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The SCOTUS Decision: Why I wish every town were Bethel, Connecticut, and what to do if yours isn't

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong - and everything right - with starting a civic town meeting with a request for spiritual strength and nourishment, affirming that there is a guiding force in the universe that provides wisdom and guidance as we mortals grapple with the stuff of everyday life.

Note that I said "spiritual," not "religious." That's why I have a few issues with the recent Supreme Court public-prayer decision. In my last two posts (here and here), I suggested unhelpful responses.

Here's a helpful response for people who are distressed about it: talk about it, write about it, be open about, and get involved - actively involved - in your towns and villages and cities. Insist that your clergy people be visible and available.

Do not buy into the false and spurious charge that not wanting religion-specific prayer before town/civic meetings means you are opposed to a call for spiritual strength at such times. Support your religious communities. Do not separate yourself from your community (Pirke Avot 2:4). Don't think that one person can't change the world (Margaret Meade). Don't feel like you have to accomplish everything all at once (Pirke Avot 2:21). Don't stop doing whatever you can.

My town, Bethel, Connecticut (pop: ~ 18,822), is awesome. We're about 90 minutes north of New York City with a nice combination of Bethel "natives" and long-ago and recently-arrived immigrants from various urban areas. This town has been a blessing to my family and me for 30+ years, and I love living here.

There aren't many Jews here. The nearest synagogue is in a neighboring city 3 miles away. My guess is that if you added up the people declaring themselves as non-Christians, we'd still be in the minority. The day after Thanksgiving, the center of downtown Bethel lights up like a Christmas tree, and most everything is shut tight on Easter Sunday. On Good Friday you can find processions of devout Christians reenacting Jesus' path.

I'm the sole Jewish clergy person in town. I am included in almost every civic and interfaith event that goes on: 9/11 memorials, Thanksgiving services, and choir presentations. I've delivered invocations and benedictions at local non-profit events, and last year I was thrilled and honored to be asked to deliver the invocation at the elected officials' swearing-in ceremony.

I am grateful to live here, where my being a Jew may be a curiosity but not anathema, where my religion and religious clergy status is respected and welcome. I can't speak for the other faith communities, but I do know this: When a local evangelical minister refused to participate in an interfaith experience because Muslims had been invited, that minister was told that the organizers were sorry that he was choosing not to attend. Immediately after 9/11, when a local Muslim-owned store was vandalized, the town supported the owner loudly and clearly.

It didn't just happen, of course. Years ago I inserted myself into clergy get togethers at the local coffee shop. I repeatedly contacted all the clergy people in the area to make my presence known. I spoke up when my kids' major school events or major town events infringed on Jewish holidays; and when my concerns were seemingly dismissed, I spoke up again. I wasn't rude or offensive (at least I hope not). But I was heard, and I know that more than one event has been rescheduled.

Like I said, Bethel is awesome.

Fortunately, my town is nothing like some areas of the US where minority faith voices are routinely ignored and tromped on, where religious diversity is not only not welcomed but is actively discouraged and dismissed. Places like tiny towns where clergy colleagues guide equally tiny Jewish congregations and are routinely told point blank that the "God" invoked at the beginning of town meetings is - and should be - everyone's "God" and where religious minority clergy are not welcomed not invited and not wanted. Places where people affirming a majority belief routinely don't understand (and don't want to understand) why it's not right to insist that everyone at town meetings and events bow to the same deity or offer prayers in a particular deity's name. Places where the people who don't bow their heads are taken note of as being "the other." Where opposition to public prayer prayers offered in the name of a specific deity at town meetings and events gets you labeled as anti-religion, anti-God, anti-American and worse. It takes a strong patience to be told in effect that you're welcome in the town but not really.

It's too bad that not every town is a Bethel. Which is why the Supreme Court's decision - narrow in scope as it is - is so disconcerting and distressing for some people. If every town were a Bethel, there'd be no need for such decisions. But every town is not like my adopted town.

So my advice remains as above. Stay vigilant, pick your battles as wisely as possible, insert yourselves into your communities, stand up for the rights of all the minority populations in your town, and stay strong in your religious beliefs and practices and communities.


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