The topic of Baptist-Jewish relations is up-close and personal for me. In 1984, while living near Chicago, teaching university music and serving on a church staff, I was invited to become temple soloist at Sinai Temple in Michigan City, Ind. I had no idea what a lifelong relationship of love and faith with Jewish people would follow.
I served as choir director/soloist in temples for 30 years, most recently at Temple B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Ark. I’ve worked with five rabbis, each uniquely different. My relationship with Jews has been rich, probing and sometimes a bit uncomfortable, but always full of surprises.
Once in my early years as temple soloist, I asked to be excused from Shabbat services on Christmas Eve so I could be with my family. The rabbi urged me to be in temple. “Where would Jesus be on Sabbath?” he asked with a smile. And so I was in temple, feeling even closer to Jesus that Christmas as I remembered his Jewishness.
I have often described my temple experience as “roots” for my faith journey. Jesus indeed spent the Sabbath in the temple, and I was experiencing worship much as he had. He often read Torah and taught when he was in temple, most notably in his hometown of Nazareth, as chronicled in Luke 4 (the theme of the New Baptist Covenant and an excellent study from the Baptist Center on Ethics).
I cherish many close friendships with Jews. My rabbis are some of my best friends and theological partners. I have always sought to love them and help their congregations worship. It has also been my joy to speak about my Christian faith when the Holy Spirit gave that opening, to live and share my faith, and always to love.
One rabbi once told me that I had to tell him about Jesus. He said, “Jesus commanded you in Matthew 28 to go and tell, so you have no choice.” We talked about Jesus and I shared my faith with him. It was wonderful to be invited to do so. But it was our friendship and trust that made that exchange possible. I did not confront him or question his faith, but rather shared my personal story.
On another occasion, a Jewish friend felt comfortable to ask me about a topic that had bothered her a long time. “Christians always blame Jews for killing Jesus,” she said. “They hate us for that and there can never be peace between us because of it.” I had the opportunity to share my belief, that Jesus gave his life in love for all people as part of God’s divine plan. No one took it. And I hadn’t been taught to blame her or Jews for killing Jesus.
Another Jew told me: “We’re different because we believe in one God, as we recite each week in the Shema. But you Christians believe in multiple Gods–Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit.” Here was another opening, a result of building a relationship, which allowed me to say that Christians also believe in only One God.
Certainly the most amazing experience along the way was being invited back to Sinai Temple three years ago to serve with guest Rabbi Joseph Edelheit as cantorial soloist for the high holidays. Rabbi invited me to stand on the pulpit, robed and at his side, as cantorial soloist for the four days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, rather than singing from behind the choir room wall screen–the typical choir/organ configuration in many temples. I use the term “cantorial soloist” because only a Jew can be a cantor. And while I have been gently encouraged to convert so I might become a cantor, I have also been clear that my Christian faith is non-negotiable.
I cherish my relationships with Jews. God has blessed my life through these friendships. I pray to live, speak, and act always in faithfulness to Christ, the Jewish rabbi and Messiah I follow. I pray also that God will continue to open doors of blessing and opportunity for relationships of understanding and love to flourish between Christians and Jews everywhere.
Carolyn Yeldell Staley is minister of education at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.