By Education Fellow Benjamin Chaidell
The weekend after Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to speak about my experience as an Education Fellow at my home synagogue in New York City, the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale.
It is always inspiring to return to where I was bar mitzvah’ed and where, as a baby, I took my very first steps amid the dancing on Simchat Torah. This, though, was extra special. It was a chance to share just what I am doing in the South with the folks who always ask my parents what I am up to. It was a time to explain to born and bred New Yorkers that there are not only Jews in the South but also vibrant Jewish communities. Finally, it was an opportunity to show this loving community that has supported me throughout my life how their investment in me has paid off, that I’ve grown into someone who can share their vision of Judaism with others.
The reaction could not have been better. People were intrigued by the work we do and by the opportunities that I have been given, which made me appreciate this fellowship all the more.
With help from my coworkers at the ISJL, I crafted a dvar Torah on the week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei. I focused on the line that Jacob exclaims after his dream of a stairway to heaven: “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
From this jumping off point, I described how I have discovered Jewish communities and God in the places that I least expected and how those discoveries have transformed my views of other people and of the divine.
I talked about three kinds of places: physical places, cultural/idea spaces, and spontaneous/ improvisational places, and how God has surprised me in each of them.
Among the numerous locations I’ve visited, a few stand out. I experienced a moment of joy next to a huge shofar sculpture outside the Congregation Ahavas Chesed in Mobile, Alabama, and enjoyed heartwarming Rosh Hashannah meals in a garage in Greenwood, Mississippi, where over 25 family and friends gather with the nine remaining Jews of Greenwood to celebrate the holiday.
Beyond the pshat (literal interpretation) of a physical place, I’ve realized that we can find God in cultural spaces and “idea places” that I once thought had nothing to do with religion. I’m now an accomplished paper bag puppeteer, having performed a Purim play with my coworkers for small children in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’ve also found that “When the Saints Come Marching In” can infuse new energy into Adon Olam.
Finally there is the very place of the unexpected: spontaneous, go-with-the-flow, improvisational space. What I’ve learned most from this job in Jewish education is that it is OK for life not to go according to plan. Man plans, God laughs; the best thing to do is to embrace those surprises as God-given gifts.
I think back to the intimate impromptu hevruta text study I had with a man named Alfred in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Alfred was the only one that showed up for my program, and we were both locked out of the Temple. So we went to a nearby congregant’s bakery. at the bakery, two folks from Mississippi introduced themselves when they saw my kippah. Their son had converted to Judaism and they were looking for a kosher turkey for their Thanksgiving meal in Hot Springs. Alfred knew where to find one! Because we took our setbacks in stride, we were at the right place to help someone else maintain his own practice.
Judaism is all about being present and open to the unexpected. Surprises spice up life, reminding us to live in the moment, to learn and to explore and to wonder at the beauty of the world we live in.
“Surely the LORD is present in this place”…and maybe we do know it.