Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!
My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.
The drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.
There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.
Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.
Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.” Continue reading
A recent New York Times online opinion essay, Beautiful Pathologies, got me thinking about the non-profit sector as a whole, and about Jewish organizations in particular.
The writer tells the story of a class of medical students waiting eagerly to be able to witness an organ transplant. After a lengthy process, a fellow student was paged to leave class because a transplant would potentially be taking place:
“It’s eerie to think about that morning, the strangeness of medical students cheering the news of someone’s death. Yet these contradictions happen all the time in our education. Our lecturers say, ‘This is a great case,’ when describing a toddler who died from a rare cancer. Or, ‘Look at this beautiful pathology,’ when holding up the clogged heart of someone’s father. I wonder if other professions share these kinds of perverse excitements. Do human resources trainees hear of ‘great’ instances of sexual harassment? Do law students study ‘beautiful’ murder cases?”
I relate to this feeling of eeriness. After all, there are so many non-profits that have to make their case to funders and what better way than to personalize it. So the most desperate stories of clients who benefit from the organization’s activities are shared and the hope is that people are moved to help. At times it feels exploitative and other times inspiring—after all, we are hearing the most incredible stories of human resilience.
A future doctor learns from watching a transplant. When heart-wrenching stories are shared, funds are raised to support essential and valuable programs.
At the ISJL we are often in a position where we need to make the case for the organization; in the Community Engagement department here, we are now also working with congregations aiming to address the needs of their larger community. It’s important that we pay attention to how we think and talk about these needs. Does it benefit us to highlight the shockingly low literacy rates in places like our home base of Mississippi as we work on a program to bolster literacy? Perhaps. But it is also important to envision what the community would look like if everyone was a fluent reader. Perhaps it can be sufficiently moving to focus on the future, and how the community can look when everyone is a fluent reader.
But then, when we achieve that goal, will the support run out? Will we see slip back to lower literacy levels? Is the ugly truth that we need some level of “beautiful pathology” to keep us focused on making things better – or can we build a good case from good stories, and keep the good going without relying on “worst case” stories?
What do you think?
Today’s post is from Education Fellow Elaine Barenblat.
As a young girl, I was very involved in my home congregation, as many children with active parents tend to be. I embraced the role of active young member; it never crossed my mind that I had a choice to not be as active as I was. Everyone in my congregation knew me as someone who, at a very young age, was unafraid to lead her congregation in prayer, was a devoted member of the youth choral, and was also known to be a staunch supporter of the annual rabbi versus cantor capture-the-flag game. Since I was surrounded with Judaism in most aspects of my life, I always felt like ours was a robust community; I knew my congregation was amazing!
Now, as an adult, I have a little more perspective, and have learned that all things are relative. My home congregation is in San Antonio, Texas; compared to many other southern Jewish communities, ours is sizable. We have a full-time rabbi and cantor, a beautiful building, and my graduating Hebrew School class had about 15 students.
It is an amazing congregation, but it’s not as big as I thought it was when I was little.
On one of my first fledgling journeys outside of San Antonio, I found myself in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that I began to suspect that my circumstances were not at all as enormous as I thought they were. I realized that what made my congregation seem so big and vibrant was not the actual size of the building or the number of people on our roster, but the connections I made.
I have since moved back to the South, and have had the wonderful opportunity to work with various communities across a 13-state region, where my new theory about congregational life has been reinforced time and time again: it’s not about the size of a congregation, it’s about the connections we find there.
The students with whom I work seem to feel the same connection to their communities that I felt to mine, particularly if, like me, they are active members at a young age. Children do not often think to compare their situation to others unless the connection is made for them by those who have had outside experiences. My takeaway is that while each community is bound to have its struggles, it is also uniquely attuned to helping their children make important lifelong connections.
In other words, no matter how large or small a congregation, the sense of community and the belief that “my congregation is amazing!” is something we can help instill and nurture in every child – and, yes, in every adult.
What makes your congregation amazing? Tell us in the comments below!