Living in a small Indiana town and county with 95 churches and no synagogues kept me from feeling at home—until this fall.
by Warren Rosenberg H’98
That’s a mild way to describe what my wife, Julia, and I felt when we moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Crawfordsville in 1980 to start my “temporary” job at Wabash. We suddenly felt separated from good bagels and fresh seafood, Broadway and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, our political identification as Democrats, and the Mets.
I also felt separate from my religion. While not a seriously practicing Jew, I grew up as part of a deeply religious family, had my Bar Mitzvah at 13, and have a strong Jewish cultural identity. During my 36 years teaching at Wabash that identity has been deepened in unexpected ways. But that hasn’t been easy, and living in a small Indiana town and county with 95 churches and no synagogues has kept me from feeling completely at home.
Initially I did not find Crawfordsville, or Wabash, welcoming to Jews, and that feeling persisted. I have never experienced any overt anti-Semitism, but have been exposed to what are now called “micro-aggressions,” small moments of insensitivity and blindness. On our first day in town, a real estate agent asked what church we belonged to. Julia and I just looked at each other. We didn’t bother to ask him if there were any synagogues, assuming, correctly, there were not.
My daughter, Jessica, had a more difficult time. Hoosier-born, she was not raised with a strong religious identity. Julia grew up in a Catholic/agnostic home, so we celebrated both Christmas and Chanukah, but did not belong to or attend any church or synagogue. In school, some of Jessica’s more fundamentalist classmates were not shy about warning her that she was likely to be going to hell, a painful message for a young child to hear, and painful to her parents
But the blindness and ignorance worked both ways. Early on I had very little idea about the different Christian denominations around town. Growing up in working-class Brooklyn, I came into daily contact with Irish and Italian Catholics. Protestantism seemed some distant belief system, practiced in the far reaches of Upper-East Side Manhattan, a place my family rarely visited. My ignorance came dramatically home to me while I was watching the film A River Runs Through It at the old Strand Theater in downtown Crawfordsville in the early 1990s. At one point a character in the film defined a Methodist as “a Baptist who could read.” The audience broke out in instantaneous and universal laughter, as I sat there wondering what the joke meant. (In contrast, at a Woody Allen film at the Strand, I found myself the only one laughing at most of the jokes.)
The College was also not a bastion of openness and understanding. In my first semester I dutifully signed up to participate in the Baccalaureate ceremony preceding graduation. I put on my cap and gown and marched into the chapel to what, it seemed to me, was an overtly Christian religious service. I felt uncomfortable and afterward wrote a note to my colleague, Professor Raymond Williams H’68, who was in charge of the event. I said that if the College was interested in attracting a more diverse student body (there had been some talk of this at the time) perhaps the Baccalaureate should be more ecumenical, including at times, a rabbi or an imam. Presbyterian ministers founded Wabash, he replied. This was the tradition of the College, and as I would soon learn, tradition meant a lot here. His response seemed to send a clear message: “End of discussion.” But those of you who know Raymond also know he listens. He ultimately agreed to label Baccalaureate “a traditional Christian service” so that people like me wouldn’t be blindsided, and also agreed to invite, on occasion, speakers from other faiths.
Wabash’s Christian tradition and overwhelmingly Christian student body had a salutary effect on me—it made me feel more Jewish. Surrounded by more than a million Jews in New York City I had felt less conscious of my religion, and, frankly, freer to take it or leave it. But aside from Jewish colleague Bert Stern H’62—with whom I shared the occasional Yiddish greeting, especially in front of Don Baker, another English Department colleague, who struck us as the quintessential New England WASP (which he was)—I felt invisible as a Jew. And as someone who taught what we then called Ethnic American literature, and African American literature, I believed our students also needed to be exposed to Judaism. So I developed a course on Jewish American literature and film, took students to a temple in Indianapolis, and served as second professor for Professor Bob Royalty’s immersion class to Israel, my first time there and a life-changing event. I also published a book in the field of Jewish cultural studies, Legacy of Rage: Jewish Masculinity, Violence, and Culture, a topic well out of my 19th century American literature academic specialty.
But aside from visiting Jessica’s elementary school classes to talk about Jewish holidays and teach kids the dreidel game, or being invited with her into a church or two over the years to talk about the Passover Seder (invitations we greatly appreciated), my Jewishness remained invisible in town, and I did little to change that.
Until the day a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, armed with an AR-15 automatic rifle, yelled “All Jews must die,” and slaughtered 11 of the congregation as they prayed. October 27, 2018, was devastating to American Jews. We have generally felt safe in this country, but the current political and social environment has led to a disturbing rise in anti-Semitic verbal attacks and desecrations of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. What happened in Pittsburgh was no less than a blatant act of domestic terrorism. I suddenly felt alone and vulnerable in Crawfordsville, with no one to turn to for support.
Then I was invited to a meeting at the First Christian Church, where a group of townspeople were planning a response to the tragedy. Out of a deep need to connect to the wider community, I came and was relieved to see at least one other Jew present, Ethan Hollander from the College’s political science department. Our group decided to organize a vigil for the following Saturday, and when volunteers for the planning committee were requested, another colleague from Wabash, Professor Gary Phillips, nominated me. After giving him an annoyed look of “thanks,” I agreed. I’m glad I did.
Close to 100 people met at the Marie Canine Plaza downtown, some wearing stars of David on their clothing to show solidarity with the victims in Pittsburgh. My former student and minister of the Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church, John Van Nuys ’83, opened with a powerful talk to the group. He emphasized the need for unity and common purpose as we faced yet another incident of our fellow citizens being gunned down while in a house of prayer. He and other clergy from several local churches then led us in a silent walk to the grounds of Lane Place, where participants carried placards with the names of the victims.
I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the vigil. As I looked around at the faces of my fellow townspeople, I felt—for the first time in almost 40 years of living here—that I had a community. Another Wabash professor who is Jewish had told me that on this first Sabbath after the shooting she felt she had to be with other Jews in a congregation in Indianapolis, and I completely understood that decision. But as I intoned the Kaddish in its original Aramaic, reminding those present that this was the language Jesus spoke, I was flooded with emotion. When I finished the prayer, I reached into my shirt and revealed the pendant, called a mezuzah, that I wore around my neck. It contains a piece of scripture from the Torah, and my father wore it while he fought in North Africa and Europe during World War II. Afterward, neighbors stood in line, waiting to hug me.
After the vigil we wanted to continue working for nonviolence and understanding, so we decided to form a group called Voices for Peace. We learned about the International Peace Pole Project that has placed nearly 250,000 Peace Poles throughout the world. Alice Phillips suggested we purchase one and put it in a central location so we would have a place to congregate in response to future tragedies like the Tree of Life shooting or, more hopefully, for positive events.
In preparation for the International Day of Peace on September 21 we ordered a premade pole, but someone suggested we ask local artist and Professor Emeritus Doug Calisch to design and build our own local version. Doug and I arrived at Wabash together in 1980 and have been close friends ever since. I could not have imagined a better choice.
Doug created our pole from a beam of white oak salvaged from a granary in New Ross in the southern part of Montgomery County. He counted the rings and discovered the tree from which it was cut dates back to the year the county was established. It has the word “Peace” etched into each of its four sides in 15 languages. Crawfordsville Mayor Todd Barton ’00 invited us to place it in the newly created downtown park, Pike Place, and on September 21 presided over a wonderful ceremony there.
Unlike the somber mood of the vigil, this was a celebration. Doug explained that the acorns of the white oak are the sweetest and attract so many species that the tree is called the “community tree.” There was live music, as well as singing by Spanish professor Maria Monsalve and language interns Sylvia Gorak and Hsinyu Hsu, and, because it was also International Dance Day, our ceremony was bookended by dancing. Near the end we asked anyone who knew how to say “may peace prevail on the earth” in a language other than English to step forward and share, and there were nearly a dozen volunteers.
I concluded the ceremony by asking everyone in the crowd to turn to their neighbor and say, in Hebrew, “Shalom”—peace. As Julia and my 95-year-old mom, Kitty, watched, I felt, at that moment, like I was finally at home.