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This is the story of the Rabbi and the Minister

It is the story of two men of different faiths whose friendship thrives in a world torn apart by religious strife, in a town that Neo-Nazis chose to visit with their message of hate.
Saturday, July 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:28 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Rabbi Yossi Feintuch, left, and Minister John Yonker look through a book of sermons. The two church leaders met after Feintuch heard that Yonkers was praying for his son who had been hit by a car. They soon decided their congregations would benefit from meeting each other.

The story of the rabbi, Yossi Feintuch, and the minister, John Yonker, began just a few years ago, when the rabbi’s son was hit by a car and badly injured. Yonker, of Columbia’s First Christian Church, picked up the phone to say his family was praying for the Feintuchs.

“I didn’t know Yossi or his predecessor, and I felt bad,” Yonker says. “I called up Yossi just to say, ‘We’re thinking about you.’”

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The rabbi was deeply touched. “I remember that it came to my ears that at some Protestant mainstream church downtown, prayers were said for the recovery of my son,” Feintuch says.

The two met in person soon after when they spoke at the Newman Center, which serves Columbia’s community of Catholic college students. One thing led to another, and the two brought their congregations together in 2004 in a program developed by the Union for Reform Judaism.

The original text of “Open Doors, Open Minds: Synagogues and Churches Studying Together” reminds participants that they come together not as representatives of Judaism and Christianity, but as individual Jews and Christians reflecting on the role faith plays in their lives.

“Since we meet as individuals,” the text says, “our own stories are important.”

The program was popular with both congregations.

“It was a wonderful experience to be with these people, many of whom we’ve known all our lives, and be able to discus with them our common issues,” says Cliff Thompson, a member of First Christian for more than 45 years.

In July of the same year, Congregation Beth Shalom invited members from First Christian to a picnic at its home on Green Meadows Road. Yonker recalls a beautiful day with lots of kids and a great band.

The following fall, the two congregations got together for a four-week study on their common ancestor, Abraham.

First Christian extended what Feintuch called a “familial” invitation to Congregation Beth Shalom when it lacked the space to celebrate Simchat Torah, a popular service that commemorates the renewal of the Torah reading cycle with dancing. The service was held in the church’s fellowship hall. Church members joined in carrying the Torah scrolls.

“What a party,” recalls Amy Kay Pavlovich, an associate minister at First Christian.

“(Yonker) and I were in the midst of the first one, and our eyes were huge. We danced up to one another, and he said, ‘This is awesome.’”

Yonker places great importance “for us in this world to understand each other, to rub elbows and get to know each other.” He considers his friendship with Feintuch a truly enriching experience.

“I’ve never gotten to know any other Jewish person like Yossi, and in a way it’s sort of sad,” he says. “In getting to know him, I felt like these are friends of mine I just want to reclaim.”

Today, the rabbi and the minister treat each other like old friends. Yonker greets the rabbi with a “Shalom” and a handshake; the two embrace when they say goodbye. They speak fondly of each other and their respective families.

On a recent morning, the two men are talking in the minister’s office at First Christian Church when Yonker’s youngest son, Thomas, stops by. A student of classics at MU, Thomas studies Latin and Greek. After Thomas leaves, the rabbi offers to teach Hebrew to Yonker’s son — on the condition his father attend the lessons, too.

Later, the rabbi reflects on growing up in Israel — 20 minutes from Nazareth, where Jesus spent a majority of his life — and being such an “ignoramus” he didn’t even know what Christmas was.

“Lots of water has run in my life to this moment, sitting here in John’s office,” Feintuch says. “I do not believe I would have been able to be so open-minded if I did not allow myself to open to other people who know God.”

Like many great teachers, the rabbi and the minister are great storytellers. When they preach to their respective congregations, they use some of the oldest and greatest stories ever told.

One night in 2004, Yonker spoke at Congregation Beth Shalom. The sermon that night was so well received that Feintuch decided to publish it in Beth Shalom’s newsletter in lieu of the rabbi’s column.

Feintuch remembers that one line of the sermon, which focused on Jacob’s ladder from the book of Genesis, stood out: “When you speak in God’s name, how do you know that you’re speaking in God’s name?”

For Feintuch, that is the question of our lives.

The minister’s journey

On a cool, sunny Sunday morning in March, John Yonker stands before his congregation at First Christian Church in downtown Columbia. First Christian is part of the Disciples of Christ denomination. It is one of seven such congregations in and around Columbia. The Disciples was founded in the U.S. in the early 1800s and envisioned a united church modeled on the New Testament.

Dressed in a dark suit and sporting a gray goatee, Yonker, 60, smiles at the 30 or so members gathered in the pews. He wonders aloud if the overnight switch to daylight-saving time is keeping attendance down. The minister had planned a different sermon today, but the march by a Neo-Nazi group through Columbia the day before compels him to change course.

“How do we respond to this?” he asks.

He answers himself: “We stand up together. When we stand together, we make a difference. We never give in to those who hate.”

Yonker was born in St. Louis and raised in a home where everyone — mother, father, grandparents on both sides — went to the same church.

He grew up in University City, a neighborhood with a large Jewish population, and he was aware of children who followed a religion different from his own.

“I remember particularly in the sixth grade that on the days of Jewish holidays, there would only be five or six of us left,” he says. “I was aware early on there were other kinds of folks, that everyone wasn’t like me.”

He was active in the church and in youth groups, but when he went to college in Clarksville, Tenn., he didn’t go to church because no one told him to go. He went through a “spiritual wilderness.” Yonker swore up and down he was agnostic.

And then he flunked calculus.

It was during the spring semester, and he just didn’t want to study. It ruined his grade-point average, and he decided to try some different courses. By chance he took a logic course in the philosophy department.

He wound up taking every philosophy class Austin Peay State College had to offer: epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of history. Questions that came up in class, questions about the meaning and purpose of life, were the same questions he was wrestling with. Yonker can recall the day in 1966, when he was sitting in a church, wondering what he was doing there.

“And I talked about some of this at home with my mother and father,” Yonker says. “I was never reprimanded or scolded for two reasons: one, they were wise enough to know I had to grow up on my own, and two, because of the background of our denomination.”

During the last part of his college years Yonker decided to enroll in seminary.

“I thought about teaching, I thought about social work,” he says. “I can do both.”

He graduated in 1972 with a master’s of divinity degree from Texas Christian University. He was ordained that spring, 35 years ago, and the combination of teaching and social work seems to suit him perfectly.

The spiritual foundation of the Disciples of Christ is in “the mainline tradition on the liberal end of things,” he says.

While many Christian denominations are strict adherents to the Bible, Yonker says he was never taught to believe the world was created in six days. He describes the Disciples as more “free-wheeling” than other Christian denominations. The church’s members are encouraged to wrestle with their faith and come up with their own answers, much like he did in his youth.

One must not be afraid of the search, Yonker says. One must not be afraid of the truth.

“Doubt,” he says, “is the growing edge of faith.”

In March, one day after the Neo-Nazi march, Yonker tells his congregation the true story of a rabbi and a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Lincoln, Neb., in 1992. The Klan member begins harassing the rabbi, leaving threatening messages on his answering machines. The rabbi has his phone tapped, and he discovers the identity of the caller.

He learns that the Klan member is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The rabbi begins to leave messages of his own, reminding the Klan member that the Nazis first went for the crippled. One day the Klan member answers his phone, and the rabbi asks the man if he needs a ride to the supermarket.

This, Yonker says, is the beginning of the end of hate. He reminds his congregation of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, their “rabbi.” Love your enemies, Jesus said, and pray for those who persecute you.

“In the face of hate, we continue to love and love and reach out,” Yonker says. “We talk, and we understand. It can work. It can change the world.”

The rabbi’s journey

On the morning the Neo-Nazis came to town, John Yonker joins other religious leaders on a march of peace and tolerance along the parade route. He also attends a rally at City Hall, where the mayor reminds everyone of the strides Columbia has made since the days of segregation.

Yossi Feintuch is also at the rally, reminding people of history, of the silence that enveloped Europe when Hitler began rounding up the Jews for deportation to the death camps. In three countries, though — Finland, Bulgaria and Denmark — the people and the government stood up together, the rabbi says.

Feintuch has been the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom for 10 years now; he is the first full-time rabbi in the congregation’s 30-year history. Beth Shalom is the only synagogue in Columbia, a city with a small Jewish population. Feintuch estimates there are about 160 members now, up from 130 when he arrived.

The congregation began adhering to reform Judaism, which emphasizes the importance of individual interpretation of the Torah, before Feintuch’s arrival. Feintuch has since exchanged the orthodox prayer book for a “reconstructionist” one, which is similar to a reform book but retains many elements of traditional Judaism. The orthodox prayer book is still used once a month when community-led services are held on Saturdays.

“One thing the rabbi taught me is it’s OK to argue with God and never win,” says Lane Barnholtz, who has attended services at Beth Shalom for several years. “Judaism is not a religion of absolutes.”

When Feintuch arrived, the congregation met in the small Hillel House, which serves the Jewish populations of MU, Columbia College and Stephens College. The lack of space necessitated back-to-back services on the high holidays. He didn’t like it, and he asked John Baker, the senior pastor at First Baptist Church, for help.

“(Feintuch) and I came to Columbia about the same time,” Baker says. “He made a request to use our sanctuary, and we said absolutely. Baptists strive to have good relationships with our neighbors.”

The high holidays have been held there almost every year since. The members of Beth Shalom return the favor on Christmas Eve, when they hand out goodies as a sign of thanks.

In 2003, the congregation found a new home at a renovated farmhouse on Green Meadow Road. The first services were held there on the Fourth of July, 2003. “Free at last,” Feintuch recalls with a smile.

After services end, the congregation typically gathers around the Sabbath table to talk, which they did on a Friday night in March. The rabbi greets friends here and there as the members chat, sometimes about religion, sometimes not.

Ask about his dogs, someone says.

Almost every night Feintuch walks Nifty and Lev, his two Labradors, while he listens to books on tape. His wife, Judy, smiles. “I could sell tickets to see the rabbi playing with the dogs,” she says.

Feintuch was born in 1952 in the small town of Afula, Israel. While he considers Israel a Jewish state, he points out that most Israeli Jews are not religious; about 20 percent of the population consider themselves Orthodox, he says, and the other 80 percent are secular.

“It doesn’t make them atheists, but their religion is basically the religion of being what I would call Israeli,” Feintuch says.

He places himself in this category when talking about his youth, when being Israeli meant having a relationship with the Christian Bible; Feintuch studied it from first through 12th grade, memorizing parts.

“Places you would go to would speak to you in terms of its history,” he says. “You saw a continuum from biblical days.”

Feintuch recalls traveling by bus to a national park half an hour away from his home to go swimming. The mountains of Gilboa encompassed the valley, an arid, barren place with the exception of the natural swimming pools.

According to the Bible, the mountains of Gilboa were the site of a great battle between the Israelites and the Philistines. King David laments the fallen soldiers of Israel in the Book of Samuel and curses the mountains of Gilboa: “Let there be no dew nor rain upon you, Nor fields of offerings, For the shield of the mighty is cast away there!”

Feintuch could see how alive the Bible was in the dry, yellow mountains near his home. But this didn’t necessarily make him religious. The Sabbath was a day off from school, but that didn’t mean he went to synagogue. On some Friday nights, political lectures or cultural events would attract his attention. Saturdays were for swimming or soccer matches.

On high holidays, Feintuch would go with his father to synagogue; sometimes he went in, sometimes he played outside. His mother never attended. At the time all synagogues in Israel were orthodox, and little space was given to women.

When Feintuch left Israel to study in the U.S., he continued to attend synagogue on the high holidays. But, in his 20s at the time, he went in part to meet Jewish women. “Being a secular Jew, this matter was important to me,” he says. “I can’t rationalize it.”

He met his wife, Judy, as a graduate student in American history at Emory University in Atlanta, where he also discovered Reform Judaism. In 1982, the campus offered reform services for the first time, and Feintuch decided to attend.

He saw men and women sitting together in worship. He heard cheerful tunes played on the guitar by a young woman with a pleasant voice, tunes he wanted to learn how to sing, tunes that reached him spiritually. He saw that readings were shared among the participants, and he saw a great attempt to explain things.

“I was enchanted on the spot by that which my eyes saw and my mind absorbed,” Feintuch says. “I thought this was Judaism I could feel at home with.”

He continued to attend the services for the high holidays as he finished his Ph.D. Feintuch never thought he would take another exam when he received his doctorate. But after a few years of teaching, he decided to become a student again by enrolling in rabbinical studies. “I came to a crossroads in my career,” he says. “With my Ph.D. I could not put bread on the table.”

After four years, he moved his family to the Caribbean island of Curacao for his first position as rabbi. He found himself immersed in a different culture, something his training had not prepared him for. These were difficult years. Feintuch recalls being micromanaged and under a microscope 24/7. The community discouraged him from wearing shorts in the warm Caribbean sun because he was always supposed to look like a rabbi.

Once, when his car was in the shop, Feintuch was spotted taking the bus to the synagogue. When he returned, he received a phone call from the Jewish car dealer on the island. “Look out the window,” the caller said. There was a car parked in his driveway with the keys in it. Please use the car and avoid the bus, the car dealer said. A rabbi does not ride the bus.

Although it would be tough for his young family — all three of his children were in school at the time — Feintuch decided to move. He wanted to go to a college town, away from the fishbowl of Curacao. His one interview was in Columbia. He remembers driving here with Judy from the airport in Kansas City, and it was “snowing like hell.” It was a far cry from the Caribbean.

And that made it perfect.

Finding ‘common humanity’

In all their talks, Yonker and Feintuch encourage wrestling with faith. That, according to Anthony Alioto, a professor of religion at Columbia College, is what makes the two special. “Both John and Yossi want to bring these issues out of the scholarly community and to people from all walks of life,” he says.

Yonker and Feintuch want to find “our common humanity,” as the minister puts it.

Still, they don’t agree on everything. Not surprisingly, perhaps, they part ways on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A couple of years ago, Yonker attended a national convention of the Disciples of Christ, where delegates discussed whether the church should divest from Israel in protest over some of the country’s actions.

When Yonker returned, Feintuch asked to speak with him. The two discussed the matter over coffee at Lakota, and Feintuch recalls they took their time to air their differences, which centered on Israel’s construction of a wall separating itself from the Palestinian territories. It is a subject close to Feintuch’s heart and mind; in his eyes, the fence is critical to Israel’s defense. He notes that similar fences exist all over the world, in places like Kashmir, between India and Pakistan, as well as in Ireland. Yonker doesn’t see a fence helping the situation. “It’s like the Berlin Wall,” he says. “Walls have to come down.”

It was a friendly discussion, and the two acknowledge they continue to disagree on a subject that, understandably, doesn’t come up that much in their conversations. “Perhaps without being fully aware, you try to avoid things that would be controversial and sidetrack us from other goals we can work together,” Feintuch says.

At the outset of their work together, Yonker and Feintuch never articulated goals other than giving their congregations the chance to meet. “People are people,” Feintuch says. “That’s the common ground. Without articulating that, we just felt it was high time to offer something.”

Yonker notes that what they do is part of a larger interfaith discussion in Columbia, and members of both congregations have been involved in the wider dialogue.

Larry Brown, president of the Interfaith Peace Alliance in Columbia and a professor of geography at MU, has been taking part in interfaith discussions for more than 30 years. He says that both the rabbi and the minister are willing to engage others in understanding, and both have hosted the peace alliance’s monthly prayer meetings.

Community is fragile, Brown says. For the sake of civility and peacefulness, people of different faiths, backgrounds and beliefs need to understand each other.

“Dialogue and understanding are necessary to build a cooperative community,” Brown says. “Interfaith dialogue helps us understand our common humanity.”

In the minister’s office, Feintuch and Yonker do their part by grappling with the essential questions of love, tolerance and understanding.

“It comes down to the philosophical idea,” Feintuch says. “The main question is, What little impact will you have when you’re gone?”

“Are you talking about dust to dust, ashes to ashes?” Yonker asks.

The rabbi nods his head and continues.

“It all goes back to something one of my high school teachers said: What’s the difference between when a doctor makes a mistake and when a teacher makes a mistake? When a doctor makes a mistake, the mistake dies. But when a teacher makes a mistake that mistake lives forever.

“We basically teach the same stuff,” Feintuch says. “We want people to be better than they are now.”

Yonker echoes the sentiment: “We’re treading the same ground, trying to get people to be better than they are.”

And for that reason the rabbi and the minister continue to meet in the middle, that common ground between Alufa and St. Louis, between Judaism and Christianity.


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