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October 6, 2010

Soul Sisters in St. Louis

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/soul_sisters_in_st_louis_39101006/

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Today’s words of wisdom come from Mary Pedersen, Acting Executive Director of Interfaith Partnership/Faith Beyond Walls in St. Louis, Missouri. Mary is one of the most dynamic, dedicated public affairs professionals I have ever seen, and her LDS-Jewish events are models for interfaith outreach. It is my hope that this account of her collaboration with a selfless Jewish woman to help others will inspire kindred spirits around the country and the world to go and do likewise. Mary has served on the Board of Directors of IP/FBW for 5 years and recently accepted the responsibility of running the organization in this season of transition.  Her fellow Board members are blessed to have her.  I’m sure Phyllis Cantor would agree.

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If anyone has ever doubted the power of one, then she has never met Phyllis Cantor (pictured).  A member of Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, Phyllis serves as the Social Action Chair for her synagogue.  Although she has been widowed twice, this has not hindered her vision and quest to serve G-d by reaching out to others.

Five years ago, Phyllis happened to sit next to me, the (St. Louis) Regional Community and Interfaith Specialist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at an annual interfaith women’s conference.  After comparing notes on the interfaith outreach efforts in our respective faith communities, we left the conference committed and resolved to unite in service.  “We realized that we could make a greater impact in the community if we worked together,” said Cantor.  From that moment, the Jewish grandmother of eight and the Mormon mother of three young children have sought to lead their congregations to learn each other’s beliefs, while giving opportunities to their members to reach out to those in need.

Their first joint effort involved collecting school supplies for an underserved community.  You do not need to go to Ethiopia to see poverty.  It can be found in Kinloch, just a few miles northeast of the St. Louis airport. With a median family income of just $15,000/year, parents living there cannot purchase school supplies. In the past, their children’s standardized test scores had been so low that they had to attend mandatory summer school.  But this past summer, Kinloch children enjoyed a summer of fun and play like most children their age for the first time in years. Although Phyllis and I have been collecting school supplies together for Kinloch for 4 years, this past summer the LDS Church teamed with two other synagogues (United Hebrew and Temple Israel) and a Hindu Temple to supply backpacks and school supplies to the children in Kinloch and another distressed community, Ivory Park. Our goal? To unite Mormon congregations and Jewish synagogues to collect school supplies so that no needy child begins the school year without being properly equipped in the St. Louis area. 

After 3 years of successful school supply drives, Phyllis and I decided that our members needed to meet.  “It was silly for Mary and I to have such a cherished friendship, and not allow our members the same association and fellowship we enjoy,” said Cantor.  Together, we teamed up women from our congregations to prepare a meal for the women and children living at Lydia’s House, a home for victims of domestic violence.  The women gathered around a huge round table in assembly-line fashion and filled approximately 200 bags with rice, beans and spices to create soup packets for distribution for the Jewish Food Pantry.  Each group took turns hosting, the Mormons hosting first while teaching a lesson on their health code called the Word of Wisdom, and B’Nai Amoona hosting second with their mashgichah teaching a lesson on Kashrut (Kosher) Law.  During these projects, the beautiful conversations among these devoted women were rooted around family and service. A great example of taking action beyond social relationships.

Most recently, Phyllis seized an opportunity with one of her young women preparing for her Bat Mitzvah. Shira had decided to make bags filled with pajamas, story books, stuffed animals to snuggle, blankets and toothbrushes, and donate them to homeless children.  Shira’s Project Night Night quickly gained momentum once Phyllis mentored her by teaching her the value of partnering.  My Young Women’s Sunday School class made homemade quilts from fabric and batting that the Relief Society (women’s service organization) had donated.  An elderly Mormon woman crocheted 5 afghans, and my nine-year-old daughter dedicated her birthday party to Shira’s cause.  Instead of receiving gifts for herself, Jilane collected pajamas, stuffed animals and storybooks from her friends.  One of the activities at her party was to make quilts for the homeless children Shira’s bags would go to.  An orthodontist in my congregation donated the toothbrushes.  Indeed, Phyllis and I are most proud of this endeavor as it allowed us to make it a l’dor va dor (generation to generation) experience.

Phyllis and I not only serve together, we support each other in celebratory events.  I went to Simchat Torah services to see Phyllis honored by her synagogue for her Social Action work.  Phyllis attends the annual Crèches and Carols exhibit that the LDS Church hosts each year in St. Louis.  We do this because we view each other as sisters and are proud to work with each other. As I reflect on our work together, I am reminded of the lyrics to a beautiful hymn that LDS women sing: “As sisters in Zion, we’ll all work together: The blessings of G-d on our labors we’ll seek.  We’ll build up His Kingdom with earnest endeavor; we’ll comfort the weary and strengthen the weak.  The errand of angels is given to women; and this is a gift that as sisters we claim; to do whatsoever is gentle and human, to cheer and to bless in humanity’s name.  How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission, if we but fulfill it in spirit and deed. Oh, naught but the Spirit’s divinest tuition—can give us the wisdom to truly succeed.”

I have heard some speakers say that on the day when the Mashiach (Messiah) comes, Jews and Mormons will approach Him arm-in-arm and ask Him if this is His first or second coming. One of the groups will be able to say (while pointing to the other), “See, I told you so!”  But Phyllis and I have taken this scenario one step further.  In the day of the Mashiach, it will not matter to us who was right and who was wrong.  We will embrace each other the same way we always have.  Our offerings have been united.  Our work has been united.  The process of bringing faiths and people together for a greater cause has been for all the right reasons.  It can heal the world through tikkun olam.

I have a testimony that “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh lazeh!” 

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