A long line of faith leaders entered the packed synagogue Thursday night, walking down the center aisle as a pianist played “What a Wonderful World.”
The men and women of the cloth came in all types of cloth, from black jackets and white collars to a bright, beaded headdress with 3-foot long feathers.
They came to Congregation Ahavath Chesed from congregations all over town, representing religions from all over the world. Baptist, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, Catholic, Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism, Hindu, Muslim, Baha’i, Unitarian Universalist, IFA, Sikh, non-denominational and, the wearer of the elaborate headdress, Native American Aztec.
Before anyone of them even said a word, their processional made a statement.
It’s a statement that some Jacksonville faith leaders and congregations have been making for 100 years.
It started in 1917 when Congregation Ahavath Chesed was located downtown at Laura and Ashley streets.
Israel Kaplan, the 28-year-old rabbi, decided to hold an interfaith Thanksgiving service.
In the last century the annual gathering has grown and continued through all kinds of change and turmoil, becoming one of the oldest services of its kind in America.
But, as Rabbi Matthew Cohen said in his sermon Thursday night, to appreciate what the Interfaith Thanksgiving Gratitude Service means today you have to go back in time, back to when Reform Judaism arrived in America in the late 1800s with a focus on “what brought us together rather than what separated us.”
Earlier in the day, I went back in time via our newspaper archives, digging up some of the clips about Rabbi Kaplan — he died in 1979 at age 90 — and imagining what it was like in 1917.
We always tend to think we live in tumultuous times. And, to a degree, that’s always true. It certainly was in 1917. A recent exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia was titled, “1917: How One Year Changed the World.”
The exhibit tells the story of several events, including America’s entry into World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, changing the world and impacting Jews and others.
The exhibit includes an editorial cartoon depicting a massive wall with the words “Immigration Restriction.” On the near side of the wall is a small town with church steeples, and a man wearing a coat that says “Congress.” On the other side of the wall are people, some with fists raised and angry faces, trying to climb over the wall.
They are, it says, the “Alien Undesirables.”
At the time, America was taking steps toward immigration quotas that, while not necessarily singling out Jews, focused on countries with large Jewish populations.
And at home, this was just two years after “Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 silent film that romanticized white supremacist history and sparked a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan — a Klan that became increasingly anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.
It was against this backdrop that a young rabbi who grew up in New York City decided to hold a “Union Thanksgiving” service in Jacksonville.
In the 1930s, he also launched a series of seminars with national religious leaders, held at the Windsor Hotel in Jacksonville. During both World Wars, he volunteered as chaplain at our local military bases. He became rabbi emeritus in 1946, but remained involved in the community until his death.
When he died, the Jacksonville papers ran editorials with headlines praising him (“Rabbi Kaplan Left a Better City”) and recalling what he had said decades earlier.
“We can no longer live segregated lives, divided off into groups or cliques, but we must live and work together for our common welfare and continue growth,” he said. “We have lived through two fighting wars during the past and we are learning the lesson that we cannot live a sheltered, isolated life, either as citizens or nations.”
In many ways, Rabbi Kaplan’s words and deeds were echoed Thursday night in his synagogue, now located on San Jose Boulevard.
The clergy members spoke in different voices — different languages, accents, tones, chants — but delivered similar, overlapping messages about gratitude and hope.
The Rev. Kyle Reese, pastor at Hendricks Avenue Baptist, had said before the service that there are many ways that faith divides us. This, he said, is a way that faith brings us together.
He wrapped up the service with a call to action, saying that this shouldn’t stop with the 75-minute gathering.
“What we do here is so desperately needed in our community and our world,” he said. “I don’t think I have to convince any of you of that.”
He asked people to support OneJax and its mission. He pointed to something in the program. A list of 100 Acts of Kindness, everything from No. 1 (“Smile and say ‘Good Morning’ to someone you don’t know) to No. 30 (“Participate in the HabiJax Interfaith Build”) to No. 87 (“Use your blinkers”) to No. 100 (“Teach someone something”).
The service that began with a pianist playing “What a Wonderful World” ended with everyone singing “Imagine.” And while most there failed to match the pitch of John Lennon’s “aha-ah,” the volume kept getting louder and louder with each verse.
I’m sure some will say that all of this is idealistic and optimistic, a communal kumbaya. Maybe so. But I bet they needed some of that in 1917. I know we do in 2017.