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Sunday Sit-Down: Rabbi Joshua Lief, Temple Shalom, Wheeling

Editor’s note: Rabbi Joshua Lief of Temple Shalom in Wheeling is among a growing number of city natives who have returned to the area to raise their families and make Wheeling a better place to live. Lief is not shy in giving his opinion on a number of topics to make the city grow, as the interview here shows. Join us as we welcome Lief to the Sunday Sit-Down.

∫ You are a very outgoing person, with a very strong personality. How are you and your congregation adjusting to the new normal we are all facing today with the coronavirus?

RABBI LIEF — In the second week of March, when we were first encouraged to “avoid public gatherings,” we created a new Temple Facebook page and immediately began live streaming everything we do: worship, learning, and social programming. Ironically, we’ve actually increased our already robust level of activity here at Temple by adding a daily broadcast at 11 am each morning with a bit of Jewish learning to uplift and inspire us while our lives have been upended. Bringing people together is such a critical value to us as Jews, that now, more than ever, we’re trying to give people an opportunity to feel part of something larger than themselves. The results have been quite wonderful. Not only are our congregants able to watch and participate, but many our elderly and shut in members who wouldn’t have been able to come to services anyway under normal conditions, are now able to engage and participate. Additionally, our out of town “Associate” members get to feel more connected to their old Wheeling home. Last, but certainly not least, a large and growing number of friends from the wider Wheeling population are watching, learning, connecting, and appreciating this effort to build a real sense of emotional and spiritual community, even as we’re separated physically from one another. We are truly grateful to be able to continue to be of service to others, especially at this difficult time.

∫ What is the current state of Judaism in Wheeling, and West Virginia as a whole?

RABBI LIEF — We have always been a small community, a minority religion to be sure. There was a time in our history — in the history of this congregation — when we were much larger as a Jewish community than we are today. One hundred years ago we were more than twice the number of Jews in this community than we have today. We are probably fewer than 200 locally. The way we count members of our congregation are family units. Some of those families are two parents and four kids and some of those families are one little old lady, so really the accurate count is almost certainly fewer than 200. This community has probably had as many as 400 Jewish folks in it 100 years ago, and there were even more than one synagogue.

This congregation was the original 170 years ago in 1849 and others grew up and then folded over the years, and now we are the only, and have been my whole lifetime. … So I lived in a Wheeling that had one synagogue. Sunday School had 30-plus children, the Temple had 150-plus families. When I came home three years ago, Temple had fewer than 70 families.

… The state has shrunk, the city of Wheeling is smaller than when I was a child, and the Temple has fewer members. It’s understandable. When you look at the larger trend, though, small-town Jewish congregations across the country are shrinking and dying. In that respect, we are absolutely amazingly counter-cultural. We’re growing, by tiny percentages, but we were fewer than 70 families when we came back three years ago and now we’re about 80 families. Most of those are people who have drifted away … but we’ve done a wonderful job reconnecting to the many, many families who used to live here in Wheeling, but moved away. We call them associate members, out-of-towners who have a connection to the congregation. I was a dues-paying associate member here 21 years, I always stayed connected, read the bulletin every month and watched, lamentably, as the trends seemed to be taking this community and this city downward. I hope that there’s something worthwhile in being part of a small community. I believe it, because I grew up in it, I lived it and I experienced the closeness and the inter-generational support, and the sense of self one has to find when you’re a minority. Just as I struggled with being the only Jewish kid in my class growing up, I struggled later in life in being that person from West Virginia. That’s a similar experience. If we can take our perceived challenges and turn them into strengths, therein lies the opportunity not only for our congregation, but for our city and indeed for our state. That’s something I’m really excited to get to be a part of. That’s one of the most exciting things about being home in Wheeling.

When one thinks about the “extinction vortex” — as you start to go down, more things go down, everything goes down and then you’re gone — usually once you get in that path, there’s no escaping. It’s like a toilet bowl, the swirl pulls you further down, one bad thing, another bad thing. Wheeling has, amazingly, a number of institutions that have somehow extricated themselves from that vortex. … I’m not the only young person who has moved back to this community to raise their family and make a life here, have a career here. This is a wonderful place to have a home, it’s a wonderful place where the contributions that any individual chooses to make can really have a tremendous impact on the overall quality of life for a large swath of society. We are, at Temple Shalom, the smallest congregation in our movement, the Reform movement, 900-plus congregations across America. We are the smallest congregation that has a full-time rabbi. I take no credit for that, even though I am the rabbi, that was a decision this institution made before I even realized that the position would be available. This group of people said no, while we could just slowly fade away, we don’t want to. Let’s see if we could get a rabbi to come to this town. That has been a real challenge for this congregation for quite some time. Rabbi Daniel Lowe was the rabbi during my childhood, he was here 21 years. When he retired Temple struggled, no one has matched that tenure since. That lack of stability is the challenge that many small towns face; it’s hard to attract somebody to move to a small town. It’s a challenge to convince somebody who’s not from here of what a truly wonderful place Wheeling is. Once you come, you figure that out relatively quickly.

I don’t realize how blessed I was to grow up in this community, when you’re a kid you live where your parents say you live. But as an adult, to put that same question to my children to move to Wheeling … they were ecstatic. … The truth is, we are too, it’s really a blessing to be here. I’m appreciative every day of what a wonderful community this truly is.

∫ Prior to your return to Wheeling, the Hopeful City organization, of which Temple Shalom was a member, had some success in bringing hope back to the area. Do you think an organization such as that could be useful today?

Rabbi Lief — There are an inestimable number of opportunities for people to engage with someone other than themselves in efforts toward the common good. I think that concretizing those opportunities, and making them clearer and rallying people to engage in them, that there’s certainly room for improvement. We here at Temple try to engage as often as possible with our friends and neighbors … and by partnering with others we can get more done. We have wonderful interfaith relationships with other congregations, we have wonderful social action kinds of things we do with people of different faiths. But if it’s just one to one, and it’s missing that wider arc … I had hoped that Wheeling 250 would offer some of that, and it did, in some respects, but that wasn’t the focus. I think with Hopeful City there really was a concrete focus. Did everything get accomplished? No. Is there still room for improvement in the things that did get accomplished? Certainly. The question now is what are the next steps, and are we taking them?

We here at Temple, at least with the last couple of years, we’re trying as often as possible to seize those opportunities, to find areas of common interest, particularly with people who are different than ourselves. Because if we only do things with people who are already us, society becomes very insular. … We miss that wider world. I’m thrilled that Mark Brennan is our new bishop. We’ve gotten together on several occasions … When we get together, we just don’t manage to get around to talking about abortion, somehow that topic doesn’t come up, because I’m sure we have different opinions. But taking care of the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, dealing with the opioid epidemic … we’re on the same page. Let’s find the areas where we can work collaboratively, especially with people different than ourselves.

Our differences are meaningful, they’re part of what makes each of us unique. Even so, if we only focus on the difference, if we only focus on the things about which we’re aggrieved, if we only focus on the things where we’ve been cheated or discriminated … if we only dwell on the negatives, we miss not only the tremendous positives, but also the ability to find helpful partners to life each other up when those negatives occur.

∫ Many people in Wheeling only interact with Temple Shalom because of The Chocolate Extravaganza …

RABBI LIEF — And we’re thrilled! Please come for the 31st Chocolate Extravaganza Sunday, May 3, don’t miss out!

∫ If you were going to describe your congregation to someone who’s only interaction was the extravaganza, how would you do it?

Rabbi Lief — We live in a very faithful community. Quite a high percentage of residents in the Ohio Valley define themselves as affiliated with one congregation or another. An overwhelming majority define themselves as Christians of one sort or another. … It’s a very Christian community, and people like to refer to themselves as upholders of Judeo-Christian values. To which I always point out, remember who’s in front of the hyphen. Those Judeo-Christian values are Jewish values and the star character of the New Testament is, himself, a practicing Jew, as are all of his original disciples. We find the values that we espouse as a Jewish community are already echoed by our Christian neighbors because they borrowed them, unwittingly or not, from us. So we do have a similar view of right and wrong … and that’s a helpful foundation.

When we think about who we are and what we project to the wider community, while the Chocolate Extravaganza is great — and it’s great on multiple levels, as a fundraiser for Temple and also because it espouses our Jewish value of hospitality, we open every door of the building and welcome people in, and we share food with them. Why? Because Abraham, our ancestor, famously espouses a value that … we be welcoming of guests. That’s a Jewish value, to be welcoming, to be friendly, to be inclusive. We have no secret, private parts of our worship. It’s amazing, even when one looks at Christian worship, there are aspects that are only for Christians. When one looks at Catholic worship, a non-Catholic is not supposed to come up and take communion. … Our worship is very open, very universalistic, the values one finds there would probably be comfortable to a non-Jew and yet they are intensely Jewish values. … Partnering with God, as we take care of our world, is the single sentence that the rest of Judaism is all about. We are called to be partners with the Divine … endowed by God with ability, skill, talent, wisdom that we are supposed to use not for our own aggrandizement, but rather to improve the lives of everyone else, to better the world around us and to make the experience of life for everyone a little bit better than it otherwise would have been. Everything we do … comes back to partnering with God to make the world a better place.

∫ To that end, you penned a column earlier this year after the Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the city of Wheeling to halt all public prayer at council meetings.

Rabbi Lief — I spoke with the mayor beforehand, and I lament … I think the city got baited into a trap. There’s not really winning with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and let me be clear, I’m not in favor of being free from religion. I think religion gives meaning and direction to my life … and I hope religion gives meaning and direction to others, as well. I don’t wish for a world that is free from religiosity. I do think there’s opportunity for inclusion, especially in the halls of government. That’s not anyone’s private religious institution. If I walk into a church, I expect I’ll hear prayers in Jesus’ name. If I walk into the synagogue, I expect I won’t. But at city hall, everyone has to feel welcome, we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That’s all the people. And those that don’t find religion a meaningful part of their lives also need to be welcomed, and also need to feel safe and included. So I suggested to the mayor and council that rather than calling for secularism — the absence of religiosity — what if there was a move toward inclusivity. … If you ask a Christian who prefers to say “In Jesus name we pray,” what if you said “In Your name we pray” who’s the you? Most Christians will say Jesus, because they’re filling in the pronoun for the noun. But if you ask me, the Jew could hear God, the Muslim could hear Allah, the person of other faiths could fit in to that language something more appealing, less objectionable, ideally not objectionable at all. If we think of God not as masculine, which is unsettling for some, or feminine, but above the concept of gender, God beyond our understanding … there are words that we could use and still express meaningful religious sentiment without being particularist without excluding some from our community.

I’m not a fan of ecumenism, where we water down everybody’s sentiment until it’s inoffensive to all, but also devoid of meaning to anyone. That’s not ideal. But if we can craft language that is acceptable, meaningful, inspiring to people of differing faiths without excluding someone, that would be great.

∫ The shooting at the Tree of Life congregation. What have we learned in the past 18 months?

Rabbi Lief — Lamentably, there is a part of our humanity that seeks to blame others for things we’re upset about in ourselves. Whether that’s as benign as yelling at a traffic light that won’t change fast enough for us, because we’re late and we should have left the house earlier, or whether that’s as pernicious as suggesting that “that group of people” are bad, and therefore they’re everything that’s wrong in our lives, that’s a part of our humanity that’s unlikely to go away. That sense of wanting to blame others rather than taking responsibility for our own lives.

Jews have, for a very long time, been a convenient object on which to put that blame, mostly because we’re a small group, and we’re very noticeably not what the vast majority group is. There’s roots of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe, there’s more recent strains of anti-Semitism in the last 80 years since the state of Israel has become a reality. … It’s unfortunate that people would make those kinds of statements, hateful statements about a broad group. Anytime you’re painting a broad brush, you’re probably making a mistake.

So how does one fix that? I think that’s the real question that comes from the terrible, horrific attack at Tree of Life. A murderous, hate-filled attack by someone who was aggrieved by all Jews everywhere, literally because of Judaism. The shooter said afterward that his anger was at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that they were smuggling people across the Mexican border. HIAS has been around for more than a century helping people all over this country … it’s been a support for newcomers to the country. They were hired by the U.S. government to provide aid packages to the people in the centers where they were gathered at the border to be processed. He was furious because Jews were helping smuggle terrorists into the country, so he decided to go murder people at services in Pittsburgh. That’s not rational, it’s not logical, it’s not true, it’s not in any way defensible. But it’s also unlikely to make that stop. So the question then becomes do we lock the doors, have armed security and live in fear, or do we instead open the doors, welcome people in and try to create more personal experiences so that the outsider ceases to be the stranger and becomes a friend. Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to love thy neighbor “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Getting over that bar is the key, I think, because it’s easy to demonize the thing that you don’t know. … It’s easy to place that blame on the disembodied non-person; it’s much harder to do that when you have a personal experience with somebody different than yourself. It’s much more difficult to say “I hate Jews” if you’ve ever been to the Chocolate Extravaganza. … Once you meet somebody and get to know them, somebody different than yourself … once you make a personal connection, it’s very hard to maintain those stereotypes, especially negative blame-filled ones.

I wish for a world where no one would be hateful; I know that’s fantasy. I do believe that there are very few bad people, and mostly good people; the question is can we good people do more to expand that number even further by setting the example of who we are and what we believe, which is goodness, and kindness, generosity, helping people different than ourselves, not being insular … but being warm-hearted and externally focused in almost everything we do.

If we would be more kind, more caring, more giving, the traffic of our lives would flow more smoothly. We all would benefit from a kinder, better world.

∫ Is there anti-Semitism in Wheeling?

Rabbi Lief — Yes. It’s subtle, but it exists. I don’t see much overt anti-Semitism, but I don’t see zero. And I certainly know that there’s covert — that is to say, sometimes even unwitting discrimination, one need only look in the aftermath of the shooting in Pittsburgh. I was having a conversation with the principal at Woodsdale Elementary (Ashlea Minch), where my children go. Ashlea was directing traffic, and we were together trying to deal with the chaos from the traffic pattern change a couple years ago. She and I were talking and she genuinely, honestly said I can’t even believe that someone would do such a horrible thing, here it is in our modern world. That people would still be discriminating against Jews. And I said, “Ashlea, what about the Christmas concert, where my girls have to sing Christmas songs, and they start practicing the day school starts in September, all Christmas songs. They never sing any Hanukkah songs. … That is a built-in bias, it’s called the Christmas concert, it’s called Christmas break. Every year, there’s never class on Christmas day, whatever day it falls. But if my child has to miss class for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, it’s excused, but it’s still an absence. They had a program where if you had perfect attendance, you were in a drawing for an iPad, my daughter was devastated because she wasn’t in the drawing. … That would never be asked of the Christian student, because they’re holiday is one they always get off. As a Jewish student, you have to decide with major holidays. … It’s not intentional, it’s not ill-intended, it’s not mean-spirited or anti-Jewish, but there’s definitely a reality that there are certain things you have to overcome.

On top of that you have the more overt experience … when we had the discussion of discrimination (at Temple Shalom with the YWCA’s Ron Scott), the newspaper, in your online version … someone took the opportunity in the comments section to say unbelievably that Jews want to kill all Christians and were using the blacks — re-enslaving them — to be our pawns to wipe out Christendom. It was unbelievable hatefulness. … And then Mike Myer had a column titled, “We Don’t Print Fiction,” which was a great line. And I called Mike and thanked him. Then people made hateful comments on that — the same, horrible things came up. I thought this has got to be some anonymous internet troll who sits in their basement and hates the world. … No, this was a real person who lives in our community, and these were someone’s honestly-held beliefs that Jews are this horrible, evil cabal that wants to take over the world and kill Christians. … This was also said in a City Council meeting public comment section. Wow! Earnestly-held beliefs about the villainy that is Jews that is so divorced from reality. …

The only defense that I can suggest is more connections. The more we meet and get to know our neighbors, and appreciate them for who they are and what they believe and what they stand for … if that woman actually wished to talk to me — if she’d even come to the event — she’d have seen a different experience. It would be impossible, honestly, to be hateful having come to that. Did we end racism and anti-Semitism? No! It was just the start of a larger conversation, and it brought out emotions in some people. We’ve also had some wonderful talks since on continuing the conversation. I never thought that … Ron and I chatting would solve all the issues, I just thought it was an interesting way to look at the relationship between two minorities on the eve of MLK Day.

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