Friday, November 6, 2009

A Jew Among The Baptists

by Jim Wells
Hebrew Name: Yaakov Maoz Eliad ben Abraham and Sarah
May 25, 2005

I think on some level I have always known that I am a Jew, though I was born into a Southern Baptist family in Greenville, North Carolina, where when I was growing up there were only a few Jews.  My mother’s sister married a Jew she met while teaching in Wilmington.  Her sons were raised Jewish, though she remained a Methodist.  Two of my mother’s brothers worked for awhile for a Jewish merchant.  To my knowledge there were only two Jewish families in the town.  Morris Brody owned a very successful women’s apparel store, and Eli Bloom was a lawyer and a member of the same Masonic Lodge to which my father belonged.   Morris and Eli were friends of my father and my Uncle Al. My brother Stuart’s best friend was Morris’ son Hyman.   The nearest synagogue was about 30 miles away.

So why do I believe I’ve always been Jewish or at least possess a Jewish soul?  That’s what I am about to share.

In July, 2003, at the Kibbutz Shefayim in Israel I sat sobbing as I listened to Austrian Eveline Eichmann, daughter of a Nazi, tell the story of how she found out about the horrors of the Holocaust.   She  was  speaking in German which was being translated into English by Hedy Schleifer, who spent her earliest years in a refugee camp in Switzerland.  I had not experienced such deep emotion since the death of my father.  I really couldn’t understand it at first.  Though Stuart Cohen was my best friend when I was in the Navy, Jim Bedrick my best friend in medical school, and Roger Perilstein my best local friend and professional colleague currently,   I didn’t  think  I could attribute the intensity of my feelings to my connections  with  these Jewish  friends and their families.   I also have very close Austrian friends, Walther and Ilse Gruber and their family.  I had these close Jewish and Austrian connections, but the feelings were stronger than I could attribute to these friendships.  These feelings seemed  to  be  coming  from  the  depth  of  my  being.   Then I remembered my mother having told me that I said when I was very young that I used to be a freckle-faced little boy from Grimesland, a little town near Greenville.  Could I have said Rhineland or some other German name for which she had no reference?   I don’t know, but at that moment I had the thought that I had once been a child who was killed in the Holocaust and then reborn in this body in 1947.   Through streaming tears,  I told Yumi, Hedy’s husband, that it might sound crazy;  but  I  thought  perhaps  I  had  been  a  child  killed  in the Holocaust.  He said that it didn’t sound crazy to him and shared that he believed Hedy was the reincarnation of his sister who had been killed by the Nazis.

As a child going to a Baptist church, I remember thinking that I didn’t believe you had to be a Christian to get into heaven.  How would the Creator of all of us reject some of us who might not have even heard of Jesus?  I also questioned the notion of a virgin birth and Jesus being the only begotten son of God.  What about Buddha?  What about all of us being called children of God?  What was the difference between being a child of God and being the son of God?   I  could  be  a  child  of  God  like everybody else, so why wasn’t I also a son of God?   I also had trouble with the idea that just believing Jesus to be the son of God was sufficient to put someone in the “saved” column, while good people who really tried to live an upright life were going to hell for lack of belief.  At the same time, I really liked what Jesus was teaching about loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.  It was confusing.  I loved the teachings of Jesus and yet, couldn’t buy into many things being taught by the church.

During college I suppose I thought of myself as an agnostic and that religion was a way of controlling the masses, much as Karl Marx had said.  I thought the really important thing was treating others in a way that we would want to be treated, or maybe more to the point as stated by Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”  I didn’t know whether there was an afterlife or not, but  I believed  it important to be as  honest and fair as possible in our dealings with one another.  I figured that if there was a God and this God was at all good and just, then I would go to heaven if there was such a place; not because I was such a good person, but because I was a responsible person who was trying day to day to act in a kind and decent manner toward others.

After marrying the widow of a Presbyterian minister and mother of  two young sons, I began to think with her about finding a church where we could find community and support and hopefully like-minded people with a social consciousness.  We found Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill.  It was a very socially active congregation with an ecumenical spirit.   It was a  place  where  someone  could  be agnostic and be welcome.  The Bible was believed important but not inerrant.   I think it was a good place for us.  When people would ask me where I went to church, I would say the Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist Baptist church next to University Mall.  For six years I lead a meditation church school class for adults, was four times elected to three-year terms on the Diaconate, and was twice the Diaconate chairperson.  The people of Binkley Church will always hold a special place in my heart.

The  only  problem  for  me  with  Binkley  Church  is  that  as open  to  diverse perspectives as it is, there is still more Christian theology than I can wholeheartedly embrace.   I am no longer an agnostic; but neither am I now, nor have I ever been, exclusively Christian.  I now think of myself as a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jew  who wants to live and worship as a Jew while deeply appreciating the teachings of the Jewish Jesus about love, non-violence, and social justice.

I believe that there is an organizing force that created the Universe and that I am a part of that force and that force is a part of me.   I believe that the Creator of the Universe is One and that although there are many names for this Creating Force, these names merely represent different aspects of the One which is All-That-Is.   I believe that my consciousness is a gift from the Source of all Life and that I am not truly separate from anyone or anything else.  I believe that all of Creation is sacred and that this experience of separate consciousness is for the purpose of experiencing the diversity of Life and for learning that we are all co-creators in unity with the Divine.  “Hear O Israel.  The Lord, our God, the Lord is One.”


  1. Lovely, JIm, thanks for posting it. I remember the story but it is good to hear the details again.

    I am currently anticipating the place where I belong for spiritual practice. I know what the practice is - it is meditation or the beautiful Quaker silence - but the community itself still has not revealed itself to me. But the path is more visible each day. I so love the mystical depths from which I believe all the religions emerge and seek my home there at the bottom of the deep! Best, Mara

  2. As always, Mara, I appreciate your comments. I love the way you said, "I so love the mystical depths from which I believe all the religions emerge and seek my home there at the bottom of the deep!"

  3. This writing especially touched me. I am more spiritual than into organized religion. I did have a spiritual connection right before my Mother's death (a few hrs). For one solid year I asked for forgiveness to those that I may have hurt. I was filled with the deepest peace and love. Everyone thought I was one sandwich short of a picnic. I also had the deepest understanding that ALL religions led to the higher power.

    I think Frank is a channeler. When we were seeing each other, he suddenly grasped my hand, gazed into my eyes, and said," Babe, I like him very much". Frank kept stroking my hand. Jim, I was so caught off guard. I jerked my hand away. I felt the deepest love. Tears welled in my eyes. Frank does not remember anything about the experience. My mother's endearment to me was "Babe". Mother had been deceased 10 years at the time.

    I wish that you were in Greenville. I feel very connected to your deep understanding. I shelved my experience. Time has made me question just what happened. Greenville is so conservative. I do hope that there is an after life. I have read the explanations of NDE as hormones from the brain preparing for death. I search for scientific empirical data, anything to explain the validity of what I experienced. I have been searching for 20 years for the meaning of life.

    I am an imperfect human being. I have flaws, hurt others in my past. I know God has forgiven me. I am in the process of forgiving myself through professional therapy.

    Thank you for your experiences. I now feel that I am not the only one. Peace, Jim.

    Sent via Facebook Mobile

  4. Greenville Friend,
    Thank you for sharing some of your experiences from your unique path. It makes sense to me that you hope there is life after this one. It also makes sense to me that you may feel restricted in what you can express in Greenville about your perception that your mother spoke to you through Frank. In my experience there can be diminished tolerance for experiences others have not yet had, especially if those experiences are contrary in some way to strongly held beliefs about what is true or even possible in the spiritual realm. I plan to post in the near future an entry about my experience with channeling.


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