The parades of Mardi Gras are a communal event. It isn’t unusual for folks to begin gathering in their favorite spot a couple of hours before the parades begin. There are two highly identifiable sides that one stands on: the neutral ground side (otherwise known as the median) and the sidewalk side. Each swells with people as the natural socialization begins and it is a sweet time for everyone.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what color or religion you are, what you drive or what you do for a living, or where you went to school, or any of the normal social barriers that keep us apart. We are all there for the same joyous reason, to celebrate and enjoy.
It is near impossible to talk on a cell phone and hear because of the noise. The internet is painfully slow, with thousands of people in a small, dense area. And anyway, if you look down to text, you are going to miss something. So, miracle of miracles – most of us put it all away and live in that moment, which is a rare privilege these days!
I could say that the “sacred time” notion, away from phones and fully present, is enough of a Jewish moment at Mardi Gras. But there’s so much more. In fact, Mardi Gras makes me think each year of my favorite Torah portion, Nitzavim, and these words in particular:
“ You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God — your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer — to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its sanctions; to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and be your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day….”
I imagine each year, that this is the closest that I will get to feeling that kind of diversity, all standing together for a common gift! No, the gift itself isn’t as formally holy as the gift in Nitzavim. Of course not. But what could be more holy than brothers and sisters standing together as equals in peace, love and joy?
By the way, yes, we all know that the roots of Mardi Gras are Catholic, with this celebration emerging as the last hurrah after Lent before the Easter holiday. But culturally, as a New Orleanian, I know well that contemporary Mardi Gras celebrations are truly for everyone to enjoy. Did you know that the first King of Rex (King of Mardi Gras), Louis Soloman, was Jewish? And that there’s a full-blown Jewish Mardi Gras Krewe?
So maybe your Mardi Gras experience could be a bit more Jewish than you think. Mine certainly is, year after year.
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Okay, so it wasn’t that long ago, and it’s totally in this galaxy (although some may see the Jewish South as a “galaxy far, far away”). When I first visited congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, Texas, in August 2013, the director of their school told me that part of my work with them would be writing programing for their annual religious school February Shabbaton, or Sabbath/weekend retreat.
She also informed me there was a student who wanted to give me ideas about said Shabbaton. Zachary.
Zachary loves Star Wars, and he just could not understand why we had never made Star Wars the theme of the Shabbaton. So when I returned for my fall visit in November, Zachary and I went out to lunch to discuss all his ideas.
Over the next few months we all worked hard to put together a weekend full of Star Wars and Jewish learning. You may be familiar with the concept of The Force, but did you know there is a “Force” in Judaism, too? God gave people free will and intelligent minds to use as we please. In the same way that Jedis can use the force for good or for evil, Judaism believes that every person has a yetzer ha-tov (good inclination) and a yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) that they choose to follow. In both situations, we have to learn to master our powers and use them to make the world a better place.
This was the theme of our weekend. We staged relay races and a scavenger hunt to help students learn about Jewish values and how these values lead us to use our powers for good. The whole weekend was a great success, and I never would have come up with the theme if not for Zachary. He explained all the intricate details of the Star Wars characters and showed me how their personalities and talents could teach us Jewish content. I was so impressed by how he had thought this through. This was an amazing example of the fact that students learn best when you teach them in a way they can relate: Zachary loves Star Wars, so we used that to teach him and his classmates about related Jewish concepts.
I really enjoyed the experience of working with Zachary, and not just because it made my job a little easier. It was so rewarding to see a student excited about Jewish learning for himself and his classmates. The activities of this weekend taught these students in a way they could relate to without diluting the Jewish content. I hope this can be an example I take to other communities, and I hope it can inspire you, too.
What are the interests of your students? How can those interests become an avenue for teaching Jewish content? I would love to hear from you about how you accomplish this in your schools.
Like many Jewish children, my kids live for camp! They count down every day of the year until it’s time for camp to begin. It’s the highlight of their year. They come by this camp obsession naturally, because I was the same exact way. Camp was and is still a profound experience in my Jewish life. For many of us, the moment we arrived at camp we were forever changed.
My husband and I share four kids, and with a price tag of about $4,000 per child, that means it will cost us roughly $16,000 to send our kids to summer camp. Yes, you read that right: sixteen thousand dollars.
I know the three-and-a-half-weeks my kids spend at camp are priceless. I also know that with $16,000, I could pay a full year’s tuition at a state college.
For almost 20 years, I have worked in the field of Jewish education. I am not destitute, but I do not have $16,000-a-summer kind of money. Camp isn’t the only expensive Jewish experience for our children – there’s religious school tuition, youth group events, retreats, and let’s not even talk about Israel trips.
Especially in the South, and small communities anywhere – we can’t afford to make these opportunities anything other than amazing and accessible for our Jewish children and families. The question is – are we? Specifically, do Jewish organizations provide Jewish financial assistance in a way that honors and displays the values of Judaism?
Judaism teaches us time and time again the importance of tzedakah and how it is our obligation, not choice, to help others. (That’s why it’s great to see lots of new camp scholarship opportunities, like BunkConnect—though it’s for first-time campers only.) We need to give assistance, and just importantly, we must give it the right way.
We don’t make this process very easy. As an educator, I have helped countless families find aid because they had no idea where to look. If you don’t know the system, you can get overwhelmed fast. Then, once you find an opportunity, you start on the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! I have had to provide less financial paperwork to buy a car than to receive a $500 camp scholarship. This paperwork is to be filled out each and every year, despite the fact that most people’s financial situations do not change drastically from one year to the next.
Because of my public role in the Jewish community, I am very open about the fact that I get scholarship money to send my kids to camp. If people know that I do, perhaps they will feel more comfortable asking me about it and doing the same. I actually try to model that asking for Jewish dollars to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps is a good thing.
However, going public with that information is my personal choice. Many people who need assistance do not want everyone to know their circumstances. Yet last year, my synagogue listed all of the children by name that received financial assistance for camp in our monthly congregational bulletin. When I called to ask why they felt the need to do this, I was told that it “could encourage others to ask for money.” I thought just the opposite. If people knew that they would publicly be categorized as needing help, many would be less likely than ever to ask for it. Nowhere did it say on the forms that if your family received aid, your child’s name would be publicly listed. My complaints resulted in yet a new question on the application; now you check a box if you DON’T want your child’s name listed. I would wager that 100% of families check the NO box. Yet the question remains.
I know that funding agencies do need to know some information to determine who needs aid and who doesn’t, but this could be a far less invasive process. This year I saw a new question on the paperwork. I was asked to calculate my family’s food expenses for the year. I was stunned. Why would anyone need to know this? This question brings up so much that is wrong in our society and I was saddened that the Jewish community was so insensitive and uninformed. It is a fact that healthy, fresh food such as produce and proteins cost more than processed and packaged food.
Why would the scholarship committee want to know what I spend on food? Will I be penalized for feeding my family healthy, more expensive food? What if I spent a lot of money on food because I fed others, as an act of tzedakah—or what if I invited people to my home when they needed somewhere to celebrate the Jewish holidays? What if someone in my family had a food allergy that necessitated us to follow a specific and more expensive diet? Why am I second-guessing what I feed my family as I am asking for help sending my Jewish children to Jewish summer camp? I remain stunned.
This has been on my mind for some time. I have spoken with some of the heads of these funding agencies as well as those who serve on the committees. These are people who are committed to helping others and who are engaged in doing good work for the Jewish community. I am certain of this and yet we have a lot to fix in this process. I am charging all of us to do better and to be guided by the principles of Judaism that somehow always lead us in the right direction.
It starts with each of us. My husband and I talk about how we will spend our money when our kids are grown and when we have a little more to give, and our top choice is always to give back to the places that helped us send our kids to camp. We want to support those important scholarships— and we want the funding to require little to no paperwork, bring absolutely no stigma, and instead just make access to life-changing camp experiences more affordable for all families.
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