This evening, September 24, Rosh Hashanah begins. It is the celebration of the Jewish New Year, and the start of the 10 day holy period that concludes with Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment. These are the highest holy days on the Jewish calendar. Like Passover and Easter, the High Holy Days follow a lunar calendar. So they are not tied to a permanent date on the calendar that we use in daily life.
Thirteen years ago the High Holy Days were earlier in September, right after September 11. The Jewish community in Great Falls was in a quandary. They normally had their services in the chapel at Malmstrom Air Force Base, but the country was on high alert, and Malmstrom was off-limits to civilians. A neighbor of mine, a leader in the Jewish community, asked me if I could think of any place where they might have services. I suggested my congregation, Bethel.
The pastor and leadership at Bethel readily agreed. They knew how important it was for the Jewish community to have a safe and accessible place to worship. And they opened their doors. The Jewish community had a place for the holidays. Pretty soon the question arose—why not continue this relationship?
Mostly it is a relationship of hospitality—the Jewish community uses Bethel space on Friday nights when Bethel is not there. They have shared a Seder meal with us, and we had deep conversations together about a photography exhibit on the Holocaust. At times there are conflicts—like when Rosh Hashanah starts on a Wednesday night when the church has Logos. Over the years, Bethel and the Jewish community have found ways to make it work—good communication and planning, flexibility, and willingness to move. This year Bethel will move Logos to the park across the street to accommodate the Jewish High Holidays.
Lutherans and Jews have not always been so cordial. It was common in Luther’s day to condemn Jews as “Christ-killers.” In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella not only commissioned Christopher Columbus. They also expelled all the Jews from Spain. (They were welcomed in Muslim countries at the time, and allowed to pursue their religion.) Europe was not a welcoming place for Jews, by and large.
Martin Luther had great hopes for Jews. He thought that if they only had a chance to hear the Gospel in its pure form, they would surely convert. When they did not, he expressed his disappointment with the bitterness and vitriol of a cranky old man. Unfortunately, his most destructive words were enshrined by Nazis, and used as justification for their toxic anti-Semitism.
As Lutherans, we bear Martin Luther’s name, but we do not accept all his writings or opinions. We are, first and foremost, Christians, followers of Jesus, who was himself a Jew. About 2 decades ago the Lutheran World Federation and the ELCA repudiated the anti-semitic and anti-Judaic words of Martin Luther and apologized to the Jewish community world-wide. In 1995, the Montana Synod and the Montana Association of Jewish Communities entered into an historic agreement of mutual support and respect. You can find it on our website. I am honored that members of the Jewish community participated in my installation as Bishop. And I cherish the ways that our communities continue to work together.
During these next ten days, greet your Jewish neighbors, and wish them well. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA