Sermon given November 21, 1997, by Rabbi Barry H. Block
Have you ever noticed that, when a group of Jewish people are eating together in a restaurant, some people will lower their voices to a whisper if the word “Jewish” is mentioned? The idea, I suppose, is that one does not wish to draw attention to one’s Jewishness, or to the fact that Judaism is the topic of discussion.
The habit of whispering the word “Jewish” in public originated in a day when Jews were less comfortable and confident in our position in American society. In those days, we were looking to be fully part of America, not to differentiate ourselves in any way. Anti-Semitism was common, and Jews were excluded from workplaces, universities and clubs. We would lower our voices to prevent our separate religious identify from being noticed. We certainly wouldn’t advertise it.
In those days, few Reform Jews marked the home with a mezuzzah, which could be seen as an advertisement of a Jewish home. Fewer still wore distinctly Jewish jewelry. Even today, many of us are taken aback at the sight of a traditional Jew out and about publicly in San Antonio, wearing a head covering or fringes, publicly advertising that he or she is a Jew.
On the whole, though, Jews today are more openly proud in proclaiming our Jewishness. We do put a mezuzzah on our door post, and many of us wear a Star of David or a chai around our necks. Most of us have even stopped whispering when we discuss our faith in public.
Last spring, and the spring before that, Temple Beth-El went public in a new and different way. We offered a program called, “A Taste of Judaism,” for beginning adult learners, Jewish or not. We hoped to reach Jews who had been estranged from our Temple and the organized Jewish community. We wished to welcome non-Jews who had no connection to the Temple, and who had not been touched by interfaith learning opportunities.
Our national Reform movement had developed this program, and had done the research on how to reach our anticipated audience. Advertising in the principal local newspaper, they told us, is the only way. So, for about three weeks each year, Temple Beth-El has advertised adult Jewish education in the Express-News.
Some of our members were quite surprised when they woke up one fine morning, only to read these ads in their morning paper. Though conversion to Judaism is not mentioned in the ad, and the course offered does not lead to conversion, some Temple members thought that we were advertising conversion. We were not and we would not.
Instead, we were advertising the Temple’s open doors to disaffected Jews and interfaith couples, welcoming them to find a path home to Judaism.
We were advertising the Temple’s open doors to faithful Christians, who are eager to learn more about the Jewish roots of their own faith.
We were advertising the Temple’s open doors to people of various faiths who simply wish to broaden their knowledge of their neighbors’ traditions.
We were advertising the Temple’s open doors to those of no faith who wondered if Judaism might be the way of life for which they had been searching.
Who walked through those doors? The numbers: about 75 last year and 135 this year. Let me tell you about a few of those individuals, though I’ll change their names.
We met Simon and Sally, an interfaith couple who had never been affiliated in San Antonio and who were practicing no religion in their marriage. Later, they took our Introduction of Judaism Course, Sally converted, and they are now members of Congregation Agudas Achim.
Ann also walked through our open doors. She is a non-Jewish staff member of one of our local Jewish agencies. Ann wanted to know more about Judaism in order to serve her clients more effectively. The same goes for Ken, a local funeral director, a devoted Christian who wished to serve our Jewish community appropriately.
Of all the non-Jews who were welcomed by our advertising, only a tiny fraction later decided to take our Introduction to Judaism Course, which we do not advertise publicly, and only a few of them converted to Judaism. Though they first came to us in response to an ad, they were not proselytized. Some of these men and women had been reading about Judaism for many years, but had mistakenly believed that we do not accept converts. Some didn’t even know that non-Jews are permitted to enter the Temple. Now, they are full, active, faithful, and inspiring members of our congregation and community.
Next month, we and Jews throughout the world will celebrate the beautiful festival of Hanukkah. Our most important act those days will be what our Rabbis called Pirsomet ha-nes, advertising the miracle. When we kindle our Hanukkah menorah, we are not to place it in the deep, private recesses of our home. Rather, we are commanded to place our Hanukkah lights on the front window, for all the world to see our public recollection and celebration of the miracle of Hanukkah. Judaism is like a menorah, offering light and joy and wisdom and inspiration to all the world. Not all will be drawn to our light. There are other bright stars, other great sources of wisdom in the world. We respect other religions and we must never, ever try to deflect others from their light to ours.
But how dare we keep our light cloaked in darkness? How dare we hide the wisdom of Judaism from the world? Dare we not do everything possible to welcome back those who have wandered away?
Next month, we shall all advertise the miracle of Hanukkah. Some time soon, no doubt, Temple Beth-El will again advertise in the Express-News. May our intentions remain pure and our ads tasteful. May the light of Judaism shine brightly for all the world to behold.