Beth Shalom: An Unexpected Circle of Friends

Friendship and Faith focuses on building compassionate cross-cultural friendships by sharing real-life stories from women who dare to cross cultural and religious boundaries to make friends. We share dozens of these inspiring stories in our book, Friendship and Faith—which you can learn about by clicking the book-cover link in the right margin. Plus, on this website, we publish an ongoing series of new stories.
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Beth Shalom: A Stranger Finds
an Unexpected Circle of Friends

By Veronica Fiegel

http://www.readthespirit.com/friendship-and-faith/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/03/wpid-0531_fandf_Scenes_from_Beth_Shalom_Oak_Park_Michigan.jpgSNAPSHOTS FROM THE LIFE OF BETH SHALOM, Oak Park, Michigan: Families are active in most Beth Shalom programs, so an Earth Day cleanup involved young and old. Other photos show a special day for moms and daughters and also scenes from a Women’s Seder. The seder included guitarist Beth Greenapple singing with children. Photos used by permission of Beth Shalom.I finally understood what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land. Not in bondage like the original stranger in Exodus 2 and not as dramatically as the Heinlein or U2 strangers—but I certainly was far beyond my culture. Even my language failed me. I had no idea what a mitzvah was; I only knew that it was usually associated with bar or bat, and I still couldn’t have told you what those words meant.

At Wayne State University, I had been told that I needed to complete an internship since I first declared my major as public relations. At a Wayne State internship fair, I met representatives from some of the area’s communication agencies, local publications and non-profit organizations. Among all the hustle and bustle of suited-up people and nervous students sat a calm woman whose organization was looking for a public relations intern. The position was exactly what I was seeking: publicizing events and writing feature stories for an internal newsletter and for community newspapers and websites.

In the days following the fair, this woman—Mandy Garver, president of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park—contacted me and offered me the position. I was so excited, but I had one concern: Can a non-Jew do this job?

I am Lutheran. My upbringing was very Christian-traditional: celebrating Christmas and Easter, attending Christian lifecycle events surrounded by other Christians. I didn’t have much exposure to Judaism growing up. I had heard of a few of the major Jewish holidays, as most non-Jews have, but Judaism was foreign to me.

After some deliberation, I accepted Mandy’s offer. Although I was anxious about not being Jewish, I felt good about taking the offer. This was an ample portfolio- and contact-building opportunity but without the intimidation of a big corporation. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Prior to my January start date, Mandy and my supervisor, Bobbie, gave me two books about Judaism to help me understand Jewish faith and customs. The books were fascinating but there is only so much you can learn from books. If you want to learn about religion and culture, the most important tool is personal communication.

As I began the internship, I realized that talking with the office staff would not only be helpful, but necessary in producing meaningful articles and publicity. I needed to know what I was talking about when I wrote for Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. Although I read about Jewish culture, I still needed to talk to people who really understood it. Luckily for me, I had an office full of knowledgeable staff who were more than willing to answer my questions.

My inquiries went beyond the professional; I was curious personally. I kept thinking to myself: At what other time am I going to be able to learn so much about Judaism? I carefully observed everything around me and attended events that would help me learn more. A Women’s Seder in April gave me my first inside experience of one of Judaism’s most important traditions.

Every month I sent in calendar listings to The Jewish News, the local Patch and to Local Stew. I wrote press releases, pitched stories and wrote feature articles for the synagogue’s internal newsletter and for community newspapers. Just starting out in my profession, I enjoyed the astonishment of seeing my name pop up in published bylines and having journalists contact me wanting to know more about a synagogue event. Seeing these kinds of results made me feel that I was being helpful to Beth Shalom as a professional—that a non-Jew could not only do this job, but do it well.

The positive energy of the synagogue was undeniable. Everyone I encountered among staff and members greeted me with a smiling face. Although everyone in the office knew I wasn’t Jewish, it never affected how they treated me. I felt so included in this community of friends that, over time, this felt like more than a job, more than a professional role I was playing. I realized that I was living out one of the principles I had learned in my Wayne State course work—I was becoming such a part of the organization I was serving that I was now among friends. At Beth Shalom, I was one of their own.

Aside from giving me professional experience, my time with Beth Shalom also gave me a new perception of Jewish people. Media headlines, photos and stories don’t always portray Jews in the fairest, most-accurate light. In a world dominated by Christianity, most people will not be lucky enough to learn about Judaism as I have. Working at the synagogue for four months has taught me that one key to breaking down stereotypes is forming personal relationships. And, as friends, I found that Jewish people I encountered throughout the community are some of the nicest, most genuine and non-judgmental people I’ve ever had the fortune of meeting. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know such amazing people and learn more about a religion that, up until January, I’ve only heard about second hand.

Care to contact today’s writer, Veronica Fiegel? Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

Remember … We also offer e-editions of Friendship and Faith.
Got a Kindle or use the Kindle app on your iPhone or iPad?
Enjoy the Amazon Kindle version of our book packed with inspiring stories.
Got a Nook or use the Nook app?
Our book also is available through Barnes & Noble for the Nook.
Got a story to share?
We have some helpful tips for telling your story.

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