Respect for religious minorities

February 17, 2011 in How does Memphis test your Faith? What gives you faith in Memphis?, Question of the Week by Joel Finkelstein

What tests my faith in Memphis? What gives me faith in Memphis?

What makes us strong in our faith? It can be personal and it can be social. Our faith can be strengthened by personal experiences we have, both good and bad that make us give extra attention to our relationship with G-d, be it the death of a parent, the birth of a child, or the loss of a job. Our faith can also be strengthened or challenged by our inner struggle with G-d which on one day can bring me to euphoric praises of His name, and on the next day, to a crisis of faith.

However, one’s faith is also effected by one’s surroundings. We are social creatures. We tend to flock toward the crowd. We tend to do that which others around us do. As Jews, we find ourselves as a minority in United States, where we boast of a mere 5-6 million Jews, and in Memphis we are in an even greater minority, perhaps less than 10,000. Being in a minority can challenge one’s faith. If to me, the most important thing in life is to study and observe the Torah (the bible and all its Jewish commentaries and laws), then at times I may seek approval from those around me. Do others seem to value this study and practice or do others think of it as odd or unimportant?

Many of our youth spend a year studying Torah in Israel. When everyone else is so keenly focused on which college to go to, what career path to follow, our tradition says, slow down, go to study, think about your commitment to our faith and  our people and our relationship to Israel. It’s out of step with those around us. It’s not reinforced in the media, in the crowds. There are more people cheering and going wild at the Tigers’ game than at a small Torah study hall in East Memphis. It is challenging to our faith to grow up in a place in which the street does not promote the values which we hold dear; observance of Shabbat, Kosher laws, and the study of Torah.

But my faith is also strengthened in Memphis. While I may be one of the few walking around with a little hat (yarmulke, kippah or skullcap), others around me do affirm what I am all about. I have met so many gentile Memphians who, while strong in their faith, are not only accepting of my Jewish tradition, but feel a kinship to me as fellow Bible believing people. Many religious Memphians view my community as somehow connected to their story as well. Many religious Memphians are obviously taught to respect and even love Jews. I don’t feel very embraced when some have tried to change my mind or argue with me about my faith, but I think for the most part, Memphians are very respectful of the People of the Book and the people of Moses and David.

And finally, living as a minority in Memphis forces me to be stronger in my faith. I have to make my holidays happen in my  own home, because on the street they are just a regular days. Others don’t know what Shavuot or Succoth are all about. I have to decide what I do for myself, uninfluenced by what others may do. I have to work harder to make my community a real community because it may lack some of the infrastructure of a larger Jewish community, such as New York, where I was born. Being part of a religious minority leaves me without the societal push for me to be Jewish, but it forces me to stand up and know who I am.