Creating Community, Part 3: The Chabad Connection

By Hannah Lee
This series explores some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Previous articles have focused on a contemporary approach on the Internet and the traditional method of hospitality.

Jews who travel know to contact the local Chabad rabbi in whatever city they find themselves to seek help about kosher food and Shabbat accommodations.  The local Chabad website would have that week’s Shabbat candle lighting time and parshah (Bible portion), even when the traveller’s  own congregation’s website may not be as current.  This free service is extended to all Jews, regardless of religious background, but sometimes, the Chabad connection goes beyond the normal call of duty.

Image from amazon.com

In Senator Joe Lieberman‘s new book, The Gift of Rest, he wrote about one memorable visit to Munich with Senator John McCain in February 2004, a time of massive anti-Iraq war demonstrations that targeted the international security conference attended by “almost all defense ministers and many foreign ministers of NATO countries.”  Lieberman was greeted by the American military attaché who reported thus:

“As you have seen, Senator, the streets around the hotel are sealed off with riot control vehicles and police cars.  A few hours ago, I was called to come out and meet someone.  I went out, watched the police vehicles separate, and through them walked a young rabbi with a beard, a black suit, and black hat, carrying a large shopping bag.  When we met, he said he had brought the bag for Senator Lieberman for the Sabbath, and here it is. ”

“And there it was, thanks to Rabbi Yisroel Diskin, the Chabad rabbi in Munich- a bag full of all I needed to make and enjoy Shabbat in Munich.  How did the rabbi know I was there?  My mother, in Stamford, CT, told her Chabad rabbi, Yisroel Deren, that I was going to be in Munich that Shabbat, and Rabbi Deren immediately e-mailed Rabbi Diskin who took it from there.”

My daughter got through her college years with the help of her Chabad rabbi, another venue where Jewish connection is maintained  by these dedicated rabbis and their wives.  When she graduated at the end of the winter quarter, it was the day before Purim, so we celebrated Shabbat and Purim with Chabad and we had a fabulous time.   I was Cleopatra, complete with headdress, gladiator sandals, blingy garb, and the fatal asp too!  My daughter channeled her inner geek, by re-purposing her graduation gown as the English school uniform for Hermione.

Rendering of Chabad Center in Aspen

When my family was in Aspen for its annual music festival one year, we celebrated Shabbat with Chabad there.  Rabbi Mendel Mintz has created a lively Jewish community center in the Colorado mountains, which he, Brooklyn-born and bred, has learned to ski.  His beautiful wife, Lieba, is director of their Hebrew school — as is usual in the Chabad outposts —  and they’re assisted by a rotation of young women who come out from Brooklyn to help the family care for their children as well as serve as teachers in the Hebrew school.  They give their all, with zeal and passion, because their mission is to bring all Jews closer to their tradition.
So, why can Jews travel all over the world and get consistent aid from the local Chabad websites?  It’s because it’s all centrally maintained at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, New York.  The staff at the headquarters helps new shluchim (emissaries) with websites, data bases, and tax forms.  It’s maybe as old as the shluchim program.  And for the Reader, if you feel inadequate about your knowledge of Jewish heritage, their newest educational project is Fascinating Facts: Exploring the Myths and Mysteries of Judaism and it’s available at your local Chabad center.

Flyer for Chabad educational program

 

How Does Jesus Look to You?

Rembrandt’s
Head of Christ
Philadelphia Museum of Art

By Hannah Lee

When I learned that the National Museum of American Jewish History would be collaborating with the Philadelphia Museum of Art on an interfaith forum and conversation about the Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibit at the art museum, I was eager to sign up.  So much has been written about this exhibit, both in secular press (New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer) as well as the Jewish press (Tablet and Forward).  It is a topic that is not surprisingly fascinating to Jews, as Jesus was born of Jewish parents and so much strife over the centuries have been waged in his name by descendants of his apostles.  It was thrilling to be in the audience  with members of the other faiths, in a harmonious conversation about a religious icon and symbol, because we usually only are taught by members of our own faiths.

Larry Silver, Professor of Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, moderated the interfaith panel discussion, and he launched it with a query from his curator friend who asked, “why not the head of Christ?”  He proceeded to answer it himself by pointing out the works of Rembrandt represented a movement away from iconography towards a more human portrayal of Jesus, and the face is the window onto the human soul.  He then presented to us in the audience and the panel members (on a separate monitor) about 13 paintings of Jesus, only one of which was by Rembrandt.

 

Regarding Matthias Grünewald’s The Crucifixion, from 1515, Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, noted that it was not beautiful in the same way that the Holocaust is too grotesque, too harsh for beauty.  Professor Silver commented that Jesus was twice the size of every other figure in the painting and Jayne Oasin, Associate Priest of the Associated Parishes of Saint Stephen in Riverside and Beverly in New Jersey pointed out that the light highlighted the darkness.


Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, Art Institute of Chicago

Regarding Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, from 1938, Reverend Oasin noted that the painting has all the woes of mankind, and it reminds her of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Chancellor Eisen taught that at the turn of the 20th century, there was much identification by Jews with the life and death of Jesus.  This was exhibited by Martin Buber and later by Elie Wiesel who wrote about Jesus in the Holocaust.  ”Jesus had become the universal figure of suffering,” not as Savior.  The figure in green in the right foreground is often depicted by Chagall as the Wandering Jew who needs to flee from calamity.  Zakiya Islam, a Muslim woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Temple University taught that a tenet of Islam is that in times of suffering, one is to run away.

Regarding a local painting by Thomas Eakins, The Crucifixion, from 1880, Chancellor Eisen noted that Jesus has no face, because the human soul is no longer there and because of the failure of ethics and goodness.  Reverend Oasin said that we can no longer turn our face away — the viewer’s eyes are riveted  to Jesus in the middle ground — reminding us of our sin, our inhumanity.  James Redington, a Catholic and Jesuit priest, pointed out that death had occurred through strangulation, as Jesus in the painting has pushed his back up against the cross in an attempt to breathe.  Ms. Islam said that there is no mention of the Crucifixion in the Koran.  There is suffering and struggle, but there is no focus on any specific suffering.  While Jesus, called the Spirit of God, and Mary are much beloved in Islam, there are no images in the Muslim religion.  Chancellor Eisen taught that while moderns refer to the Enlightenment as bringing light into the world, the previous Dark Ages, to the pre-moderns, their religions had already brought light into the darkness of the world.  In fact, to the religious, the modern world contains a little less light than much earlier in our history.

Regarding William Holman Hunt’s Jesus, Light of the World, from 1854, Reverend Oasin asked if Jesus is knocking on a door?  Ms. Islam said that this painting resonated with her, as Jesus is depicted with a mystical air (unlike the later, more human depictions of Jesus).

An amazing painting for the Jews in the audience was Maurycy Gottlieb’s Christ Preaching at Capernaum, from 1879, because Jesus is a Rabbi who is preaching at a recognizable synagogue (Capernum is on the Sea of Galilee in Israel).  Reverend Oasin pointed out that Jesus has his arms outstretched, as Christians do to celebrate the Eucharist (unlike the Kohanim’s spread-finger stance for blessing the congregation).

Regarding Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus, from 1601 (a favorite scene of Jesus appearing three days after Resurrection at an inn in Emmaus), Reverend Oasin noted that Jesus is beardless, fuller than to be expected (for someone recently back from the dead), and on the whole, fairly feminine.  Jesus is a woman, she exulted!  Ms. Islam said that the Ascension is very important in Islam, quoting from the Koran, “God said, ‘I have brought him to me.’”

Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ, from 1940, would be recognizable to just about any modern-day person, even one who is not a Christian.  It is the most popular depiction of Jesus.  Reverend Oasin, who is black, reminisced that when she was a girl, this painting showed her that Jesus does not look like her, does not look at her.  Father Redington called this the Protestant Jesus.

One member of the audience commented that Rembrandt’s compatriots were the early readers of the Bible. No, said Professor Silver, the Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1450 and by 1637, there was already the Dutch State Bible in translation.  He added that by the 1520s, Martin Luther had already translated the Bible into German and today, we are witnessing the 400th anniversary of the King James’ edition of the Bible.  Chancellor Eisen taught us that the Calvinists loved the Old Testament and Rembrandt had lived around the block from Spinoza and Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel.  Another person from the audience noted that Grünewald had the rare blend of symbolism and realism and Professor Silver concurred that it was a blend of the glorious and the suffering.  Reverend Oasin pointed out that people come to religion for comfort, so they do not relish a focus on harshness.  Chancellor Eisen taught that the artist acts in the role of spiritual narrator, thus art is a gift from God.


Rembrandt’s Head of Christ,
Philadelphia Museum of Art

A Jewish member from the audience asked about the depiction of challah in the scenes with Jesus’s final days. Wasn’t it Passover?  ”No,” said Professor Silver, “by the second century, the Last Supper had been uncoupled from the Passover Seder.”  John, the most anti-Semitic of the Gospels ensured that references to Jesus’s Jewish roots were eradicated  or at least minimized.  Reverend Oasin added that John was also the most anti-dark of the Gospels, with his numerous equations of whiteness to goodness.  When she teaches her seminarian students, she tells them they can teach about John, but they have to unpack him (of his baggage).  Professor Silver proclaimed the Dutch of Rembrandt’s day very inclusive.  The artist even painted the Ethiopian convert with Jesus, not just once, but twice.

Another member of the audience asked about the ladder in Chagall’s painting and was it a sign of hope, amidst the dire symbols in the rest of the painting.  Well, replied Professor Silver, a ladder can go down as well as up and a ladder usually is simply the means to remove the mortal remains.

After a brief intermission, there was the keynote lecture by David Morgan, who has a dual appointment in the departments of religion and art, art history and visual studies at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  He commenced with a rhetorical question: what does it say that a painting is of Jesus? Does he look like us? A likeness can be the resemblance of an image to an original  based on features they share.  Drawing on neuroscience, our brain looks for resemblances, matches in our surroundings– “our brain wants to see order in the world.”  A likeness is also the result of a powerful drive to emulate an archetype, such as a baby swan that mimics the preening of its parent or a pedestrian to a store mannequin.  “The engine is the desire.”  Third, to Christians, the image of Jesus presents what he was like, a recognition of an affinity between his appearance and what the faithful believes, knows, feels, and sees within themselves about him.  It is an intimate connection that the devout viewers feel between Jesus and themselves.  The basis of likeness is an archive of images composed of all the images people have ever seen in an endless chain of reference.

The Grünewald paintings we’d examined earlier in the program were unique in balancing the majesty and the personal. Traditionally, artists relied on iconography– the halo, cross, banner, book, instruments of his passion or other references to biblical narratives or events- to identify Jesus and his power.  In contrast, Rembrandt focused on the face in painting a modern portrait.  The artist takes his “historicity seriously, endowing Jesus with a new kind of reality, as a personification of humanity.”  The facial features included: a broad forehead, shoulder-length hair that is parted in the middle, a long, symmetrical nose, a short, cropped beard, widely-set eyes, the appearance of ears, and a solemn, serious expression.  Rembrandt appropriated a contemporary trend in depicting Jesus close-up, in a head-and-shoulders pose, and with eyes that address the viewer.  He also “located Jesus before the viewer as a contemporary person.”    The artist may be said to have contributed to the 20th century preference for portraying Christ in poses that highlight a direct engagement of the personality over the traditional symbolic devices used to convey theological meaning.


Janet McKenzie’s
Jesus of the People,
Haggerty Museum of Art

Professor Morgan then displayed a variety of paintings of Jesus from the Warner Sallman iconic image of 1940, to the 1977 Zeffirelli mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth (in which the actor portraying Jesus looked like my brother-in-law).   In recent decades, the likeness of Jesus is no longer asserted as a universal type, but as ethnically specific.  We now have the Korean Jesus in traditional Korean garb (dopo overcoat and gat top hat); the Asian Indian Jesus with transfigurative blue skin, the beach bum Jesus, and the dark-skinned, female Jesus, the winning entry in a cover art contest conducted by National Catholic Reporter an independent newsweekly and one of the best-known Catholic publications in the country, at the advent of the 21st century.  Painted by Janet McKenzie of Island Pond, Vermont, the winning painting of Jesus of the People, shows “a robed and haloed Jesus.  Against a pale pink background are a yin-yang symbol, intended to represent perfect balance, and a feather, symbolizing the American Indian spirituality…” as reported in The Laredo Morning Times.

The visual archive that Professor Morgan referenced earlier is so strongly entrenched that when he displays iconoclastic images of Jesus–  such as an obese Jesus-  even hard-core Calvinists (with presumably less fixation on imagery) reject them.  ”We have our own images, even if they’re suppressed.”  Ms. Islam noted that Muslims do not have a tradition of imagery, but they do have the narrative.  When they come to the West, they too become influenced by the archive of imagery.

Despite the despair depicted by Chagall in his White Crucifixion, Chancellor Eisen in his parting remark said that it is hopeful that we can have an interfaith conversation about Jesus.  May the harmony and respect on display at the program carry forward into other realms of our contemporary world.

 

Creating Community, Part 2: Better Than Couch Surfing

This on-going series will explore some of the ways that Jews have created a sense of kehillah (community), both traditional and modern.  Part 1 focused on a contemporary approach, the list-serve; in this article, I will explore the traditional method of hospitality; future articles will focus on Chabad, a group of Jews with phenomenal outreach as well as integral cohesion, and how one religious institution, Lower Merion Synagogue, has managed to send so many of its youth to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), and even to serve in Tzahal (the Israeli Army).

Recently, my daughter’s new apartment was burglarized, so I found myself making travel arrangements on short notice.  I couldn’t find hotel space close to her Lakeview neighborhood in Chicago, so I reserved the bedroom and bathroom offered by a young couple on the Airbnb website.  My daughter stayed with me there for two nights and it was perfect for our needs.  Later this month, I will return for another visit, this time with my teen daughter.  The very day I landed in Chicago, the New York Times ran a feature on Airbnb and its placement service in its Business section.

As comfy as were my accommodations– far better than couch surfing!– the placement service does not yet compare to the generous hospitality that I know in the Jewish community in my role as Hospitality Coordinator for my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue.  Orthodox Jews have such a strong sense of connection with other Shabbat-observant Jews that we can travel the world over and ask for (free) Shabbat and Yom Tov (holy day) hospitality from local Jews.  Usually, it’s because of work or non-Orthodox family celebrations that we find ourselves far from an Orthodox synagogue.  (We also get the occasional appeal from a shul member overwhelmed by the number of out-of-town guests for a simcha (religious celebration)).  But it is also when we travel for pleasure that we can ask for help finding kosher food and accommodations.

However, we Jews have been thinking a lot about trust and safety recently after the little boy, Leiby Kletzky, was murdered in Brooklyn, after he asked for directions from a man who looked legit, like someone who held the same values.  Similarly, Airbnb had to revise its policy after several hosts complained of paying guests who trashed their homes and stolen personal property.  A few days after my return home, I received a letter from Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb, stating their commitment to supporting their hosts with a newly instituted guarantee coverage for up to $50,000 in damages from paying guests.  So, how do we deal with the issue in my community?

Some people would say we’re crazy for opening up our homes to strangers.  I have even placed guests in local homes while the owners were away.  In one incidence, the guests were coming from London for a bar mitzvah, they later connected with their hosts, and the shul family’s daughter was able to stay with them while she was doing her semester abroad.  In a dramatic example of the Biblical quote from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that can be translated as “Cast your bread on the waters, for you shall find it after many days”,  this same host family found themselves in need of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) this summer when they made a wedding for one of their daughters and their machatanim (parents of the other member of the wedding couple, in this case, the groom) asked for an empty house, because the groom’s father is wheelchair-bound and he has to use a hospital bed.  To my amazement, with my very first phone call, I was able to make the shidduch (match).  Another example came four summers ago, when I got a frantic call on a Friday afternoon.  A woman was stranded at the airport because her plane had been delayed and she needed a place to stay for Shabbat.  I made the shidduch, then because her luggage had been routed to Boston (where the rest of her family was headed), she wore her host family’s daughter’s power suit to shul the next day.  The only marvel to me was that she, a mature woman in her late 50s, was the same size as her host family’s 19-year-old daughter.

After the boy’s murder, my Rabbi gave a drasha (sermon) on Shabbat about reaching out to the loners in our midst.  He also reassured me that we were doing just fine with our hospitality placements.  I later consulted with my co-coordinator  about changes we might have to make, as we are not in a position to offer any monetary guarantees against damages.  We decided to continue with our modus operandus, by inquiring about the community that a prospective guest hails from and how did they find us, as a community referral is best.

We are not unique in our commitment to hachnasat orchim. The website Shabbat.com was created by a web designer in Monsey, NY in 2010 and, after the webmaster of LMShuls posted a notice about it on our list-serve, about 20 local families signed up as hosts that week.  We cannot make the bad headline news go away, but we can focus on building community in the way we know, one mitzvah at a time.

This series will continue in September.

HIAS Chronicle: An Interview with Jeremiah Alexander

Jeremiah Alexander retired last week as Refugee Resettlement Case Manager at HIAS. He was interviewed by Hannah Lee.

Do you remember your first meeting with a refugee family at the Philly Airport?

I’ll never forget the first family that I met at the airport.  It was actually my first day at work!  They were a Burmese Chin family who came from India and were being reunited with their father who had immigrated to the states many years prior.  Though he was dying from cancer, there was an intense joy that radiated from him knowing that he was going to spend the rest of his days with his family.  I remember feeling extremely privileged to be a part of such an amazing moment.  Two of those arrivals later went on to work for HIAS.  Esther worked as a Case Aide before being hired as a translator for the Philadelphia School District.  She was replaced at HIAS by her amazing brother Gin who currently accompanies many of our Burmese and Bhutanese clients to their necessary appointments.

What is your educational background?

I attended Eastern University in St. Davids, PA.  I earned a B.A. in Political Science in 2004 and an M.A. in International Development in 2008.

What aspect of your background motivated you to work with refugees?

At an early age, I became interested in working on international social justice issues alongside people from diverse cultural backgrounds.  I originally thought that would involve moving overseas or at the very least moving to DC to work for a US-based NGO (non-governmental organization) with an international focus.  However, while in my master’s program at Eastern, I did an internship with the American Friends Service Committee that changed my trajectory a bit.  I worked under Roberta Spivek, the director of the National Economic Justice Program.  While working on many broad issues, such as the Cost of War Campaign and lobbying for health care coverage for the uninsured,  I found that I was becoming increasingly fascinated with how U.S. national and international policies were affecting people right here in Philadelphia, particularly the under-paid and marginalized populations that tend to be overlooked by most policy-makers.

After my internship, I took a position with my church, Circle of Hope, as the Director of our non-profit arm, which at the time was called Circle Venture.  I worked to help facilitate compassionate service opportunities through our various mission teams.  The teams were diverse and included a counseling center and an “intentional community” in West Philadelphia devoted entirely to pro-active peace-making.  It was a great position that gave me a real sense of our city as a whole.  In particular, with an office based at Broad and Washington, I quickly started learning more about South Philadelphia.  I began to get a feel for the newly arriving immigrant populations that were moving to South Philly and began to take interest in how they were acclimating to the city.  When I saw the posting for the Refugee Resettlement Case Manager position at HIAS, it seemed like all my interests were consolidated into a single position.  So I applied!

What is a highlight from your tenure?

The highlight of working for HIAS has been both my co-workers and my daily interactions with clients.  My co-workers all come from such different backgrounds but the level of respect, professionalism, and personal care that I received from them was universal.  This family-like atmosphere will definitely be impossible to replace.  In addition, being able to get to know Bhutanese, Iraqi, Eritrean, and Burmese clients on a personal level has been the opportunity of a lifetime.  Through it all, the most striking reality that was etched in my mind over and over again was how similar we all really are.

What was a disappointment?

My biggest disappointment was the lack of resources afforded to refugees at the federal and state levels.  Though the amount of federal Reception and Placement money doubled from $450 to $900 per refugee during my tenure– a huge boost, for sure– truly adequate financial support is still lacking.  At the state-level, cash assistance from the Department of Public Welfare is also woefully insufficient, particularly for people who are literally trying to build a life from scratch.  The myth that a family can live off welfare alone couldn’t be further from the truth.  Nobody can survive on that small amount of money without other income to supplement it.  I think we need to re-visit the process of resettlement at a national level– something not possible in the current economic climate– and re-adjust to the reality that we are dealing with people from much different backgrounds than we were in the past.  Resettlement isn’t a three-month process anymore. I really admire everyone on our Refugee Team for working so hard to make up for these realities at the federal and state levels, truly working tirelessly to help clients acclimate the best they can.

Any funny anecdotes or faux pas?

Hmmm, funny stories are tough because the funniest ones all come at a clients’ expense or involve me doing something I shouldn’t…Maybe we’ll leave those off for now.

What do you treasure from this position at HIAS?  What would you miss?  Not miss?

One thing I will miss, other than my clients and my co-workers, was how diverse each day was. As a case manager you have to be prepared, on any day, to be at a meeting one minute and on your way to the hospital with a client the next. Or, you might start the day thinking you’re going to work on administrative tasks only to come to find out that there are a hundred mattresses that need to be moved!  I will miss having such unpredictable days.  What I won’t miss is the unpredictability when it carries over into the middle of the night!  That I’ll leave for those who are even younger than me!

What thoughts do you have about your future?

The future is a little up in the air but I’m becoming more and more interested in the public health field.  This will all come further into focus over the next month and I’ll have many more details then!