Meal or no meal? Perspectives on interfaith food

BY LARRY LEVIN

When we put our paper to bed last week, I was extremely pleased, for several reasons:

• We were able to provide front-page coverage of (and I was fortunate to attend) the dedication ceremony for Chabad on Campus’ newly renovated facility adjacent to the Washington University Campus. The facility, named in blessed memory of Barry H. Levites, will help Chabad enhance its ability to provide Jewish culture and values to Jewish students, other students and the general community.  

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• We provided photo coverage, also on page one, of the celebration of Missouri Torah Institute’s new Torah. Celebrating a new Torah is a beautiful and important tradition, and those at MTI celebrated with both reverence and glee.

• We took on over 100 Missouri legislators to protect the rights of religious minorities. The focus in this case was the persecution being felt by Missouri’s Muslims, but the consequences could extend to Jews and other minorities (and, interestingly, the most immediate impact on Jews could be within the Orthodox community and its religious [beit din] courts).  The one posting on our website about this editorial came from a writer self-described as “American Muslim,” who thought our message of anti-discrimination and universal protection of minority rights was right on.

• We also covered a plethora of other issues relevant to Jews – the effects of the recent bus bombings in Jerusalem on the peace process; different community perspectives on Libya; expert analysis on Syria; the future of the Conservative movement; and a profile of Rav Shmuel, the “stage” name of Rabbi Shmuel Skaist who blends music and humor and is performing at the JCC on April 7.

So what yanked some of our Jewish readers’ chains?

Friday fish fries at Catholic churches.

Yes, we admit it, amidst our focus on important Jewish and interfaith news, we thought it would be  plain fun – no more, no less – to have our staff join our Catholic brothers and sisters, who honor their religious observances this time of year with Friday food gatherings, and are able to bring a joyous, community-wide celebration of it.  Our group fanned out to five different parishes to do little more than taste up and chat up the selections provided by these churches. No one was asked to violate Shabbat or made to eat shellfish to participate – the fries typically start at 4 to 4:30 and offer a variety of samplings.

But that’s really besides the point. Truth is, we live in a community that doesn’t include just us. At the Jewish Light some, but not all, of our staff, is Jewish. This is true of other Jewish organizations as well. And we have friends of all denominations and backgrounds and cultures and this is as it should be. We are not only St. Louis Jews, but we are Jewish St. Louisans as well.  And this is also why we write, more seriously, about issues of social justice that affect the broader community. About why Metro trains and busses are a crucial resource for the poor. About why losing the City of St. Louis earnings tax could destroy lives. And this week, about why peace-abiding, fellow community members who are Muslims deserve our respect and we must watch their backs.

Believe me, we are happy to provide anyone with a respectful forum to disagree with us, and this week, they seem to be disagreeing with us about fish fries. We are also happy to admit when we believe we’ve made mistakes. It was pointed out, for instance, that all our community opinions about Libya in that issue were offered by men and we should have been more sensitive to that. And while I didn’t see the concern initially, I do now, and will watch more sensitively for this in the future.

But I can’t apologize for something we did wrong when I don’t believe we did. We didn’t endorse Catholicism. We didn’t take a position on matters of the Catholic Church (though we have, many times, in the past). We didn’t connect fish fries to historic persecution of Jews, and you know why? Because we are honestly not aware that modern-day, community-based Catholic fish fries have contributed in any way to persecution of Jews. To offer such a position is no different than saying that all Jews should be held responsible for the fraudulent conduct of a Bernie Madoff. (If you want to see a criticism of an individual who happens to be Catholic for his views on school vouchers, see this week’s editorial on page 8).

So if you can read our entire issue of March 30, 2011 and can make a case that we have no commitment to each and every Jew in our community; that we have no moral compass; that we don’t stand for anything, all because our staffers had an enjoyable Friday-afternoon meal, then please do, and if you’re polite, we’ll gladly provide room for you to express your views in the paper and online.  

As for us, we think there’s nothing at all fishy about our coverage. So we’re standing our ground. Nuff’ said.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light.