Gary, West Virginia

Jonathan and I got to know each other while he was in grad school in Philly. I’m so glad we’re still connected and that he’s guest blogging this week, sharing a really interesting experience he had on a service learning trip run out of DC. 

I experienced Shabbat in a new place this past week. Or rather, an old place. A closed school in Gary, West Virginia, in an area that was once prosperous from coal mining but is now one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states in the country. The school building has been taken over by a Christian missionary group that coordinates service projects for visiting volunteers. Some of the classrooms have bunkbeds, and two others have had showers installed. Nothing fancy, but it works.

I was in Gary for a long weekend service trip with a group of 18 people from 2239, the young professionals group of Washington Hebrew Congregation, through the congregation’s ARK (Acts of Religious Kindness) initiative. My understanding is that we were the first Jewish group to ever work with
with School for Life, the organization on the ground in Gary, and possibly also the first with Experience Mission, which coordinates thousands of volunteers around the world each year. Obviously we were not trying to spread Judaism (or Christianity!) to the people we were working with; we were there because
these organizations do good work in a place where it is desperately needed.

After a day in which part of our group worked to fix up the grounds of an old abandoned church that is being turned into a community center, and the rest of the group started work building a new patio for a family’s home, we returned to the school for Shabbat dinner and services. For logistical
reasons, we started with Hamotzi and Kiddush, then had dinner, then did the text study we call “A Shot of Torah,” and then had a Kabbalat Shabbat service.

At least some of the Gary natives who we encountered had never met a Jewish person before. One of them, 21-year-old James, who helped to coordinate volunteers, joined us for the initial prayers through the text study. He found the experience to be very different from anything he’d been exposed
to in the past, and he particularly liked the challah.

Other than the challah and wine, we had the same dinner that others at the school had that night: pieces of chicken breast in Sweet Baby Ray’s barbeque sauce, corn, rolls, salad, and watermelon. I don’t have any recipes for you, but Sweet Baby Ray’s is excellent.

The next day I got a chance to talk to James’ 19-year-old sister, Alicia, who also had never met any Jews before. Her knowledge of Judaism came from a cartoon, though she couldn’t remember which one. She said she knew two things about Jews: “You have the funny hats and the parties.” It was easy enough to figure out what funny hats referred to. With some follow up questions, I figured out the parties were Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. She asked me what Jews believe. I deferred to the rabbi on the trip, Aaron Miller, who I figured has been trained to explain Judaism to Christians in various degrees of

For those of you who may find yourselves in a similar situation, I’ll note his three points. First, of course, Jews do not believe Jesus to be the Messiah. Second, Jews do not believe in original sin. Third, Jewish thinkers and communities have developed many traditions and ways of living over time that are not reflected in Christian communities.

Of course, this summary only goes so far. We weren’t providing a full sense of what it means to be Jewish, but that wasn’t the purpose of our trip. We were there to serve, and the fact that we were a Jewish group was secondary. James told me we were the best group that they had all summer – and that’s a first impression we can be proud of.




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One response to “Gary, West Virginia

  1. Eliezer Ben Philly

    Many Christians do not understand that Jesus lived his life as a Jew, that the Last Supper was a Passover seder, or that for the first hundred years, Jews and Christians often lived side by side, celebrating the same day of the week as Sabbath, and prayed in the same buildings at different times. They also are unaware that initially, in order to be a follower of Jesus, one had to be Jewish. Only later,after much debate, were Gentiles able to become Christians.

    Most of my Jewish friends and family are also unaware of this history.

    We have much in common.

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