Sunday, December 19, 1993

God's Place: The City

 God's Place: The City

by Joshua Hammerman

The following address was delivered by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El, Stamford, at a joint service between Temple Beth El and Bethel A.M.E., held at the church on December 19, 1993. The service was the second in a series of cooperative ventures between the two congregations, aimed at strengthening the bonds between the Jewish and African American communities of Stamford. 

I am so happy to be here at the invitation of your spiritual leader. As we've gotten to know each other, Reverend Winton Hill and I have come to realize that there is so much more that unites us than divides us. We each run around like crazy and fight to squeeze in time for our families. We each care most of all about the children, our own, and yours too. And we each grieve at what we see happening to our children, when we see them exposed to violence, hunger, neglect and hatred. We want our children to feel a special pride in who they are and where they come from. To take the legacy of their people and transform it into the greatest love of all, the love of self leading to a love for humanity. We are so fortunate to have Winton Hill our community. He is, in every way, a soulmate and friend.

The Beth El - Bethel relationship was forged by a dream. Several dreams, really. The dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to be sure, and of generations of Jews and African Americans who have worked together, suffered together and grown together in their efforts to build a more just, more compassionate America for their children.

But there is one more dream that we share, one embedded in our very identity, our name, and our Bible. It was Jacob's dream that occurred in the place he called Beit El, Beth-el, the House of the Lord. And in Jacob's dream, a ladder was set on earth with its top stretching forth unto heaven, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

When Jacob awoke, he understood what he hadn't before, that God's presence could be felt in a place utterly ordinary, seemingly earth-bound, and a simple place, cluster of stones, really, became holy.

Our dream today is nothing less than to make Jacob's Beth-el a living concept in our living city. We stand together, as Stamford's two Beth-els, committed to transforming Stamford into a house of God. We must build a ladder to heaven. Right here. Right now.

Ancient holy cities, Jerusalem, Mecca, Benares, Peking, all were built around sacred spaces, which allowed for a feeling of intersection, where the horizontal plane could meet the vertical. Where people could remove their shoes in the knowledge that this place was God's place. In those days, the city came to symbolize hope, reaffirmation and resolve. In recent times, cities have lost their ability to build those sacred ladders, choosing instead to build secular palaces of concrete and glass, to be centers of commerce rather than compassion, coming to symbolize corruption, confrontation and despair. That is precisely what has happened to New York, where the politics of fear have become the only means of motivating the populace.

But Stamford is not New York. Stamford is smaller. Stamford does still care. Stamford still puts people first, or at least it can. And Stamford has two very different Beth Els who wish to bring the entire city to an understanding of how we can build that ladder to heaven.

We can become a healing city, a place where all citizens feel sustained and nurtured in its midst. We can become an organic city, not of disparate neighborhoods and conflicting groups, but a collage where the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. The great cities of the past all felt organic and whole, down to the last detail, the restaurants, the sidewalks, the neighborhoods, the gardens, the walls. In Jerusalem, for instance, there is not a single stone that is not tear-stained, whether it adorn an ancient shrine or a modern cafe, it is all Jerusalem, all reaching up to the heavens. Our city can reach heavenward too, but only if we provide the tears, the laughter, the kindness, and imprint them on every stone and girder.

It all comes together today. Today we are not African American and Jew, we are Stamford. And if we can come together, the rest of the city will have to follow. If they see that we can care for each other, we who are so different, we who still have somewhat differing agendas, but we who do care for each other, if they can see us holding hands, if we can pull this off, the rest of the city will take notice. Like the Maccabees and martyrs of old, we can change the world.

This city can care for its homeless, for its sick, for its downtrodden, for its living and for its dying. And we can help it.

In his book, "A Vision of Britain," Prince Charles says, the "Our towns and cities can be restored to places where people matter once more and where our spirits find tranquillity and inspiration." Today we share that inspiration. We can become an oasis of tranquillity.

New eras have begun in South Africa and the Middle East. Almost simultaneously, the two international arenas that have concerned our peoples the most have miraculously become arenas of reconciliation. Our relationship will no longer be distracted by them. Instead we can focus on building bridges. This is the second joint service our congregations have held this year. In 1994, we hope to follow this up with more dialogue, more involvement, more coming together -- with your help. Please join in our effort. We need it. Our city needs it. We can become a model of caring and coexistence between Jews and African Americans -- sort of like the U Conn basketball team, which has had more Israeli imports than a Kosher supermarket. Let's follow their lead as they rise to the top.

The writer James McPherson noted that there has been of late an unfortunate tendency among Jews toward greater racism and among blacks toward greater antisemitism, and that it can be traced to same thing: each group is trying to join the majority. The rest of the world hates, so we'll hate too. We can't deny these trends, nor can we deny that the temptation exists to hate. There may be comfort in numbers but we, as two peoples who have seen the results of senseless hatred, we've got to fight it. We've got to love each other, even if that is just one more thing that places us against the tide.

For the sake of our city, we've got to end the hating.

For the sake of the children, we've got to end the hating.

For the sake of God, we've got to end the hating.

Today, right here, right now, we each are adding one rung to Jacob's ladder. And together, we stretch forth to the heavens, as our city becomes a House of God.