Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism

Jews Account For Less Than 1 Percent Of Our Region’s Population But Have A Remarkably Strong Presence In The Community

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Rabbi Michael Panitz, Searching for God in the 7 Cities: Judaism
Rabbi Michael Panitz

And if a stranger sojourns with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shall love him as thyself.

~ from the Book of Leviticus


Whenever I reflect on my own spiritual journey, a few significant milestones stand out. At the moment—having spent the last two months exploring Judaism in Coastal Virginia—one is particularly vivid: the memory of my first Seder.

It was a clear, cool April evening in Manhattan in 1996. My boss at the time had invited me to join him and some of his friends at his spacious apartment on the Upper West Side for the sacred holiday dinner commemorating the liberation of the Jews from enslavement in Egypt.

Among the guests was actor Jerry Stiller, who led the proceedings. Though Stiller is known for his comedy, he didn’t crack many jokes that night. I don’t mean to imply that he was humorless. There were light-hearted moments. But from beginning to end, he orchestrated the rituals and prayers with the discipline of Rabbi.

I was fascinated.

Not all of the people at the table were devoutly religious. But they were bound together by a strong sense of their Jewish identity, and they seemed to place great value on the traditions associated with it. In some ways I envied them for their connection to a distinct and abundantly rich heritage. In modern America, after all, that quality is becoming increasingly rare. With each passing year our culture becomes more and more individualistic, fragmented and detached from history.

If this sense of connection among Jews is stronger than it is in any other religious group it is because Judaism has certain characteristics that all other religions lack. Rabbi Michael Panitz, of Temple Israel in the Wards Corner section of Norfolk, put it particularly well when I talked with him one Saturday in his office after a service at the synagogue.

“Unlike [Biblical times],” he said, “when Jews were the majority culture in their own lands, the Judaism we practice today—despite the existence of the state of Israel—is a religious style which has had thousands of years of practice in tending to a minority. Sometimes it’s a very small minority and sometimes a persecuted minority. So the strength of the community becomes a really important part of the experience of being Jewish.

“In this respect,” he added, “Judaism is like an ethnic church. Christianity is universalist. There’s no Jew in Christ, there’s no Greek in Christ, is how St. Paul put it. Judaism has a much higher sense of the community or the nation as the carrier of our message. So even when you have Jews who are highly assimilated, they still have a sense of being part of a nation, part of a culture, part of a community. Some people who come here [to the temple] are close to being atheist. So it’s not belief in God that brings them here on a regular basis. It’s a sense that ‘this is my platoon.’”

As I listened to Panitz, I was struck by how skewed my sense of Jewish life in America had been when I was growing up in New York City. I hadn’t fully understood just how small this minority actually is. New York, after all, is home to well over a million Jews, or about 12 percent of the city’s population. Indeed, it is the largest population of Jews outside of Israel. Nationally, it’s a very different picture. Jews account for only about 2 percent of the American population. The number of Jews in Coastal Virginia, moreover, is only about 15,000 by liberal estimates, or less than 1 percent of the total.

Perhaps because of this, as Panitz suggested, the Jewish community here remains quite strong and cohesive in spite of differences in belief and style of worship.

Most Jewish people here and elsewhere in the country—if they are religious at all— adhere to one of three branches: Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. (More on that as we go.) They also come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Panitz is from New Jersey.

“I grew up in a Rabbinic household in Paterson,” he said, “at a time when there was a fairly large Jewish community there, and my dad was the Rabbi of the largest congregation. So I grew up within this world, as it were. My own sense is very much congruent with my parents: It’s not a matter of rejecting the broader world that we live in; it’s a matter of participating in it with a multicultural sense. All the different cultures have something to contribute in making our society better. I do so as an American Jew. But I’ve always believed that we should treat each other as brothers and sisters.”

The idea of becoming a Rabbi was not “automatic,” for him, he recalled.  “For a long time,” he said, “I was really focused on becoming a scholar and working in academia. I have a Ph.D. But my love of congregational service was never absent, and it became stronger as I got older. I wanted it to be the larger part of what I do while staying in the university as an adjunct. (He continues to teach part-time at both Old Dominion University and Virginia Wesleyan.) 

Temple Israel, Judaism

Temple Israel is a conservative synagogue, but Panitz explained that this label is misleading.

“Conservative, in the Jewish tradition, is actually centrist. I prefer the newly minted Hebrew term Masorti, which means traditional. We want to conserve our traditions, but the word ‘conservative’ does not mean ‘red’ in the modern political sense. Conservative Jews tend to be purple leaning to blue. What makes them not straight blue, politically, is the sense that for the last 50 years our fellow liberals haven’t given Israel a fair shake. But on the big social issues of the day—charity as a mandate, caring about the environment, freedom of choice, and so on—most of the Jews in the congregations I’ve served have been on the left side of the aisle. I think of Conservative Judaism in relation to the Latin term via media, which means ‘middle way,’ and is often applied to the Anglican Church.”

While attending the service at Temple Israel, I could see the parallel myself. Like the Episcopal Church in which I grew up (Episcopalians being religious descendants of Anglicans in America), the people I met at Temple Israel seemed open minded about social issues but wholly devoted to ancient liturgical traditions. Indeed, much of the service was recited in Hebrew and read from a traditionally crafted—and stunningly beautiful—Torah scroll. (The Torah contains the Five Books of Moses, or the first five books of the Old Testament.)

The service was also long—about two-and-a-half hours in total—although, as I soon learned, many people do not arrive on time. In Jewish tradition, a quorum or minyan of at least 10 people must be present to even begin the service, and on that particular morning there were barely enough at the start. By the end of the service, there were nearly 60 people present. Panitz said that on high holidays there are generally four or five times that number.

Afterward, the celebration continued, as it generally does on the Shabbat, or Sabbath, with an abundance of food served in the large meeting hall outside the sanctuary. This didn’t surprise me. Food, after all, has always been important to Jewish culture, which makes sense given that breaking bread together is one of the primary ways in which we bond as humans. For Jews, such feasts are also a way of connecting with the past.

For Panitz, however, devotion to tradition does not mean interpreting the Bible literally.

“I learned at home, and it was reinforced in school, to always read [the Bible] seriously—but that this is not the same as reading it literally.” He does not believe, for example, that Moses literally split the waters when leading his people from Egypt. “I think there was an Exodus,” he said, “and I think of it as a glorious story with a kernel of historicity. I’m really not worried about whether the literary qualities of the Bible are journalistically factual or not. Because I think the Bible sometimes teaches us with prose, and sometimes with poetry, and sometimes with epic and so on.” To his mind, in short, many of the Bible’s most important passages are myths—not in the modern common usage of that word to signify something that’s false, but in the way in which the late, great Joseph Campbell used it: a story that conveys a set of values and gives meaning to our lives.

“For me,” he said, “the Bible is the indispensable first word in a conversation; it’s not the last word. There are lots of issues, after all, that the Bible doesn’t explicitly address. We have methodologies of reading the Bible that are similar to how a 21st century lawyer reads the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment, for example, doesn’t address wiretapping because it didn’t exist. Similarly, the Bible doesn’t, for instance, address in vitro fertilization. But we do have the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, who could not get pregnant. They turned to Hagar (Sarah’s servant) to carry a child. That’s surrogate motherhood; they just didn’t call it that.”

Temple Israel, Barry and Lois Einhorn, Judaism
Barry and Lois Einhorn

Temple Israel, in spite of its “conservative” label—also fully embraces women as equals in every aspect of the life of the synagogue. That wasn’t always the case, as I learned from Barry and Lois Einhorn, who joined in 1955, just three years after the temple opened. It was Lois who eventually helped lead the push for women’s equality there.

As a child, Lois was exposed to Jewish traditions at home but knew little about organized Judaism.

“My dad was born in Russia,” she told me as she and Barry chatted with me over lunch recently. “Like most of the Jewish people who came from Europe, his family was Orthodox. But he was a rebel. Organized religion just wasn’t for him. I call him the first hippy,” she added with a laugh.

Lois’ mother, born in the United States, also came from an Orthodox background, and for the first year that her parents were married, she kept a kosher home, but they didn’t belong to a synagogue, nor did they continue to keep a kosher home when she was growing up. 

“The first time I ever saw a synagogue I was 12 years old when I went to my cousin’s bar mitzvah. When I started at Blair [Middle School in Norfolk] I met more Jewish people, and they would talk about going to services on the holidays. I really wanted to see what it was like. At the time you needed a ticket to get in. I didn’t have one, but my girlfriends snuck me in. I really liked the service. I’ve always liked learning and wanted to learn more about Judaism.”

Lois and Barry, now both 88 years old, started dating when they were 16, and married when they were 22 at Congregation Beth El in Norfolk. Soon afterward, the Rabbi’s wife asked both of them to teach Sunday school.

“I said, ‘I can’t teach Sunday school. I never went myself.’ But she said, ‘That’s alright, you’ll be fine.’ So I started teaching a third-grade class. That’s how I started really learning. You learn best when you teach.”

While their experience there was a good one, Barry had become interested in Temple Israel, in large part because it was attracting a lot of young families and was led by a young Rabbi. After joining, they continued to teach Sunday school there, and Lois eventually became the head of the program. She also began learning Hebrew.

“That made all the difference in the world,” she said. “I just loved it.”

Throughout the 1960s, however, women were not even considered part of a minyan. That changed in the early ’70s—although not without some resistance. When the Rabbi asked the women how they would feel about changing the policy, some of them said, “No way.” He did it anyway.

More changes came quickly. Women had also been prohibited from helping to lead the services through readings, for example. One day, however, the Rabbi asked Lois to read the Haftarah, or prophetic text.

“Some of the older gentlemen walked out,” Barry recalled.

Today Lois regularly assists Rabbi Panitz—and the Einhorn’s daughter holds the honor of having been the first female president of the synagogue.

“That was very important to us,” Lois said. 

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