by Tara Overzat
I entered the story below into a contest. Even though it lost (boo!) Sean and I decided it deserved to see the light of day. So here it is!
I saw a local commercial on PBS. Rose Price, a Holocaust survivor, was going to speak at Beth Hallel in observance of Yom Hashoah. I knew Yom Hashoah to be the day of Holocaust remembrance. I was familiar with some of the Jewish holidays and traditions, thanks to Mom.
Mom, a Puerto Rican Roman Catholic, spent a decade working at Israeli Discount Bank and the things she learned from her co-workers remained with her. She would drop Yiddish into her conversations, tsk-tsking that someone was a “yenta,” asking people if they wanted something to “nosh” on, and exclaiming “Oy gevalt!” when we bothered her. We went to St. Andrew’s Catholic Church on Sundays, and took Bible classes, but it wasn’t long til my brother and I were dropping Yiddish into our conversations, too. Many of our classmates and friends were Jewish and no one batted an eye when I complained about having to “schlep” my bookbag. We ate latkes and applesauce during Hanukkah, even if we didn’t pray in Hebrew. It never occurred to us to regularly attend services, but we did go to temple when we were invited for a bar/bat mitzvah. Mom approved of me reading the Diary of Anne Frank when I was in the fourth grade and I read Holocaust stories and histories for a number of years thereafter. We were spiritually Catholic, but there was an undeniable Jewish influence in our lives.
I looked up Beth Hallel online for directions. Under the name, the website said “Messianic Jewish Synagogue.” What?
I recalled a conversation I had in middle school, where my classmates and I had poked fun at so-called “Jews for Jesus.”
“Look, Tara believes in Jesus, so she’s a Christian,” Leah had said. “And I don’t, so I’m Jewish. You can’t be both! Duh!”
And now, here I was en route to a place that claimed, yes, yes you can. You can have Shabbat service and some Jesus, too. I drove out to the Atlanta suburbs, along the way passing a signboard proclaiming, “Have you read Atlas Shrugged?” on the lawn of a chiropractor’s office.
The parking lot was full, and people were starting to double-park. Would a Messianic synagogue tow? Nah, I reasoned. I couldn’t think of a single commandment against it (except maybe, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s… parking spot?”)
The large auditorium of the building was full and a glance up showed that it must be some afterschool basketball court when not being used for special events – the backboards and hoops were drawn up.
I found a lone seat – one of many fold-up chairs set up in the balconies for this event. The friendly rabbi and many volunteers were trying hard to seat people and to dig up some more chairs. The attractive middle-aged woman seated next to me struck up a conversation. She asked me about my phone and showed me that she had the same one.
“This is my first time here to Beth Hallel,” I told her. “I didn’t even know they had one of these Messianic synagogues in Georgia.”
She smiled. “Well, bless your heart! I’ve been coming here since… let’s see…1997? I grew up in Michigan in the Lutheran church, and then I started coming here when I moved south. I didn’t speak a lick of Hebrew. But, you know what, if Hebrew is good enough for the Lord, it’s good enough for me.”
I had never heard it put that way before.
The rabbi and volunteers were successful in seating the majority of the attendants, but clearly had been surprised by the response of the community. Rose took the stage, looking resplendent in a lightly sequined dress and coat. The rabbi came to the stage to move her podium. Without missing a beat, she said, “That’s why we need a rabbi – to schlep!”
The audience laughed. She made jokes throughout her talk, and even though she shared some of the horrendous experiences she faced in the ghetto and later in a concentration camp, her theme was one of hope and forgiveness. She had found both of these in G-d, and only came to accept Jesus as her savior later in life – after she had been the leader of her synagogue. She found in this combination faith a way to forgive her tormentors, and did so on a trip to Berlin.
On my way out, I spoke to an old co-worker who had heard about the event through my facebook page. She had never seen a Holocaust survivor speak before and was excited and inspired by the experience. As I left Beth Hallel, I too was in awe – not only of Rose’s courage and determination, but of the actualization of a peaceful middle ground between two very different faiths.