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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, June 4, 2023
HomeCommentaryOp-edYou Are Welcome at Our Table

You Are Welcome at Our Table

A month ago, I was invited by UVI professor Dr. Davis-Kahina to lead a gathering for the University of the Virgin Islands community and the UVI-Center for the Study of Spirituality and Professionalism. This is a monthly session wherein students and professors alike are able to sit, reflect, and discuss issues. I was asked to speak on virtues, interfaith studies, and strengthening morale.
Under the shade of a mango tree, we sat together, sipping water and juice, feeling the breeze. After a lovely opening by Dr. Davis Kahina, I took a few minutes to introduce myself as the Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas. My first question was, “How many of you have ever heard of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas?” Of the twenty participants, only a handful raised their hands. I asked, “How many have been inside the synagogue?” Less hands. I explained the history of the synagogue, that our congregation had been on St. Thomas since 1796; that our building has stood proudly since 1833; that members of the larger community can trace their heritage to past members of our synagogue. After a crash-course in Judaism, I opened the session to questions. The first question came from a staff member, who said, “The synagogue has been pretty internally focused, you know that right?”
I had heard this many times, that the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas has been “insular,” “isolating,” “separate from the community.” I was deeply saddened by this statement, despite the apparent truth to it, and saddened that this was how we were to begin our discussion. Further in the conversation, another member noted that perhaps the language barrier (of Hebrew rather than English) could be seen as intimidating.
These were all valid points, and astute observations. What’s more, I realized in listening that there was an inherent lack of education about Judaism on island. In fact, many participants were surprised to hear that the figure of Jesus of Nazareth was not a part of our theology.
The session ended with me being optimistic, however, that this was a learning moment for me and for all of them. There is, I’m told, a strong disconnect between what is truly the values of the Jewish people here on St. Thomas, and the perception of the synagogue and the congregation to our neighbors.
As the new Rabbi of the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, let me be the first to officially welcome all of you inside our halls. All are welcome. Reform Judaism, the liberal denomination of Judaism of which we are a part, focuses on what we call “audacious hospitality.” Reform Judaism prides itself nationally as being the most inclusive denomination of Judaism, welcoming interfaith families, Jews-by-choice, and the LGBTQ community. We were the first to ordain women as Rabbis, first to officiate interfaith and same-sex marriages. Our goal in the world is tikkun olam, the healing of this world. We fight strongly for social justice, wherever we live, and strive to leave the world better than how we found it!
It is my hope to travel to each of your schools and churches, and get to know all of you. I already teach and speak often at All Saints Cathedral School, and have participated in interfaith forums at several churches. Further, I hope to be able to speak to the community often about what Judaism truly is about, and its deep roots in the St. Thomas soil. But most of all, I wish to dispel the perception that our synagogue is “insular.” Instead, know that our doors are open to all faiths, all peoples, all races, all religions. We welcome you to come learn at our study sessions, to come sit in our pews and listen to the prayers and music. And just in case you were worried, this is not a method of conversion, as Jews do not proselytize. Rather we see each member of the world as b’tzelem Elohim, made in God’s image. If we are all made in God’s image, then we all share a piece of God in us, and therefore a piece of one another in all of us.
We at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas welcome you to learn about Judaism, Jewish life, and ritual. Here’s a way you can start. On our website there is a page called “Ask the Rabbi,” (http://synagogue.vi/about-us/staff-and-leadership/rabbi-michael-harvey/ask-the-rabbi/). Here you can feel free to ask a question about Judaism, about the synagogue, and know that every question will be answered with joy and respect.
This is too small of an island for one community to be isolated from another. I look forward to sharing our faith with all of yours, and continue learning more about all of you, as I have for the past 10 months on-island. Friday evening, we began our Passover holiday; a week that focuses on the redemption from slavery, the pursuit of peace for all humanity, and the honoring of our ancestors. These are values to which many religions can relate. You are all welcome at our table, and I hope that in doing so we will learn that we share many more values.
I wish you all a Shavua Tov, a good week, a week of peace. Shalom,
Note: Rabbi Michael E. Harvey is the new rabbi at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas.

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