Beth Tfiloh Congregation (BT) and Liberty Grace Church of God (LGC) came together once again this weekend in a display of brotherly love, discussion and dining at the “Breaking Bread and Building Bridges” event. The two congregations have held interfaith events before, with a Unity Shabbat in February 2019 and a Unity Day, the first event between the two organizations, in November 2018 at LGC.
This weekend’s event is the result of the unexpected friendship between Rabbi Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation and the Rev. Terris A. King of Liberty Grace Church. They connected two years ago through Antero Pietila’s book “Not in My Neighborhood,” which examines the residential segregation practices towards blacks and Jews in Baltimore throughout the 1900s, including the treatment of Jews and African Americans in the Ashburton area during the 1950s-60s.
King noted that there was no awareness among his congregation that Jews, like the black community, love and value food.
“I think the food really put a twist on this weekend that we hadn’t touched on before. The commonality of these two congregations has not been our focus,” he said. “I think [the commonality of both congregations is] what made this one really special…that really made it different.”
The interfaith event began Thursday night as 18 women from BT and LGC came together at BT to teach each other how to make their respective cultural food classics. On the menu were collard greens, fried chicken and potato salad from the African American community, and gefilte fish, noodle kugel, and Israeli salad from the Jewish community. All the food prepared would be served at the Saturday kiddush following services.
Before beginning to cook, the women sat down in the Crane Multipurpose Room over bagels, chatting about life and generally enjoying one another’s company. Once the meal was done, the cooking began in a flurry of action and knives. The LGC delegation was led by Cathy King, Rev. King’s wife, while the BT group was led by Lindsay Gaister, the director of social action at BT Congregation.
Charlene Boston of LGC taught the Jewish women the proper way to strip collard green leaves from their stems, followed by a trick for cutting them: roll it up, then slice! I later overheard her sharing a story about her mother and collard greens with Sheri Knauth, BT’s Youth Center Administrative Assistant, followed by the two bonding over cooking. Other stations saw the women cleaning chicken, mixing together noodle kugel and chopping up ingredients for Israeli salad.
As I walked around the different stations, smiles were on everyone’s faces and casual, relaxed chatter filled the air. There was no awkwardness, no hesitation in either group about mingling what easily could have become “the other.”
The cooking event went from 5:30 – 11 p.m., as the women made enough food to feed 300-400 individuals. But the late hour did not matter.
“Did we have a good time with each other! We laughed and shared stories together while sharing recipes,” said Gaister. “It was such a fun night and the kitchen smelled so good!”
A Celebration of Food and Faith
Saturday’s festivities began with traditional Jewish services. According to Gaister, between 75-100 people from LGC were present.
During the presentation of the Torahs, I watched a black woman who, after seeing the Jewish women touch their siddurim (prayer books) to the Sefer Torah and then kissing the siddur, do the same when the Sefer Torah came by her. It became clear that there was an interest to learn about the customs of another culture.
In his mid-service speech, Wohlberg commented on the large number of people who had come out for that day’s services.
“Such a large synagogue attendance today shows the incredible power of Southern fried chicken!” he joked.
Wohlberg noted the shared love for food in both cultures, as well as the historical relevance for both groups behind certain traditional foods.
“Our distinct foods have something in common: a common history of persecution, of rejection, of being the ‘other,’” he said.
At the kiddush, Thursday’s cooking was quickly devoured and enjoyed by all – especially the fried chicken and collard greens!
A question-and-answer session with the two religious leaders followed. The room was quickly packed to standing room only.
“It was astounding how many people showed up for Shabbat and chose to stay to listen to the talk,” said Gaister. “It shows how strong our new relationship is with each other, how open and welcome everyone felt, and how important it is that we are doing these types of events together.”
Before the talkback began, printouts of the Wall Street Journal article “Race Remains the Great Unresolved Issue” – about the pervasiveness of racism within our political and social environment – were passed out. This article was shared in connection to a theme the two religious leaders emphasized: that the two communities truly do not know each other. This has been the primary purpose of the two congregations’ ongoing efforts to host events like the Breaking Bread Shabbat, to foster connections and introduce the two communities on one another to make or a more united Baltimore.
The two leaders shared their story about how they bonded – over “food, faith, and fine fancy cars!” King joked, mentioning his and Wohlberg’s shared interest for cars. The two clearly had an established, friendly rapport that allowed them to riff off one another, leading to much laughter throughout the session.
Questions from the audience covered King’s story in becoming a pastor, what they are doing to address violence within the community, and more.
Everyone in attendance walked away with three things: a sense of commonality, hope for the future, and joy.
“Rabbi Wohlberg’s words to summarize the day was “glorious,” and mine was joyous,” said King. “That’s what my folk left with, real, real joy.”
“I think everyone walked away from the weekend with a sense of hope for the future…that people can be better to one another, that people can be more accepting of one another,” Gaister said. “A sense of hope and pride that it is starting here at home with all of us.”