Oct 6, 2011

Tolerance, Torah and Tears in Tennessee

Beth Huppin, a Judaics teacher from Seattle and recent recipient of the National Covenant Award, shares an account of her unusual Rosh Hashanah experience this year. Traveling with her husband, Huppin, who generally attends Shul on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, agreed “with some ambivalence” to visit Whitwell Middle School in rural Tennessee instead. This school, famous for creating a monument to Holocaust victims of Nazi Germany using paper clips as a means for understanding the staggering number of victims, became the subject of the documentary film Paper Clips and the Kar-Ben book Six Million Paper Clips. Huppin’s husband, also an educator, has taught about the Whitwell program in his classes and wanted to visit.

The project, begun about ten years ago, was started by now retired principal Linda Hooper, who remains involved. The school continues to train student docents to give tours to the public, archives letters that continue to arrive “from every corner of the world,” and collects artifacts for the project’s resource room. The day Huppin visited, a class of African-American students from Chattanooga also arrived, learning about the Holocaust from the young white Christian docents -- on Rosh Hashanah.

Two artifacts, in particular, caught Huppin’s attention: a Torah and an Aron Kodesh (a Holy Ark), in a place in America where most people have never met a Jewish person. She writes:

With tears in my eyes I explained to Linda that this was my first Rosh HaShanah not in synagogue. I told her that my friend, Shelly, had reminded me that there is more than one way to worship. Entering this room and seeing the Torah, I was overwhelmed. Being a religious person herself, I could see that Linda understood. God sees and hears prayers in many different forms, she assured me.
Curious students asked to see the Torah, and Huppin and her husband retrieved their tallitot from their car and carefully unrolled the Torah. Huppin chanted from the beginning of Numbers in Hebrew, and the mainly religious (Christian) student body knew there was common ground. After her reading, Huppin relates:

A girl came up to me after the students left, in tears, so moved to have experienced a Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah. It wasn’t the right Torah reading. (I had considered rolling the Torah to the Akedah, but there wasn’t time.) And there wasn’t a minyan. And we hadn’t recited the requiredt prayers. But, as Shelly told me, worship comes in many forms. And we had just experienced it.
I told Linda that this experience would not have been the same if it hadn’t been Rosh Hashanah. “Well then, it must be beshert,” she (a woman who had lived her whole life in rural Tennessee) said with a grin, using the Yiddish word that loosely translated means “fate.”  Of course.
Beshert indeed.

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