I was blessed to spend the bulk of my rabbinic service in a place I didn’t belong. I am a Yankee, born in New York, who served a synagogue in the Deep South. When I first arrived decades ago, I found myself anxiously striving to keep Judaism — and Jews — from being submerged in the waters of Bible Belt Christianity. Gradually, I learned to relax and float on top of the water and not try to swim against the current. I learned so much about faith and religion, which reinforced my appreciation for my own.
Many Christians in my part of the country live in a state of constant anticipation of what they call the “Rapture.” They believe the end of time will come in stages. The first stage, the “Rapture,” will draw believers into heaven to be close with Jesus so they can avoid the end of time travails; Armageddon, in other words. After that, God will judge those who remain behind and bring some to heaven and cast the rest to eternal perdition. We Jews are not lost, entirely, because we’re in the first group. We have reservations on the train to eternal bliss — it just leaves a little later.
That I live amid this view of reality came home to me in an especially poignant way a few years ago. It was the Spring of 2016. In Alabama, no time is more beautiful. I had anticipated a quiet, uneventful day in the office. The phone message light was on when I came in, so I pushed the button. A man with a southern country drawl had left me this:
“Rabbi, my name is Renferd Higgins (not his real name) and I need me a Jew to take care of my dog. Sure would ’preciate you to call me back at … “
I stared at the telephone and thought, “It’s a joke, for sure, or some Looney Tunes. I may as well call him and get this over with.”
“Mr. Higgins, this is Rabbi Miller in Birmingham. You just called me, and I am returning your phone call.”
“Oh, Rabbi Miller, thank you so much for calling me back. I live in Brookhill, Mississippi. (Not a real place.) Do you know where that is at?
“No, help me out.”
“We are in the country not too far from Meridian. I need me a Jew to take care of my dog.”
I stared at the phone. What exactly does a Jew say when asked by a stranger to dog sit?
“Mr. Higgins, this is a rather unusual request. Can you share with me what you are thinking?”
“Well Rabbi, I am here in a Bible study, and we are studyin’ about the Rapture. Are you familiar with the Rapture?”
“Yes, I am, Mr. Higgins.”
“Well, before the Second Coming, Jesus is gonna appear and all good Christians are gonna be swept into heaven, and the only people left on earth are gonna be the Jews and the atheists. Now don’t you worry, Rabbi, before the Second Coming, God’s gonna take care of the Jews too. So, when the Rapture comes, I need me a Jew to take care of my dog. I don’t want my dog being raised by no atheist.”
The Yankee part of me wanted to chew the caller out for being so … obtuse. “For real? You think your dog needs to be raised in a religious home?” But I pushed back against my instinctive response. I told myself, “Be southern.”
“Mr. Higgins, tell me about your dog.”
“Oh, she’s a sweet thing. Name is Millie. ’Bout three years old. A yellow Lab mix. I love her a lot.”
“Clearly you do.” (Now, what should I say?)
After some silence I said, “Mr. Higgins, I will take care of your dog.”
“You would, Rabbi? You would take care of Millie?”
“Mr. Higgins, when the Rapture comes, I will take care of Millie. Now, don’t you worry a bit.”
“Oh, I feel so much better. Thank you so much, Rabbi. I was so worried about Millie.” (Another long pause.) “Uhhh, how is Millie gonna get to you?”
“Mr. Higgins, you just put the synagogue’s address on the inside of her collar. When the Rapture comes, I will fetch Millie. Promise.”
“That is so great. Thank you, Rabbi. Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Mr. Higgins. Is there anything else on you mind?”
“Just one more thing, Rabbi. You may be getting yourself a whole lot of dogs. And if you have to, you can put Millie down. It will be allright.”
“Mr. Higgins, don’t even think about that. It will be my pleasure and honor to care for Millie during the Rapture. I will make sure that she is in good hands with a loving Jewish family.”
“I feel so much better. I was so worried about Millie. And now I have you, Rabbi Miller, to watch out for her. Wait until I tell the folks in my Bible study that I got the rabbi to take care of Millie when Jesus comes.”
“It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Mr. Higgins. Is there anything else you need from me?”
“No, Rabbi, you have a good day and thank you very much.”
“You are most welcome. Goodbye, Mr. Higgins.”
It is too easy to think about our different religions as opportunities to compete and to dominate, or as kernels of truth that we have to defend at all costs. As a Yankee rabbi in Birmingham, I have learned that living with others gives us opportunities to be kind in ways we never thought and to give and receive gifts that we never would have imagined. Mr. Higgins blessed me as I blessed him.
And as the former owner of Scruff, a black Lab whom I adored the way Mr. Higgins adores Millie, I would be very happy to take Millie if the world has come to the end of time.
Jonathan Miller is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, Alabama. He is writing a novel based on this conversation which he hopes will appear sometime in 2020. He’s also got a lot of great stories about Scruff, which he loves to share over a glass of wine.
‘Rabbi, will you take my dog when the Rapture comes?’