Monthly Archives: February 2014

A Noose Around James Meredith’s Neck: Where Do We Go From Here?

James_Meredith_sculpture_OleMissEarlier this week, in Oxford, Mississippi,  two unidentified perpetrators placed a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue at the University of Mississippi. There was also an old Georgia state flag (which incorporated the confederate flag) draped around his shoulders.

James Meredith was the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, or “Ole Miss”
as it is still most commonly called. The campus has had several negative incidents of intolerance in the past few years – riots and racial slurs after President Obama’s re-election, heckling and homophobic remarks during a performance of The Laramie Project.

As a current undergraduate student at another college here in Mississippi, the first question that came to my mind when first hearing of this incident was: Where do we go from here?

I know this is not representative of that entire campus and community, but the fact remains that it happened (as did the heckling at the play, as did the racial slurs after the presidential election). It’s not enough to just not he perpetrators; we cannot just be bystanders. I grew up in the South and am certainly not a stranger to racial tension, but this is something much, much more deeply rooted and severe. It is something from which we cannot look away. I can’t escape it even if I wanted to – purely out of coincidence, I am going to Oxford this weekend to visit an old friend, now a student up there at Ole Miss, who happens to be African-American.

While I still look forward to the company of my friend, I will also feel a certain sense of dread sitting on the bus that will steadily edge closer to Oxford. In a way, this bus will be a time machine, taking me back to a Southern past I had assumed I would never experience firsthand.

Which brings me to my next question: As a white person with many close black friends, what is my own responsibility in improving race relations in our country?

In many ways living in the Deep South mirrors the experiences I had studying conflict resolution in Northern Ireland. In Belfast a peace agreement was signed in 1998, officially putting an end to The Troubles. The key word here is officially. While the violence dramatically decreased, much of the cross community tensions remained and were still present when I traveled there in 2013. However, because there is infrastructure for cross-community dialogue in Belfast this sentiment has been changed in some of these most hard lined members of the conflict.

Perhaps we in the US can take a lesson from the Northern Irish in thinking about our own civil rights movement. Although the campaigning days of Dr. Martin Luther King are gone, agreements have been signed, and laws have been made, we still desperately need cross-community dialogue.

This is, in part, why the work we do in the community engagement department is so important. Engaging the community in dialogue and discussing these horrible incidents of racism when they occur is one of the most important steps toward a better future. It helps this white Southern college student be part of answering that first question: Where do we go from here?

It’s something I’ll be thinking about while riding that bus, just as others did in the past, and I’m glad to continue working with a team to encounter difficult truths and come up with shared solutions.

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Posted on February 21, 2014

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From the South to Spain: Surprising Jewish Connections

This blog post comes from Linnea Hurst, who interned in the ISJL’s Community Engagement department last summer.

Linnea Hurst, summer intern for the Department of Community Engagement

I wasn’t raised with religion. Growing up, I always learned about religion through my friends or communities I have lived in—including through my internship experience at the ISJL last summer, where I gained a much richer understanding of Judaism.

This winter, my religious education took a new twist. I had the opportunity to travel around Spain after studying abroad in London. The first stop on my Spanish adventure was a sleepy medium-sized Southern city named Córdoba. To my surprise, I learned that in the 10th century Córdoba was the largest city in Western Europe, boasting 500,000 inhabitants. Even more spectacular than this fact was the fact that at the request of King Alfonzo, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars were all brought to his court in Córdoba to learn together and translate books from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin.

less blurry

Hebrew letters in Spain

These three religions clearly existed in Córdoba without serious strife during the 10th century; a fact that today seems far-fetched. Although there is no synagogue left in the city, there is a large mosque which dates back to 784. Yet as with almost all non-Christian religions sites in Spain, something was built atop this mosque: in this case, a large cathedral sits smack dab in the middle. The contrasting architectural styles of the Cathedral and the Mosque depicts how although the Jews, Muslims, and Christians learned from each other as scholars in Córdoba in the 10th century this peace did not last long.

Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. Only a lucky few synagogues and mosques, such as the mosque I saw in Córdoba, did not get completely destroyed.

When I reached central Spain, I still had not seen a synagogue and was curious if there were any still in the country. Jewish life seemed more like a memory there. In every city I visited in Southern Spain, there was a “Jewish Quarter,” where a thriving Jewish community had once lived very long ago, and none remained. When I visited the city of Toledo, which used to be Spain’s capital before Madrid, I finally found something more than a sign saying “barrio Judío”. In Toledo I visited Synagogue El Transito, founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia who was the Treasurer to Peter of Castile. The building was not big, but as soon as I entered I could not take my eyes away from the ornate stucco decorations covering the walls. As I got closer I noticed that the walls were beautifully inscribed with both Hebrew and Arabic, a testament to the close ties between Judaism and Arabic culture in medieval Spain. The synagogue was temporarily turned into a Catholic Church after the expulsion of the Jews.

Toledo, Spain

Toledo, Spain

Leaving Spain was hard, and on the last day I decided I needed just one more adventure, just one more new city. I took a day trip to Segovia, where I spent all day entranced by the larger than life cathedral and imposing yet beautiful medieval castle. It wasn’t until the sun had set that I chanced upon a landmark from Segovia’s 14th century Jewish community. I was following a hiking trail back down a hill where I had watched the sunset when I came across two large pits with stone slabs. I knew immediately they must be something very old and very important and I just had to figure out what. Not far from the slabs were historical signs mostly in Spanish but with a little English. “Old Jewish Burial Ground…” the title read. It turns out that the Jewish quarter of Segovia, which was right across from this hill, was where the burial procession would originate.

I don’t know if I would have looked for those hidden remnants of Jewish life if not for my summer in the South, working for a Jewish organization. That was one great exposure to culture, which many might find unexpected; and now this, learning about three religions simply by walking the old medieval streets of Spain, where I learned there is something about being right there, something about the weight of history, that is truly unique.

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Posted on February 19, 2014

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What Is “Fellow Standard Time”?

jtimeJewish Standard Time (noun): The justification for Jewish events or Jewish people running late.

Fellow Standard Time:  (noun): Nothing standard about it all…

Thriday (noun): The combination of Thursday & Friday, used when Thursday is the last day in the
office. Common element of Fellow Standard Time.

There’s a lot of talk about the differences between Jews in the North and Jews in the South. Some differences certainly do exist. But in a world where the Jewish experience can be so drastically different based on where you live, there is one thing that binds all Jews together, from New York to Alabama: Jewish Standard Time.

In the Jewish world, when events are late to start or people are late to arrive, you’ll often hear it blamed on “Jewish Standard Time.”

Person A: “It’s ten after. When do you think we’ll get started?”
Person B: “Oh, we run on Jewish Standard Time around here.”

OK, in the South there might be a “y’all” thrown in there, but the conversation would sound more or less the same anywhere. Hearing this phrase uttered so often in my community and the communities to which I travel got me thinking about life as a Fellow and the way we spend our time. What is Fellow Standard Time?

Turns out it has even more to do with calendars than with clocks. Our whole week is shifted off-kilter from the rest of the world’s week!

For most people with full-time jobs, the week starts on Monday and ends on Friday. It’s a little different for an ISJL Education Fellow. On Fellow Standard Time, our weeks generally start on Tuesday and end on Sunday (yes, you read that right). On Tuesday and Wednesday we are in the office having meetings, brainstorming, touching base with our communities, and planning for our upcoming visits. Then comes Thursday, the day most others celebrate as a final push before the weekend. It’s a final push for us too, but in a different way. At the ISJL office, Thursday becomes “Thriday” (the natural hybrid word of Thursday/Friday) since Thursday is our last day in the office before we head off on our trips.

“Thriday” is an exciting day full of shopping, cutting, gluing, printing, and even sawing. You name it, we’re doing it. When the week is winding down for other folks, we’re getting pumped up.

On Friday, we hit the road. While you might be getting home at 5 PM, heading to Shabbat services or getting into your PJs, watching your favorite TV show, and looking forward to some R&R, we are just getting started with the most fulfilling part our job. We are lucky enough to spend our weekends with communities and in homes, teaching and learning. And then, on Monday morning, when everyone is gearing up for another week, we’re the ones in our PJs, enjoying our “weekend.”

Yes, it’s official: there really isn’t anything “standard” about Fellow Standard Time after all!

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Posted on February 17, 2014

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