The Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are soon upon us. I grew up celebrating these days of the Jewish calendar because my mom worked for a Jewish-owned business and had these days off of work. I understood very little but grew accustomed to regular interaction with Johnstown’s Jewish community.
These days, living in Philadelphia, I interact with people on a daily basis who are Jewish, at least by background. There are multiple synagogues in close proximity. Nearby public schools are closed for the upcoming holidays. There are several rabbinical schools.
Both Anabaptists and Jews have found Pennsylvania a place of religious liberty and a context for flourishing. Historian John Ruth says conversations in Yiddish and Pennsylvania Dutch happened in southeastern Pennsylvania as both found spaces to do business and worship God.
As diasporic or exilic people and religious minorities with global connections, Jews and Mennonites have much in common. We have shared ethnic identities and practices that shape us as much as belief. We even share Germanic surnames, such as Kauffman.
Often, when I’m explaining the diversity of Mennonite belief and practice, I refer to the Jewish spectrum, from orthodox to progressive.
As Mennonites, our work in attempting to extend God’s shalom has taken us to the Middle East. Our rising awareness of the imbalance and abuse of power in Israel/Palestine complicates our understanding of what it means to be in relationship with Jews. While Israel doesn’t equal Judaism, I know that to have a conversation with Jews or people from Jewish background about what I’ve seen in my own trips to Israel and Palestine can be difficult.
Recent research by American, Canadian and Dutch Mennonite scholars has uncovered a shadowy past among some Mennonites and Jews. This story of collaboration with Nazism and ongoing anti-Semitic attitudes clouds our abilities to speak to Israel with clean hands.
A quick Google search hints about anti-Semitism in our past and perceived anti-Semitic practice in our present. Bible scholar John Kampen suggests we have repentance work to do, truth-telling and a need to unearth and name some of those past practices. We must own those things, confess and repent on our way to calling for just treatment of people within Israel and Palestine.
As the high holy days approach, I wonder if this could be a season to begin that work of repentance and raising awareness.
The recent Mennonite World Conference assembly opened with a story that began to reveal the difficult truths of Mennonite and native interactions in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The truth of this story is a mix of hospitality and hostilities. The action of working together toward peace while acknowledging the pains of the past exemplifies how the gospel might work in past, present and future form. It may serve as an important model as we come to terms with our anti-Semitic past and present as well.
In Lancaster, the story begins by understanding the localities. I wonder if in this season, it might be appropriate for us to learn to know the Jewish story in our own communities and to listen to the similarities.
The story we’ve told ourselves about our escapes from Europe often meant a clamoring over and against Jews who were seeking the same religious freedom.
In Judaism, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a time of repentance. I wonder if this September we might consider it time to engage Judaism in our communities, exploring our similarities, admitting our failures and seeking to somehow be people of shalom together.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.