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Acknowledging Those Who Keep Our Communities Running

Posted on 10/11/2013 @ 05:02 PM

I don’t remember much about the day of my bar mitzvah. Most of these ceremonies in my tiny shul in North Carolina looked exactly alike, and after nineteen years, all I remember of mine is a mental .gif of people ducking out of the way of fast-moving candy. There is one unique moment that I am confident set my day of entering into a life of mitzvot apart from all the rest, but it was one that I was not intended to see.

After two hours of sitting in front of the congregation, during the moment when the woman making announcements says something about you (although you have never actually met her), I decided to grab some water from the entrance to the social hall, right outside the sanctuary. I didn’t expect to see anyone as I walked out—everyone involved in the ceremony was inside. Yet, standing in the wings like an actor waiting for an unscripted entrance, stood Reggie Smith, the temple’s (Gentile) custodian of more than twenty years. In his bright white chef’s coat, Reggie held a kiddush cup and silver-plattered challah, standing by for the signal before making the hand-off to the rabbi and heading back to finish preparing the oneg. The man truly responsible for hachnasat orchim, welcoming in guests, was not thanked or acknowledged that day.

Non-Jews have had a profound and central role in the stewardship of Jewish communities and institutions, and not just in recent history. During his rambling throughout Canaan, Abram is approached by Malki-tzedek, the King of Shalem and also a priest. Offering Abram bread and wine, Malki-tzedek:

gave him blessing and said: Blessed be Avram by El Elyon, God Most-High, Founder of Heaven and Earth! וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ And blessed be El Elyon, God Most-High, who has delivered your oppressors into your hand! He gave him a tenth of everything. וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל

So powerful was this encounter with another God-seeker, a man seemingly unconnected to Abram’s own spiritual adventure, that the very next time Abram refers to God, he uses the appellation he learned from Malki-tzedek: El Elyon, God Most-High, the aspect of God which all of humanity shares. As a tribute to this encounter, we even include this divine title in our daily silent Amidah:

Ha’El, ha’Gadol, ha’Gibor, v’ha’Nora El Elyon הָאֵל הַגָּדול הַגִּבּור וְהַנּורָא אֵל עֶלְיון

The Reggies and the Malki-tzedeks of the world, the sideline priests of successful Jewish communities everywhere, are innumerable. When we teach our teens about diversity in the Jewish community and the world, let us not forget those waiting for us with bread and wine—those people who enable us to comfortably move through the Jewish lifecycle.

This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE for the Western Hub.

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