Practicing what they teach
By Craig Brandhorst and Tammy Whaley, USC Times
Being a rabbi in Spartanburg is the loneliest job in town.
At least that’s how Rev. Kirk Neely describes the role of his friend and colleague Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, who leads the city’s only Jewish synagogue, Congregation B'nai Israel.
Two of Spartanburg’s most prominent spiritual leaders, Neely and Liebowitz also teach religious studies at USC Upstate. And while the two bring dramatically different backgrounds, personalities and perspectives to the classroom, they are united in their commitment to interfaith dialogue and the disarming power of humor.
“As soon as I came to town he contacted me and wanted to assure me that he wasn’t going to try to convert me and save me from going to Hell,” Liebowitz says.
Neely’s take on that initial conversation ten years ago is similarly witty.
“I don’t think he’d ever eaten lunch with a Southern Baptist pastor,” says the senior pastor at Morningside Baptist Church. “His view of Southern Baptists had four dented fenders; it was pretty much a wreck.”
Don’t be fooled, though. Neely and Liebowitz are close friends, made closer by their shared professions. They regularly “break bread together,” in Liebowitz’s words, and each has spoken at the other’s congregation—Neely, most notably, at the synagogue on Yom Kippur; Liebowitz at Neely’s church for a Holocaust remembrance service.
Both men also draw a clear line between the pulpit and the lectern, even as they are informed by their experiences as spiritual leaders in the greater community.
When Neely teaches his course on Christian controversies, for example, he doesn’t approach the Protestant reformation and other pivotal moments in church history from the position of a Baptist minister. Rather, he focuses on what he describes as “the silly things that divide us.”
“These are not Sunday school classes,” says the onetime Harvard Divinity School Merrill Fellow. “This is not the same kind of thing I would teach at church. And you know, people don’t have to be Christian to take a class about the New Testament, just like you don’t have to be Islamic to take a class on the Quran.”
Liebowitz challenges his students to broaden their worldview as well—whether he’s teaching a comparative religion course or one on Hollywood and the Bible. He likewise challenges them to dig deeper into their own respective faiths, though not without a little humor.
“I always kid my Christian students, which is 99 percent of them, that this Jew knows more about their own Bible than they do,” Liebowitz says with a laugh. “In a world where religious fanaticism sometimes breeds violence, anything we can do to mitigate intolerance is a healthy response.”
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