‘I witnessed a revolution’: Rabbi reflects on how Jewish life in the South has changed

Thursday is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a day typically set aside for introspection, reflection and atonement. It’s a powerful tradition and an idea that may have resonance with a lot of Americans these days, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, particularly in a moment like this.

I spoke with Rabbi Jonathan Miller, who led Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El for nearly three decades before retiring and moving to Bethesda, Maryland, to be closer to his children and grandkids. We talked about Jewish life in the Bible Belt, the rise of anti-Semitic attacks and the importance of the High Holy Days. 

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The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: Okay to start, I should say Shanah Tova and wish you a Happy New Year.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller: Thank you very much. You’ve been training.

Reckon: So last week was Rosh Hashanah, this week is Yom Kippur. For our audience that may not be familiar with Jewish holidays, could you just give us a quick overview of the High Holy Days?

Miller: Sure. This is the most celebrated and serious time of the Jewish year. And it speaks to us of a cycle, a spiritual cycle. We believe that on Rosh Hashanah, the new year—which is a serious time for Jews, it’s not a time for levity—that we as individuals are judged, our communities are judged and the entire world is in judgment before God, who is the judge.

Then we go through 10 days of introspection, contemplation, and we go through to Yom Kippur, which is a serious and intense day. And during this time, we seek forgiveness for our sins from God, and reconciliation with other people whom we might have wronged going along the course of our lives over the past year or years past. If we do Yom Kippur correctly, we believe that God forgives us for our sins against God, not for our sins against other people. So it’s a time to both focus on the things that we have done wrong in life, how we can improve our lives and how we can emerge from it better.

For a Christian audience, I would like to think that this is sort of like our annual born again reunion. We go through this period of the birth of the world and the judgment of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, we go through 10 days, sort of signifying maybe a decade each, metaphorically, of course. And then when we get to the end, we cleanse ourselves of our sins and are fresh to greet the new year.

Reckon: I know you’ve been retired for a few years now. But I’m curious how people of the Jewish faith had to adapt to the pandemic in the last year, just like all faith communities. How has celebration changed? How has the observances of these holidays changed?

Miller: I know from speaking to people in Birmingham and up here in Maryland, and I also have a High Holiday pulpit that I take care of in Philadelphia, that we’ve done our services virtually now for two years. I know at Temple Emanu-El Birmingham, they’re doing their services in a hybrid fashion, spacing people out.

It is difficult. I really admire all the religious institutions who are able to conduct worship safely. It’s a very important part of an aspect of life, that that needs to be done in a proper way. But I think it’s still too early to consider how the COVID experience will [permanently] affect in person worship and associations with religious institutions.

Reckon: You served as Rabbi at Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El for almost 30 years. You grew up in Boston. And I think he said you were living in Los Angeles before moving to Birmingham.  

Miller: Yes. I needed a passport. 

Reckon: That’s what I was just gonna ask about. There’s about 300,000 Jews living in Massachusetts and about half a million Jews just in the Los Angeles area alone. And I think there’s only about 10,000 in the entire state of Alabama. Most of them I imagine are in the Birmingham metro area.

Miller: Birmingham is the largest of the communities. That’s correct.

Reckon: I’m curious about your impressions about how Jewish life differs in a Southern state like Alabama compared to California, Boston, Maryland, other places you’ve lived.

Miller: Well, you know, in very positive ways. The first issue is that Birmingham (and Alabama) is a church culture. When you meet people, you know, just casually they ask, ‘which church do you attend?’ And I think that’s diminishing to some degree. But it’s still the predominant culture that people identify themselves by their faith communities. And so the affiliation rate in places like Birmingham and throughout Alabama is considerably higher than it is in Boston, or Los Angeles, or Washington, DC area, or Miami, Chicago, or the bigger cities, where there is in certain areas a predominant Jewish culture that can sort of feed the cultural Jew in us. [And so only] occasionally, Jews will visit the religious nature in them.

But in a place like Alabama, you have to belong, you have to participate, otherwise you fade away into nothing.

And people also take not only association seriously, but they also take religious ideas seriously in places like the South. And at first, I didn’t understand it. But I found it to be quite helpful in terms of just being able to express religious ideas as a rabbi, and also to understand that it was the norm.

Reckon: Did the acceptance of the Jewish community in Birmingham change over the course of the decades that you were there?

Miller: That’s a great question. And absolutely. I witnessed a revolution. When I when I first arrived, Jews were, with reason, wary about religious interactions with Christians. We were told by them—which of course, we don’t believe that—since we are not a Jesus-focused religion in any way that, according to some Christian doctrine, therefore we’re going to go to hell. And we’re doomed. And God has only one way of accepting people into God’s good graces, which I think, by the way, is ridiculous. If God is a big God, God can love and attend to each individual in God’s flock. If God is really a shepherd, then that’s what shepherds do.

And particularly with us, you know, we’re the founders of monotheism and human beings’ relationship with God.

And during the course of my nearly three decades there I have witnessed, both in Alabama and around the world—I want to emphasize around the world—that there has come to a confluence of understanding and appreciation of Christians towards Jews and Judaism. Not universal. But if religious Christians want to understand Jesus, then they have to understand Jews and Judaism.

The idea that Judaism has been, to use a theological term, superseded by Christianity is a myth. If you read the Bible seriously. God makes an eternal covenant with Jews and the Jewish people. So there has been a sort of a partnership that has been established in my lifetime. I rode that wave. And I’ve seen it around the world, not simply in Alabama. And I think that 100 years from now, we will look back at this religious revolution. And scholars will study it and try to understand what exactly happened. But it’s to the benefit of both Judaism and Christianity.

Reckon: I wonder, then, about that other Abrahamic religion and how it fits in with that. You wrote a piece recently for the Birmingham News and, about your remembrance is in the wake of 9/11. And people of all faiths in the Birmingham area coming together, including Islam, and you expressed in the column that that surprised you a little bit. You just talked about that alliance between Christianity and Judaism, do you think there will be a point where we will be able to have a similar understanding with Christians, Jews and people of Islamic faith?

Miller: I hope so and expect so. The fact that we live in such a politically fraught time, I’m not convinced that that is the way of the future. This may actually be a throwback to the past by people and forces and ideas that are frightened about the changes that are never really coming. I believe that most of the younger people don’t want to live in religious, racial, gender division. And they are hoping to accept people for who they are and to not only to accept but to appreciate.

Islam is a terrific religion. It inspires discipline, strong family life, sobriety, charitable giving. These are all things that my religion teaches and that Christianity teaches. So all three religions have different doctrines, but all three religions are looking to benefit the individual spiritually and the world.

Reckon: Historically, particularly in the South, people of Jewish faith, were aligned with the civil rights movement. In part, I guess, because in the middle of the 20th century, Blacks and Jews were both targeted by the Klan and other hate groups in the South. What was that relationship like when you were in Birmingham, between Black churches and Black community leaders and synagogues there?

Miller: You know, we endeavored to have very close relations. We had Living Stones Temple [a predominantly Black Baptist church] when they first formed, they worshipped with us for 14 months. The music was never so lively and good and the spirit so fabulous in our rather staid sanctuary. We loved having them there.

You know, to say that that race doesn’t matter in Alabama is ridiculous. It matters because of the history and because of the present conditions too. But I believe that the trend line is towards reconciliation, acceptance and appreciation for different cultures. But it’s a hard road to get there for some people and for some entrenched institutions.

Reckon: You talked about hoping and thinking that the reactionary backlash we’re seeing over the last few years is temporary. And we have seen a rise of anti-Semitism across the country in the last few years. Do you have any wisdom for ways to combat that?

Miller: No. First of all, anti-Semitism is a problem that affects Jews, but it is a societal problem.

It’s not my problem, although it affects me. And in every place where it exists, is a sign of a political culture and a society that is not healthy. The Jews have traditionally been the canaries in the coal mines. Throughout millennia, when the Jews are comfortable and do well, it is a sign that where they are living is doing well and is prosperous and open and growing. And when societies contract and when people are fearful, Jews usually the first victims, but never the last victims of these societal ills.

This is very troubling. When I first came to Birmingham, Alabama, we never had guards in our synagogues. Our doors were open, anybody could come in the early 1990s. By the time I left, we had a buzzer system, we had cameras. We never had the building open to public events, including our regular worship, without having Jefferson County guards. And that is the same for every synagogue around the country. That’s a very sad sign, and a very troubling sign that you can’t walk into a synagogue without having to pass an armed guard. And with reason by the way.

Reckon: Well and it’s interesting to contrast that with places in the South that are trying to make it easier for people to take guns into their churches and things like that.

Miller: Oh it’s insane. But But you know, anybody could walk into Church of the Highlands on a Sunday morning. You might have to pass through a gauntlet of ushers. But not everybody can walk through a synagogue. And that should tell us that something’s not quite right.

Reckon: Is there anything that’s on your mind over these past 10 days of reflection that you’ve been thinking about that you want to share?

Miller: I am troubled and concerned by the divisions that we have among us. I used to say that there were two contact sports in the South , one is football, the other is religion. I think we have to see that that our political divisions have become so entrenched and so enraged that we can’t do very much in this country to make people’s lives better, just look at the terrible state of our public health system and the ravages of COVID and how it’s killing people. And why people are not coming together is because of politics. You know, Japan doesn’t have this problem. Britain doesn’t have this problem. Germany doesn’t have this problem. We have this problem. So that’s a major concern.

And the other major concern is something that people don’t realize, but when Republicans and Democrats stop talking to each other and when families stop talking to each other over these things, nobody learns from each other. Nobody gains another perspective. And the echo chamber that we live in I think is the greatest impediment to our ability to learn and grow and coalesce as a nation.

The Reckon Report.
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