About this time last year, I remember walking around the streets of Jerusalem, counting the menorahs I could see in windowsills and doorways. I was excited and inspired—I had never seen such a prevalent, and beautiful, public display of Jewish ritual before.
On Hanukkah, we are told to light the menorah and place it at the entrance to our homes, a place easily visible to those passing by in the street. Over the years, the tradition has changed and many place the menorah in the window, facing the street. The rabbis say that one should choose the window most visible from the street, whether that window is in a bedroom or a family room. If many people pass by the entrance to an apartment (say, in the stairwell), the proper place for the menorah is just outside the entrance to the apartment. All this is to say that the menorah should be positioned in the place where it will be seen by most people, in order to publicize the holiday.
This year, I’m going to place the menorah in my front windowsill of my apartment in Jackson, Mississippi. I’m going to do so without a second thought. I have the privilege of placing a menorah in my windowsill without the fear of persecution in response to this public display of observance. What’s more, I do so with great pride and ownership of the ritual.
This year, next to my menorah, I’m going to place a banner that signifies the meaning of Hanukkah to me, a holiday that’s meant to bring light into our world. As a Jew devoted to social justice, to me that light represents equal rights for all. That light represents my belief that all people, regardless of religion or race or gender, should be able to walk down the street without fear of persecution or violence. Everyone should feel privileged enough to place the equivalent of their menorah in the windowsill.
Over the past weeks, as crowds have gathered across the country to demand an end to police brutality and racial violence, I’ve often wondered what I can do as a Jew and an ally to support this work. So this year, I’m adding a simple object to my windowsill—a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.” There are similar Hanukkah campaigns and initiatives being encouraged by many national Jewish organizations, such as Bend The Arc and Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
Hanukkah means “dedication.” This year, I am re-dedicating my Hanukkah. I hope you will join me.
I’ll admit, sometimes I browse Buzzfeed. In particular, since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, I often look at bucket lists for inspiration.
I recently opened a “Bucket List for Girls” post, which posed the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” On this Buzzfeed list, one of the to-do-before-you-die items was “volunteer in a foreign country.” Accompanying this statement was an image that appears to be what the list-makers imagine an unspecific African country might look like: black women dressed in bright, patterned clothing, lugging buckets of water on their heads. Among the black women is one white girl, dressed in safari-style camo wear, holding a similar bucket atop her head, with a look of great accomplishment.
I had a visceral reaction to this image. Shaking my head, I wondered – what is she doing? Why is she there? Where is she? Is she actually helping, or just volunteering for her own sake? That is the risk of “voluntourism.”
What is “voluntourism?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: vacation travel, with volunteer opportunities awaiting at the travel destination. Search the web and you’ll find dozens of organizations, nonprofits and travel businesses alike, deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.This is a recent trend among my generation. A quick Google search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” will pull up a site devoted to Tinder [a matchmaking/dating site] images, of mostly white people posing with mostly black children.
This makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, it’s now cool to travel and volunteer to any unidentified country that needs us to save them. Photographs of us participating in these activities will even attract potential mates- after all, they show that we’re good people, the sort of people who devoted our whole winter break to needy children in Guatemala!
On one level, I find it exciting and inspiring that caring about others and trying to make a difference are qualities that have become “cool.” If this is the direction society is moving, I’m all for it. But I want to challenge this culture a bit. I wrote on this topic before, how images can stereotype people and erase cultural, historic, and geographic complexities. While looking through the Tinder images, I felt a great pit at the bottom of my stomach. These photos exploit others by defining them ultimately as “poor, helpless individuals, in need of saving.” What of their strengths?
The Talmud teaches in Brachot 19B: “Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition.”
Where is the human dignity in this trend of being a voluntourist?
I’m not trying to discount this idea altogether, but I think the missing piece with voluntourism is making space for dignity of both sides. So here are some tips that can challenge this phenomenon, since as we know from our friends at Buzzfeed, making suggestions into a list is helpful!
1) Learn about the history, culture and current political standing of country you’re interested in before you go.
2) Study the root causes of issues you’re interested in.
3) Speak with people on the ground before you volunteer- what are they doing, and how can you help them?
4) Take a strengths-based approach- focus on the strengths of the community you want to serve and think about how you can bring things back home that they can teach you.
5) Take some time to learn about issues in your own community, and find out what you can do to serve those closer to home.
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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum, which can only be experienced through a guide-led tour, immerses you in the tenement story. Through the lens of the building itself, this museum tells the story of thousands of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries by exploring sections of one particular building on the Lower East Side that was home to many different people since 1863.
The tour I went on focused on the bottom level of the building, where numerous shops have rested over the years. As my group walked down the steps into the building, we were transported to 1870, to a German lager saloon. We learned about the couple who owned the saloon, their hardships, adopted children, the organizations they were members of, and imagined their lives in the very space we were sitting. Next, we learned about the kosher grocery store, the kosher butcher shop, and the peddler’s store that resided in the same space that was once a saloon.
As we learned more about each shop that inhabited this space, I thought about how amazing it was that such varied stories existed there—a German lager saloon, a kosher butcher, a lingerie store. I imagined all the owners sitting down for dinner together, discussing the hardships of owning a business in New York City.
I felt similarly about an historic building in Jackson—The Fairview Inn.
The first time I went to the Fairview Inn, I met with members of the selection committee for Jewish Cinema Mississippi, the Jewish film festival that takes place each January in Jackson. As we were drinking gourmet cocktails named for Mississippi authors (the bar at the Fairview is called The Library Lounge), I listened to the history of the bed and breakfast. The previous owner, who turned the space into a bed and breakfast, was William Simmons.
Simmons was born in Utica, MS in 1916 and grew up in Jackson, MS. He founded the Citizens’ Council in Jackson, which was a part of a network of white supremacist organizations. The groups opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 60s, using intimidation, economic boycotts, propaganda, and violence. Simmons functioned as editor and publisher of The Citizen, Administrator of Citizens’ Councils of America, and President of Citizens’ Council Forum. As a Citizens’ Council representative, he appeared on television and spoke to audiences across the nation. Upon hearing this, I felt a bit nervous in the space. I imagined Council meetings taking place where I was sitting.
But this place is now an entirely different sort of space: In 2006, the Fairview was purchased from Simmons by Peter and Tamar Sharp—a Jewish couple.
There is now a mezuzah on the front door, and Jewish organizational meetings often take place inside. This place is not The Fairview Inn of the past. Walking through the building, you can still learn about its history—but it is an entirely different space today.
Since I moved to Mississippi in June, I’ve had the chance to learn about the complex and inspiring history of Jews in the South. There’s something about living here I haven’t quite been able to put into words. While spending a few days with the TENT tour last week, Dr. Eric Goldstein perfectly captured what I’ve been feeling—he said that there’s an incredible weight of history here. This weight lends a feeling of significance and sanctity to sites that might otherwise seem ordinary. Sitting at the Fairview Inn, I think about the role we play in repurposing spaces, that spaces are shaped by the people who inhabit them.
Do you know the history of the space you live or work in? Does this history impact the way you experience that space today? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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