a four year degree, then 5-6 years of graduate work (seminary). Spend a year in Israel. Pastoral care internship and mentoring. Also of course intensive text study in Hebrew.
Rabbi Cohen mentioned that at the end of seminary essentially they are ordained. Their graduation is in part an ordination service.
What happens at a Reform Jewish service?
Beth Israel has two services. One is on Friday evening when Shabbat starts and the other, a more traditional service takes place on Saturday morning.
RC: There is a fixed liturgy about 50/50 being in Hebrew and English (friday nights). There is Rabbinic and Biblical text . The themes of the service are creation, revelation (God's gift of Torah) and redemption (the exodus with some allusion to future redemption). We will have Sabbath prayers, personal prayers, silent prayer, prayer for healing, and mourners.
Music is a big part of the service. Rabbi Cohen mentioned the importance of the music in the service. The sermon (which lasts only 10-15min) may not always go well but if the music is good everything works out. Yet if the music is off, then the service didn't go well even if the sermon did. Most of the readings are set to music, its chanted or a melody.
RC: In essence the service is lots of liturgy, 10-15min sermon, lots of singing. The service will last a little over an hour.
At his point I asked RC about the Sabbath:
Rabbi Cohen was obviously aware that I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. I spoke to her a little about our view of the Sabbath and then she gave me her perspective.
RC: Sabbath is seen as a gift. "The Sabbath is the most important holiday. In the Hebrew Shabbat means to stop or cease not to rest." She went on to mention how the world would be if everyone would stop their work and spend time with family and God.
Rabbi Cohen mentioned many will celebrate Shabbat differently. "Some may not choose to come to the temple on Shabbat" Some may choose to spend it with their families at home or somewhere else. This is fine because it's in part what Shabbat is about.
RC: "Judaism is complicated, multi-dimensional..."so it will vary what the Jewish person says the reasoning behind why one keeps the Sabbath. Yet the Sabbath as previously mentioned is obviously key.
What is your belief in regards to what happens at death?
Rabbi Cohen mentioned some interesting points regarding this question but being as I've gone pretty long in this post. I will go with her short and simple answer:
RC: There is basically three main answers:
2. I don't know-"most Jews don't know"
3. I don't care-"...just live your life now according to your understanding of God"
She mentioned and believes that there's really not a 'after life theology.'(in the Hebrews scriptures) It seems to have come mainly from Rabbinic writings.
What is your view of Jesus?
Being the obvious fact that Jackson, MS has a high Christian culture and most I would venture to say believe in Jesus or have at least grown up hearing about Jesus. I thought it would be interesting to hear her perspective.
RC: "Jesus was a man who had great vision, rebelled against the institution of the time and obviously was a Jew. He lived an observant life, was not a Rabbi, but was a good teacher/leader."
In your time here have you had someone convert to Judaism?
RC: Yes...(I then asked, 'How does one convert?)
RC: "It's at least a year long process, must attend services, immerse yourself in the Jewish community." The individual will be mentored, must walk in the shoes of a Jew. (At this point I asked how does one know if they have walked in the shoes of a Jew?)
RC: There is a ritual 'Beit Din' where three people sit with the conversion student to determine if they are ready. Finally they go through 'Mikvah' which is essentially baptism by emersion. Important note is that the individual is completely naked for the baptism. (yes you read that correctly, it is of course done very discretely) Men of course must be circumcised.
Why I decided to meet with Rabbi Cohen?
First I again want to thank Rabbi Cohen for meeting with me. I sensed in her a love and purity for what she does and the community she ministers too. I learned a lot more than what I could possibly write in this one post. If I by chance mentioned and/or quoted something incorrectly I hope she will let me know and I will correct.
Here are three quick reasons why I took this initiative:
1. I want to learn and interact more with my community. As mentioned Beth Israel has been around a long time, they have done much in the Jackson, MS community. I/we as a church can learn from that.
2. I enjoy interacting with others of different faiths (not just different denominations). It's great to be able to discuss, learn, and fellowship with other spiritual leaders.
3. I want people to know who Seventh-day Adventist are: In this context I'm not saying it in a way as to proselytize the people I meet but to get to know a bit of the individual, their beliefs and enter into a faith dialogue. Rabbi Cohen also had some great questions for me and what I believed. We simply had a great discussion. She was honest with me as she mentioned that fact that at first knowing a 'Seventh-day Adventist' was keeping she wasn't sure what to expect and didn't know a lot about us specifically. Yet know she knows a little more about who are Seventh-day Adventist as I know a lot more about Reform Judaism.
So I know this was one of my longer posts', but I hope that you were blessed and perhaps it might lead you to get to know (if you haven't already) more people in your community that are different than you. I'm not planning on stopping here as I want to hopefully interview several other faith leaders in my community.
Would love to hear what you think...