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Faith Matters: Rabbi Finds Himself in 'Buckle of the Bible Belt'

11/15/2015 06:02:53 PM


By Rabbi Dr. Rob Lennick

Last September, I arrived in Northwest Arkansas from Pennsylvania for a four-month stint as rabbi-in-residence at Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville. Before I set out on this adventure, my friends — of a variety of faiths — were astounded, if not concerned. They offered their barrage of questions: “Why on earth would you want to go to Arkansas? You are a progressive thinker, and you’ll be in a sea of traditional conservative folks. You’ll be in the ‘Buckle of the Bible Belt,’ where there are very strong views about bringing the world to Christ — and you don’t really believe God prefers one religion over another. Most people might never have met a Jewish person, let alone a rabbi. Do you want to be in that position? And there are few — if any — Jews in Northwest Arkansas anyway, right? Really, Rob, are you OK?”

So, I decided, for this first foray as a contributor to this column, I would respond to my baffled friends.

Progressive thinker? You bet. This doesn’t mean I won’t listen and learn from other points of view. I believe in spiritual progress and the evolution of the human spirit. I don’t see folks as traditional or conservative. I see everyone as a work in progress. We might have different views, priorities or ways of finding meaning in the world, but we are all part of one human family, sharing one very delicate planet, all of us searching for meaning and purpose, each one imperfect and mortal. Seems like we have much more in common than not.

What could be better than sojourning in a place where the story of diversity, inclusion and common hope is beginning to be written? Maybe, the best way to deepen my own faith is to listen and learn about the faith of others. What better place to do that than here? And maybe there is something to be said about intentionally leaving one’s comfort zone, one’s familiar clan and locale, to expand one’s spiritual awareness. Didn’t Abraham and Sarah “go forth” to a land God would show them and, by doing so, they experienced many blessings? Maybe this is a Promised Land in my story?

Buckle of the Bible Belt … Yes! Awesome! Chances are there will be great interest in Judaism and the Jewish people. I’ll be able to teach about how Christianity is rooted in Judaism; explain what Jesus’ Jewish life might have been like; share Judaism’s views on the Messiah, life, death, evil in the world, original sin; and have a solid dialogue about the nature of God.

Most people around here are serious about religion. How wonderful to be in the presence of Muslims, Hindus, Baha’i, Sikhs, Christians and so many others of diverse beliefs. I know some Christians hold evangelization as a cornerstone of their faith. Why don’t Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah? How great it will be to be able to explain that with great care; or better yet, study it … together.

And it will be a special privilege to witness the depth of faith of others. Yes, I am quite confortable with my own faith and, in my heart, believe God hears the prayers of all peaceful, compassionate and humble souls. I don’t think God requires a litmus test of faith. But, isn’t it better that people talk about these things, share our stories, try to understand each other, rather than stand apart defending what we claim is our own truth?

I have no desire to change anyone’s faith. The purpose of Judaism is not to make the world Jewish, but to bring goodness into the world and show the world we keep the faith no matter our challenges — even after the Holocaust. We bring goodness to the world through the gifts of our minds and souls. Jews are barely half of 1 percent of the world’s population, and yet have made world-changing discoveries, inventions, medical breakthroughs and contributions to the betterment of human civilization. Why? Because our religion is about doing good and improving life for all, much more than professing faith.

When I see all of the extremism in the name of God and religion, it seems to me the only way to overcome the human tendency to define one’s self by focusing on the differences of the other is to share our human stories of struggle and survival, learn about each other and break down stereotypes and fears. What better place than in the “Buckle” to build new bridges of peaceful understanding and common empathy? This community can set a great example for others about inclusion, respect and celebrating diversity as our strength. Would, that we could actually live together without the compunction to change one another?

It is a special joy to be a rabbi here. I love sharing my understanding of Judaism with Jew and non-Jew alike. I teach many courses throughout the year and, especially, twice a year, “Taste of Judaism,” to introduce Judaism to anyone who is curious, wishing to enhance their own faith, delve into why Jews believe what we do, our holidays and practices. The Hebrew word “rabbi” means “teacher.” That’s why I am always thrilled to teach and preach about Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, interfaith ideas and our spiritual kinship in houses of worship across the spectrum. What better place than here to show the beauty of Judaism for those who cherish what many call “God’s People?” What better place to extend the hand of peace through sharing of knowledge? It is a privilege I embrace with true humility.

And most of all, there is a vital, dynamic and involved Jewish community right here. We are made up of of many very deeply committed, open-minded, warm and welcoming, non-Jews and interfaith families who, with great pride and joy, are a beacon for Jewish life. Congregation Etz Chaim celebrates diversity. We are an open door. We are inclusive in all we do. We work to make a difference in our community through good works and outreach. We value education from cradle to grave, honor tradition and strive for creativity to make Judaism relevant. We like to celebrate and have good times together. We want to be a presence in our community that encourages mutual respect among all people of all faiths and backgrounds.

We are blessed especially because, while we transition from our former facility, First Christian Church in Bentonville has so generously and warmly welcomed us as brethren to sojourn with them, share their facilities and develop a model relationship of interfaith life. Don Morrow, pastor of First Christian, has shepherded his church to be an exemplar of love, welcome and service.

My four-month stint is now a year-and-four-months’ sojourn, and I could not be more pleased. The warmth of your welcome, the opportunities to celebrate diversity and the potential for deepening our common faith are inspiring.

One of my friends said to me upon hearing of my Arkansas plan: “Rob, you must have been very bad in a former life to end up in Arkansas.” I smiled and said, “Nope … quite the opposite. It seems like my whole life has been preparation for this. Fifty-eight years of wandering — though not lost — have led me here to this place at this time. It looks like a Promised Land to me.”

Rabbi Rob Lennick is the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Bentonville. Contact him at (484) 707-0047.

Tue, May 17 2022 16 Iyar 5782