I’ve had the honor of officiating Reform High Holy Day worship at Emory for the last 6 years. This year’s Yom Kippur worship segued into the abhorrent acts of antisemitism on Emory’s campus. I’m speaking specifically of the graffiti that vandalized the AEPi house and its surroundings. The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur, a day of worship focused on renewal and rededication to our highest aspirations as human beings, and these acts of barbarism hasn’t been lost on me or anyone paying attention. That I have something say about it didn’t occur to me until today.
Looking back over the last 6 years I’ve gained some insight into Emory’s Jewish community from the outside in. I’ve seen quite a bit in the limited capacity in which I’ve served Emory. For example, I saw a Torah dropped on Yom Kippur, a person volunteer to read Torah right in the middle of Rosh Hashanah services with no hesitation, and more. I’ve been asked to incorporate obscure words like “folliculitis” (sp???) into my remarks and other such anecdotes. Here are some of my perceptions and observations, all based on my experiences there.
Emory’s Jewish community is a welcoming community. No one, it seems, is from Atlanta. It’s not uncommon that when a Jewish person moves to Atlanta they find themselves at Emory for the High Holy Days. That’s because Emory’s Jewish community is committed to the mitzvah of welcoming strangers and guests. Many people come to Emory for that first High Holy Days and end up coming back year after year. Similarly, students from all the area colleges come to Emory for High Holy Days.
Emory’s Jewish community is vocal and thoughtful. As the High Holy Day officiant one of my only absolute “demands” is that students do all the “sermonizing.” Year after year I, and all of those who attend Emory’s Reform worship services are nourished by the insights and wisdom of the student body. This year’s sermons focused on themes of reflection, authentic repentance, commitment, and much more. They drew on sources ranging from The Lion King to Deborah Lipstadt.
Emory’s Jewish community is reflective. There’s a healthy debate about Israel and other topics of vital concern to the Jewish people taking place on Emory’s campus.
Emory’s Jewish community is vibrant. Each year hundreds of students descend upon Hillel for holiday meals, services, and simply to be in community with one another.
Emory’s Jewish community is hopeful. Each year a handful of families from my school, The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, join for High Holy Day services. I always incorporate the kids (elementary and middle school) into the service by having them lead prayers and tell the rest of us how to make the world a better place. During these moments I look out at the congregation and I can literally see the hope and comfort that these children bring.
Emory’s Jewish community is shaping Jewish lives. This year I had the peculiar joy of running into multiple alumni of The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. These students are thriving at Emory and other area schools. They are pursuing their passions and dreams and remaining active members of the Jewish community.
Lastly, Emory’s Jewish community is strong and resilient. Anyone connected to it will tell you as much. Plain and simple.
What’s true of Emory’s Jewish community is true of the broader Emory community. That’s why this crude and impotent anti-semitism is an anomaly. I’ll conclude with the following small anecdote…
At Kol Nidre I spoke of the importance of Jewish pride and suggested that we all derive strength from the fact that the Jewish people have endured countless hardships and existential threats during our long and inspired history. After sharing these remarks a member of the broader Emory community sang the Kol Nidre prayer with indescribable beauty and power.
That student, Julia Hudgins, is Catholic. She started singing Kol Nidre two years ago after I wrote to a professor in the school of music requesting his assistance in finding someone worthy of the beautiful and haunting melody that defines Yom Kippur. Two years ago Julia volunteered, without any compensation, to take on this project. After successfully making it through her first year of singing Kol Nidre she agreed to return for a second year. Not only that, but since she’s a senior, she took it upon herself to find a replacement to ensure continuity of experience for the Jewish community even after she’s left Emory.
In exchanging thank you emails with Julia we had the following exchange. It speaks, I think, to the “real” Emory and therefore I’ll conclude with it…
There are no words to y express my gratitude for the work you did these last two years. In light of the anti-Semitic events at Emory following Yom Kippur your participation took on extra meaning in the spirit of building bridges of tolerance, respect, and partnership. I wish you all the best in your grad school aspirations and would be happy to help you in any way that I possibly can as a debt of gratitude! Keep singing Kol Nidre– you’re GREAT at it.
To which I received the following reply:
The event was such a disgrace to our community. In my four years at Emory I have never seen signs of anti-semitism and I was horrified that someone could even think to do such a thing. I have always been a believer that there is no reason for intolerance, and I was honored to help serve the Jewish community at Emory. I can only hope our future includes greater religious tolerance and respect.
Thanks so much!