Do you know your neighbor?
I live in the crowded city of Los Angeles. I see my neighbors who live in the adjacent buildings to my home, just feet from my own front door. I could not tell you their names. We wave to each other on our way to work, but that is the extent of our relationship in our hectic lives.
In rabbinical school, you are required to find a chevruta, a study partner; a person to sharpen our mind with new ideas; a person to challenge us in our thinking; a person we know better than our next door neighbor. Often, it is a classmate or a close friend, experiencing similar life passages, with comparable theologies; your spiritual neighbor.
Yet, what they did not tell me in Rabbinical school was that my chevruta would not live next door. Rather he would live a couple of neighborhoods away from my synagogue in Beverly Hills, he would be an African-American pastor of a mega-church, and he would be as passionate about Israel as I am.
Three years ago, I was introduced to Pastor John Paul Foster, of Faithful Central Bible Church, in Inglewood, California, after he traveled on a pilgrimage to Israel. He described to me the feeling he had witnessing baptisms in the Jordan River, and touching the sacred stones of the Western Wall. As he stood in the Jerusalem plaza marveling at the sights of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he felt a touch on his shoulder. As he turned around, a man with a kippah on his head said proudly, “See this wall, this is my wall, and it is your wall too!”
There are walls that separate this rabbi and this pastor. We live in separate neighborhoods, we serve different congregations, and we hold major theological differences. Yet, we have become brothers in faith, champions of a pro-Israel community, and neighborhood bridge-builders.
At our monthly breakfasts, we articulate our common differences; how to engage millennials in religious life, what messages to preach to a divided society, and what social action projects we can create together to make the world a better place tomorrow than what we find today. When there were tensions between the black community and the police, Pastor Foster was my first phone call to see what my community could do for him. After the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, I was his first call asking what the Jewish community needed. It was normal, it was real; because we are neighbors.
As our relationship developed, we began to visit each other’s communities. On a Thursday evening, I sat in the pews of the church listening to Pastor Foster’s brilliant preaching, and he returned the favor, bringing his church leaders to a Friday night Shabbat dinner and service. Our communities prayed together and broke bread together, because we are neighbors. As one conversation led to the next, I invited Pastor Foster to accompany me to the AIPAC Policy Conference, in Washington, DC. A strange sight to see; a rabbi and pastor, hand in hand, supporting the US-Israel relationship. I watched as he observed over 20,000 people, black and white, Jewish and Christian, young and old, unified because a stronger more diverse Israel is a stronger more diverse world.
When we returned from Washington, I asked Pastor Foster, “Why is our experiment so successful?”
He responded brilliantly: “Rabbi, we are neighbors, and we love our neighbors.” When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain the Torah on one foot, he answered, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Yet, we forget the most important part of his teaching. It concludes, “Now go and learn.”
Yes, we can love our neighbors as ourselves, but do we go learn about them? What are their concerns and fears? What are their hopes and dreams? Do we invite someone different to our Shabbat table or do we converse with only those who are like minded? Do we look past the color of our skin or do we make that a defining marker of differentiation?
This past Shabbat, to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our communities once again gathered together. Pastor Foster was our guest preacher, along with 25 young professionals of the Faithful Central choir. The English writer, Gilbert Chesterson, once said, “”We make our friend; we make our enemies; but God makes our next door neighbor.” Pastor Foster made clear there is no better reason to praise God then for our neighbors. But that is not sufficient, for in fact, it is our neighbors that we need to survive. It is most obvious in the model that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel demonstrated.
As Dr. King taught, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. King prayed that his message would be heard. Thankfully, one rabbi saw the injustice, and prayed with his feet. These two spiritual neighbors changed the course of history, marching arm in arm down the streets of Selma. The world witnessed the power of a good neighbor. The world witnessed that we need each other to survive. Have we forgotten this lesson?
We are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus to our children as if we were slaves ourselves in Egypt. What story do we want to tell our children: One of separation and isolation? Or an America where unity is a ubiquitous word, where our Shabbat dinner tables is a unified altar of differences, with our neighbors waiting to be our friends.
Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.
This story "When A Rabbi And A Mega-Church Pastor Learned To Pray Together" was written by Erez Sherman.