Faces are Different, But Message is the Same

It may be true that you can’t really go home again. But when I recently returned from out of state to my old house of worship near Marquette Park, I found that home was far more interesting than when I left.

My formerly all-white synagogue is now Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, a temple of mostly African-American Jews. They incorporate drums and other African musical influences in the services. Their Torah discussions, such as how Jacob met Rachel, are bawdier and funnier than I remember.

But it still felt like home.

When I last attended services with my family at Lawn Manor Hebrew Congregation in the 1990s, the shul had dwindled to a small number of elderly people, down from hundreds of families at its height.

In the 1960s and 70s, when my sisters and cousins and I attended Hebrew school there, Marquette Park was an all-white, working-class neighborhood with strong strains of racism. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was hit in the head by a rock during a housing protest in 1966, and the Nazis had an office nearby.

Growing up not far away, I constantly heard the N word from my mostly non-Jewish friends and neighbors, and I hated it. At the synagogue, I did not hear expressions of racism. But neither do I remember much vocal support for the civil rights struggles, including Dr. King’s protest march just a block away.

My bar mitzvah took place two days after Dr. King was murdered. Our main concern was whether the caterers and guests could make it across the city through the riots to get to our celebration.

Much has changed demographically on the Southwest Side since I moved away in 1976. According to the 2000 census, the 60629 ZIP code where the synagogue is located is 26 percent black, 49 percent Hispanic, 43 percent white, and 26 percent “some other race” (the racial categories are not exclusive). Many Arab Americans live in the area.

With the Southwest Side Jewish community mostly gone and their synagogue fading, my parents reluctantly moved to the North Side in 1998. My father, Sam, died in 2003. My mother, Sarah, followed him this past November.

Last year, I learned to my surprise that a black congregation had taken over the building in 2004, relocating from the Southeast Side. After my mother’s funeral, my sister and cousin and I, out of curiosity, decided to drive down for Friday night services and say Kaddish for her. We thought Mom would like the idea, but we didn’t know what to expect.

When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr. and his congregants, and were impressed by the lively Torah discussion. After we said Kaddish, we were embraced and consoled by everyone. A burly Vietnam veteran spoke comforting words to me while wrapping me in a bear hug.

Rabbi Funnye gave us a nostalgic tour, updated us on the family of our beloved late Rabbi Mordechai Schultz and told us that a number of former Lawn Manor congregants return regularly for services. It was a moving experience that I wish my mother could have shared.

All this makes me think that Sen. Barack Obama was right when he said last week that “we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction.” It also gave me hope that the once-powerful bonds between Jews and blacks in America can be restored.

As our country become more diverse, we can’t necessarily return to the same familiar home. But we can find comfort and security in a new home where people share our values.

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