Within the past few months, there have been many accusations about the Jewish leadership in Lakewood with regards to the welfare of the city, school administration, and the political climate. I was reminded of the danger and the sensitivity that one must display in ethnic matters. While many larger towns in our area have diverse populations, smaller communities and schools like Atlantic Highlands do not have that kind of ethnic stratification.
I completed my high school education in Detroit at the prestigious Cass Tech High School. The last names of my classmates were Gross, Berg, Braneky, Takemoto, Russell, and Poppin, and they came to the US from England, Japan, and Romania. Next to our mixed neighborhood was the city of Hamtramck. In the sixties and seventies Hamtramck was almost completely Polish. The Polish students would take the bus with us and they often told jokes and made fun of each other. But we could not say the same things about them. We were told that unless one is of that ethnic origin, you should not say anything about that minority.
One of the greatest fundraisers was Richard Wurmbrant. He raised millions for the persecuted church, which he distributed without taking a single penny for himself or the organization that he led. In the 1980s, I was at a seminar with him that focused on Christian fundraising. A young man said to him that fundraising was extremely difficult. He looked to the young man and said, “Are you the only Jew that cannot raise money?” If I had said that statement it would have been considered anti-Semitic, but it was considered humorous coming from the mouth of another Jew.
In their junior year of high school, students talk about the many scholarships available for minorities. Knowing that some of her fellow students emphasize their heritage, my daughter came to me one day and said, “Are Romanians the only minority that have no scholarships?”
When I was teaching at the seminary, one Philadelphian who is black told us about the people he met in Africa. At one point in his descriptive enthusiasm, he said that “this brother was black, I mean black, black as my military shoes.” If I had said something like that, my days as a professor would have been numbered.
Some people go as far as accusing Paul of ethnic insensitivity when he writes to Titus that “even one of their own prophets has said: Cretans are always liars, evil, brutes, lazy, gluttons. This testimony is true.” (1:12) Luke writes this about the Athenian residents: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in doing nothing but talking about and listening to new ideas.” (Acts 17:21) They believed that work was below them; the slaves could do the hard labor while the Athenians spent their days thinking and discussing.
A good number of years ago, I had lunch with a high-ranking denominational leader. Denominationally, it had been a difficult year. As the conversation came to a close, I said to my colleague, “Are you aware of how negative we have become, of how many negative things we have said about the denomination that we love and serve, the one that pays our salaries?” God convicted us that we needed to be more positive because sooner or later our negativity filtered into our churches and that negativity was used against us by those who were not a part of the denomination.
Thus, I am striving not to say anything negative about any ethnic group, including the group to which I belong. I am striving to say only positive things about other denominations, as well as about my own denomination. Words of praise are more important that words that demean individuals and communities.