Seattle Black-Jewish Clergy Bible Study

Lisi Wolf

The Vision

In Kurt Vonnegut’s story, Who Am I This Time? Helene and Harry are two very shy people who fall in love when they play the romantic leads in a community theater. When they have trouble extending their relationship off stage, Helene invites Harry to dinner and hands him a copy of Romeo and Juliet. They marry and for the rest of their lives they communicate their love through the words of great playwrights.

For Blacks and Jews, the Bible is our Romeo and Juliet. Through our discussions of the Biblical text, we are able to say things to each other we might be too shy to say otherwise because they touch such deep emotional chords. Through these conversations, we hope to achieve the kind of emotional honesty that is the bedrock of building Beloved Community.

The Method

A clergy team, one reverend and one rabbi lead the study. They choose a text from the Five Books of Moses and often from the New Testament, as well. We choose texts that we think will evoke discussion of issues relevant to Blacks and Jews and to the Black-Jewish relationship. Typically, Mark and Jay will meet with the clergy team before the session to role play the discussion. The sessions ran 1 and a half to two hours. Sometimes we pick a text we think will be evocative and we let the discussion flow where it will. Other times, we have a theme we want to discuss, and we look for a text that will evoke that theme.

Partners

  • Bishop Garry Tyson
  • Rabbi Daniel Weiner
  • Rev. Carl Livingston
  • Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
  • Rev. James Reese
  • Rev. Dr. Linda Smith
  • Rabbi Rachel Kort
  • Rabbi James Mirel
  • Rev. George Nobel
  • Rev. Steve Baber
  • Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick
  • Dr. Mark Jones
  • Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
  • Rabbi Zari Weiss
  • Bishop Garry Tyson
  • Rabbi Daniel Weiner
  • Rev. Carl Livingston
  • Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
  • Rev. James Reese
  • Rev. Dr. Linda Smith
  • Rabbi Rachel Kort
  • Rabbi James Mirel
  • Rev. George Nobel
  • Rev. Steve Baber
  • Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick
  • Dr. Mark Jones
  • Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum
  • Rabbi Zari Weiss
Sample Program

Genesis 49, The Joseph Story

The Teaching

Joseph has been unfairly accused and thrown into an Egyptian prison. While there he successfully interprets the dream of Pharaoh’s chief wine steward as meaning that Pharoah will soon release him and restore him to his old job. The wine steward had been imprisoned for displeasing Pharoah. Joseph says to the wine steward: “When you get out, don’t forget me.” But, when the wine steward gets out, he does forget Joseph. The question for discussion  is: why does the wine steward forget Joseph?

The Discussion

When the wine steward gets out of prison and goes back to his old job, he is free, but he is still vulnerable. He has been traumatized by the prison experience. He does not want to remind himself of that experience by thinking about Joseph. That will just bring back painful memories. Furthermore, he does not want to remind Pharoah that he once displeased him and threw him into prison. That memory might incline Pharoah to imprison him again. So, to the outside world, the wine steward looks successful and powerful. But, inside, he is full of fear.

We then asked the question: “How does this story apply to Blacks and Jews?" Here is what people said:

Both Blacks and Jews who escaped the ghetto did not always want to be associated with their old community. It brought back painful memories. And, they were afraid that if people associated them with those communities, they would not be accepted into American society. They may have looked successful to the outside world, but inside they still thought of themselves as living in the ghetto.

Even more poignantly, in different ways, both Blacks and Jews felt left behind by one another. Blacks felt that Jewish enthusiasm for the Civil Rights Movement faded as they became more successful. Jews left the neighborhoods and the schools they once shared with Blacks. From a Black perspective, the Jewish community stopped paying attention to the Black struggle for equality. The Jews in our group said that we may have looked successful on the outside, but we were still traumatized, fearful and vulnerable on the inside. One rabbi said: "A Black colleague recently said to me, 'We understand. You made it to the popular kids’ table. Who wouldn’t want to be there?'”  The rabbi responded: "Yes, but two things can happen when one teen leaves the 'unpopular' group and 'moves up.' He could stop associating with his old friends for fear that he will be rejected as they are. But they might also reject him, feeling that he no longer shared their burden.  Many Jews feel that they were kicked out of the “oppressed peoples club” by their Black friends when they became successful. They continued to identify with their Black friends, but their Black friends did not reciprocate. They saw the Jewish community as part of the very group that was rejecting them."

The Commentary

This was a powerful discussion. To admit feeling ‘left behind’ requires a lot of courage and trust. It was liberating for both the Black and Jewish members of the group to tell their story and express their feelings of hurt and rejection openly without fear of judgment. There is no ‘right or wrong’ in these discussions. Simply understanding each other better brings us closer to reconciliation.

Upcoming Events

A full calendar for the year will be available soon.
My experience with the Seattle Black-Jewish Bible Study Group has profoundly expanded my existing efforts, providing an opportunity to built authentic relationships that spur candid conversations about the issues of our times when just such a dialogue is needed most.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner
Being part of the Jewish/Black Clergy Bible Study has been spiritually and intellectually rewarding for me. The (selected text and) opportunity to be paired together and study the bible from two rich faith traditions is simply awesome. The theological interpretations shared have been fascinating and extremely relevant when reflecting upon social issues of our time. Two historic marginalize groups finding common ground with the hope of individual and community spiritual transformation to help shape a better world is what I had hoped when joining this group. Together we are learning and continue to develop our respective hermeneutics with the collaboration of rabbi and theological scholars in this space. Onward… striving to uplift the beloved community!
Cynthia Bynum