A Community Shul

Rabbi Alon C Ferency
June 18, 2014
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Places mean different things to different people. In the early aughts, I lived in West Hollywood, California, one of the most prominently gay-friendly cities in the United States. (Best and cheapest haircuts I ever had.) During a visit back East to Massachusetts, I visited my Russian émigrés cousins. When I told them where I lived, they replied knowingly, “We know it well.” To which, I assumed they were disapprovingly aware of the homosexual community in the city. Rather, my cousin quickly followed, “We have many Russian friends there!” I realized that recently, the East side of the city had been settled by Russian émigrés like them – there were Russian grocers and dry goods stores at which I shopped, and Russian restaurants and clubs, too. Nonetheless, my predominant experience of West Hollywood was a few blocks West, amid the young adult gay community.

As Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local”; to which, my rabbi adds, “All religion is local.” I would tentatively add that identity is local, as well. As Michael Sandel says, “We cannot regard ourselves as independent [without] understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are – as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic….. To imagine a person incapable of constitutive attachments such as these is not to conceive an ideally free and rational agent, but to imagine a person wholly without character, without moral depth.”(Liberalism and the Limits of Justice)  Furthermore, to effectively construct a religious identity, there needs to be an enduring identification with place: “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen,” says Mark Morrison-Reed, “Together, our vision widens and strength is renewed.”

When a novice pastor Rick Warren went to plant a church decades ago, he reviewed the sites that were most receptive to his evangelism, and found the geographic region with the most promising demography. Then, he settled Saddleback Church in Orange County, with the precious understanding that, barring grave misfortune, he would live and work in that single place for the entirety of his career. He testifies that investment in a community is essential to build the faith, trust, and respect necessary between pastor and congregation. Unfortunately, for a variety of factors – ambition, institutional policy, short-sightedness – transience has become the norm instead of longevity. Columnist Dennis Prager went so far as to bemoan the praise of “innovation” and “activism” given by the Daily Beast’s list of America’s Top 50 Rabbis (mercifully discontinued), relative to Chabad rabbis and other local rabbis who invest in various communities for the long haul, and build communities where “people like being Jewish together.” This seems to be the motivation behind Chabad shelichus (emissaries), and I’d vouch that this is a large part of their success. In an era of transient Jewish life, few are the families that make a lifetime commitment to one neighborhood. Yet when I met our Chabad of Knoxville family, they explained to me that they imagined living out a career here, amid the Jews of this one place, and perhaps being buried in Knoxville.

In fact, among my most special moments in our community are visits to the New Jewish Cemetery. (There is an “Old” Jewish Cemetery, but the “New” one is nearly a century old.) At memorial times, funerals, and stone-settings, I visit the cemetery with older congregants, and they show me who is buried where, who is related to whom, who married whom, and what their maiden names were.  It’s quite a moving little space – modest, unassuming, a few hundred graves that bear witness to the endurance, power, gravity, and charm of our small community. By moments, I fantasize about being buried there myself. Neither itinerant rabbis, nor one who might view a small city like Knoxville as a stepping stone to a grander position, can ever garner the effective trust necessary to build relationship and bring Judaism ahead.

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Rabbi Alon C Ferency pursued Israeli-Palestinian economic integration in the 1990’s at Harvard University. After a bicycle trip from Seattle to Boston, he entered the Peace Corps in Cameroon as a Community Health organizer. Then, he worked in the music industry, before receiving a Master’s Degree in Informal Jewish Education from J.T.S., and rabbinical ordination from the Ziegler School in 2010. Today, Alon is the rabbi of Heska Amuna Synagogue in Knoxville, Tennessee. There, he serves as a board member of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and served on the Community Health Council, Together! Healthy Knox, and the ethics committee of the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He is also a regular contributor to Conservative Judaism quarterly, and an alumnus of Leadership Knoxville and the Tikvah Fellowship. His sermons are available at heskaamuna.org/sermons.html; and, you may follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/EclecticCleric) and Twitter (@EclecticCleric).

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