I received an honor in synagogue today

Today I received the honor of lifting the Torah. I did a poor job of it. I tried hard…..I was trying REALLY hard. But, it was mostly rolled to one end…which made it very heavy on one side… I was very shaky with it… I didn’t rip it. I didn’t drop it… and I tried my best…

Isn’t that so symbolic of life? I mean, it’s my second time to do that IN MY LIFE…I’m not beating myself up. But, I’m just struck by how profound and symbolic that is…

You’re standing there… Trying your best to hold the Torah up….to display it properly… and no matter how hard you try…your hands are shaky… you’re just not going to do it perfectly… there are other factors in play here than your desire to do the best job possible…

You’re not the best choice for the job….but it’s a job you were chosen to do. So, you do it with all your heart. You’re faced with a mix of humility at being chosen… and fear that you will make a horrible mistake….

You take comfort in the fact that you’re surrounded by your people here. Synagogue is the only place in the world I get up in front of people…and draw strength from the fact they’re standing there watching me. These are not just any people…they’re MY people. They’re my tribe… and life is better because they’re there.

How symbolic it is… we are chosen to carry Torah to the world… we are chosen to hold it up… and we’re never perfect. But, we do it because we were chosen to do it. We may be shaky at it. There may be someone else who can do it better….10 times better than us. But, it’s our job. So, we do the best WE can. In the end, we can’t hope to be perfect….but we can hope we did the job we were chosen to do…not as someone else would have done it, but as we could do it.

Today, I lifted Torah in synagogue…and today, Torah lifted me.

Reform Vs. Conservative

Over the years, Reform has gotten more traditional while Conservative has gotten more liberal. The result is two movements that have pretty much met in the middle. Last week, I attended a Conservative synagogue for the first time and these are my observations.

I was naive when I attended the Conservative synagogue. I knew they recognized me as a Jew. I knew that, on paper, they’re almost identical to Reform. Before this point, however, I could not, for the life of me, understand why these two movements didn’t just merge. After attending their synagogue, it’s abundantly clear. Never the twain shall meet. I will explain:

The Reform movement grew out of the German Jewish experience. It started by largely rejecting tradition and then adding back tradition within the new context. The German experience shows itself in everyone acting in unison – with no distracting deviation. You do not talk. You sit there with your siddur. You pray along. You stand when everyone stands. You sit when everyone sits. You speak when everyone speaks. The cantor faces you and acts, in ways, as a conductor. If your leg falls off, suck it up and don’t cause too much distraction while you deal with the problem.

The Conservative movement was a Eastern European response to Reform. It sought to modernize worship, but not disregard tradition. Coming from a Reform perspective, it looked to me like a Jewish version of whack-a-mole. The unison of action was not there. Some people stood at times when others didn’t (whether they were lost in the siddur or just needed to stand a few minutes I cannot say), they talked to each other freely, etc. To highlight this difference, the cantor is turned facing the front as well. He’s not a conductor as much as he’s the official pace keeper.

Now, as far as the service itself, the same order is there. It’s basically the same service. But, the culture is completely different. It’s as if two different people from two completely different worlds gained access to a script without cues and decided to implement it from their own unique points of view. Essentially, that is what happened.

So, which service is better? I would say it depends on the person. The Conservative service is more free-flowing. The Reform is a finely-tuned machine. Because of this, not only do I think the two movements will never merge, I would be full of sorrow if they DID. Both have created wonderful expressions of Judaism that speak to a percentage of the population. If they ever did merge, that percentage of the population would be denied its voice. This is the unity in diversity that makes Judaism such a strong and vibrant force in the world. I pray to God that both jewels shine bright long into the future.

My Masonic Lodge

I haven’t been to my Masonic lodge in almost a year. It meets during the week and I can’t make it. But, I happened upon an old picture I had of the lodge officers…

Now, our lodge is a relatively normal lodge. It once met upstairs in a Baptist church (pretty common in the old South) and, once the church outgrew its sanctuary, it moved and gave the building to the lodge. Of course, the ties between the Southern Baptists and Freemasonry are well-known. Although I can’t find the original report, I did find a quote from it:

According to the Southern Baptist Convention’s A Report on Freemasonry, we find the following:

In 1991, the Home Mission Board submitted questions concerning Freemasonry in the SBC to Baptist VIEWpoll. Baptist VIEWpoll is a survey by the Corporate Market Research Department of the Sunday School Board, SBC, of 1,433 Southern Baptists (283 pastors, 430 ministers of education, 247 directors of missions, 202 deacon chairmen, and 271 church clerks). Of the 1,433 who received the questionnaire, 997 responded. One question was how important it was for the SBC to have an official statement on Freemasonry. A majority of pastors (60%), ministers of education (56%), directors of missions (72%), deacon chairmen (63%), and church clerks (74%) felt that such a statement was either “not very important at all” or had no opinion about whether a statement was needed. When asked if the issue of Freemasonry ever caused a problem in their churches/associations, the vast majority of each group responded that their churches/associations had never dealt with Freemasonry. Of those responding, 14 percent of the pastors, 5 percent of the ministers of education, 13 percent of the directors of missions, 18 percent of the deacon chairmen, and 12 percent of the church clerks were or had been Masonic or Eastern Star members.1

An estimated 400,000 – 500,000 Southern Baptist men are Masons.

Just as well-known are the ties between Jews and Freemasons. Our own synagogue was started by a meeting at a Masonic lodge. But, I also found this great article about Jews and Freemasonry.

Of course, people of any religion can belong to Freemasonry. It is neither a religion nor a substitute for it, as said best by the Grandmaster of the United Grand Lodge of England:

We need to be absolutely clear when we discuss our Pure Antient Masonry that we belong to a secular organisation, that is to say a non-religious organisation. This was a point made very eloquently by the Grand Chaplain in his interview. It is, however, a secular organisation that is supportive of religion: it is an absolute requirement for all our members to believe in a Supreme Being. As the late and sadly missed Dean Neil Collings so eloquently put it, this gives “a context and background to the individual’s way of life as they seek to live it”. Freemasonry itself, as we all know, is neither a substitute for nor an alternative to religion. It certainly does not deal in spirituality; it does not have any sacraments; or, indeed, offer or claim to offer any type of salvation. Freemasonry, in fact, absolutely fails to meet any of the tests of what it is to be a religion, set by the late Reverend Professor John MacQuarrie, former Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford. The fact that men from different faiths can meet easily in harmony and friendship, without compromising their particular religious beliefs, demonstrates that one of the greatest strengths of the Craft, dating from its earliest beginnings, is that of Tolerance. To ensure this tolerance remains untroubled, of course, discussions of religion like discussions of politics are strictly prohibited! (more…)

Birmingham Jewish History

I’ve had a spurt of updates to this website, but unfortunately, I won’t be able to continue at this pace. It’s a “Do it when I can and have something to say” type of deal. But, I do want to share this:

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life has an Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities online. Luckily, it has our own city in the Encyclopedia. It has some AMAZING pictures and history associated with our synagogue and city. This was the first thing to catch my eye:

A year later, with 32 members, they met again at the Masonic Hall to sign a charter for a new organization called Temple Emanu-El.

Yes, my own synagogue has a Masonic connection! How cool is that? Now, I don’t know if Henry Simon was a Mason or whether the others were, but it would be reasonable to expect it. In the original 13 colonies, seven of the 13 colonies had lodges started by Jews. Jews have always been involved with Freemasonry.

It also tells you that Bertha and Hugo Marx were the first Jews to be born in Birmingham, a picture of our original synagogue, and describes some important Birmingham Jewish figures:

Samuel Ullman a lay rabbi of Temple Emanu-el, persuaded Birmingham to build it’s first permanent public high school (Central High) as well as its first black high school (Industrial High)….in 1900. He also started one of the first chapters of the SPCA.

Burghard and Sigfried Steiner, two Jewish bankers, came up with the “Steiner plan” in which they deferred the interest of the city’s municipal bonds through their bank…which allowed Birmingham to get to a point where they could afford to pay the interest and saved the city from economic collapse.

Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Morris Newfield fostered strong relationships between Birmingham’s Jews and Christians (something we still benefit from today). He taught Hebrew at Howard college, a Baptist school. He allowed a group of local Presbyterians, led by Dr. Henry Edmonds, to meet at Temple Emanu-el for seven years until they could afford their own congregation (Independent Presbyterian Church) and, in 1928, He and Dr. Edmonds started a Birmingham chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews to promote universal brotherhood. He also fought child labor, poverty, and helped run the Birmingham Red Cross….as well as helped start the Anti-Tuberculosis Society.

Also, it speaks of Rabbi Grafman and his fight in the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham…indeed, all of Birmingham Jewry’s fight in the Civil Rights movement. It’s a fascinating read. It ends by stating “In 1975, he became the first rabbi to lead the Minister’s Association of Greater Birmingham.”

It’s a wonderful read and really pins the Birmingham Jewish community down. You should really take a look.



The Jewish Daily Forward posted a book review. It was on conversion and this is something that hits close to home. I replied there, but I’ll reply here as well in more detail.

The article talks about the traditional issue of conversion as well as the modern Orthodox movement’s views on conversion. Now, a little about how I play into this issue: I did not convert FROM a religion. I left the Christian church at 18 and haven’t really had a religion since then. My life has been one of seeking God and exploring. I’ve given myself a comparative religion class, in essence. I spent time with religions without joining them…. spent a lot…a LOT of time with philosophies… but haven’t really had a place to call home.

Then, along comes Judaism. I find a lot of my personal philosophy mirrored in Judaism… and find a home. It feels like this is the place I was meant to be. I started adding Jewish practices to my life and now, my life is that of your average Jew. In December, after over 10 months in a conversion program, I went before a beit den, underwent circumcision (hatafat dam brit in my case), and immersed in a mikveh. Then, I stood up in front of my community and accepted Torah, swore to not engage in anything but Jewish practices, etc. I became a Jew. (more…)