This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.