Throughout the high holiday season, we think a lot about judgment. It’s a heavy word, and also a word that brings to mind lots of possibilities. In the month of Elul, God is judging us to see what we have done in the past year and what will happen to us in the future. Knowing this we reflect and pass judgment on ourselves and, often, others.
I am going to borrow a phrase from Rachel Stern’s #BlogElul post and say: life is about perspective. She used this phrase to encourage people to see things as blessings. Here, I’d like to remind everyone that our judgments are also a matter of perspective.
When I tell people I work for a Jewish organization in Mississippi I occasionally get a response like, “there can’t be a lot of Jews there!”… and it’s true that there are not as many Jews here as there are in New York or Los Angeles. But I am sad when people say things like “It’s great that you are helping those Jews, they must really need it.”
I think this statement reflects a judgment, intentional or not, lacking in firsthand knowledge. It also reflects a judgment about what a Jewish community should look like, that it should look one certain way, when in fact there are lots of different ways to build a Jewish community. The Jewish communities that I visit have rich Jewish lives, they just might not look like the life we know in New York or Los Angeles.
“Those Jews” don’t need judgment. None of us do—but we can all use support.
I also have to be careful of my own judgments. I am a visitor in the communities I serve as an ISJL Education Fellow, and it is my job to empower educators. It is not my place to judge what a community’s priorities should be, how they should spend their resources, or which values they should hold most dear. And it is also not fair for me to judge them against any other community, Northern or Southern. Each congregation is its own special place.
Throughout this month of Elul, as I begin my fall visits and my second year as a Fellow unfolds, I will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the communities with which I work, so that I can help them plan for a successful year. As I do this I am being extra careful to evaluate, but not to judge. I want to help each community be the very best versions of themselves, whatever that might be; evaluating their needs will help guide me to what support will be most helpful.
So, too, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, should we strive not to judge, but rather to evaluate. To take a personal inventory of what worked for us and against us in the past year, and how we can—and what support we need.
Each congregation I work with deserves respect, evaluation, and support—not judgment; each of us deserves the same. We are all “those Jews” who “really need” that!
I have very fond memories of my first time at Jewish summer camp. It seems like it was only yesterday.
Actually, it kind of was: my first Jewish summer camp experience was this summer, at 23 years old.
That’s right, somehow I made it this far without a Jewish camping experience. I understand that it may shock you that I am a Jewish professional who never went to Jewish summer camp. Please don’t be too upset: I had plenty of Jewish education and lots of fun with my family doing other summertime activities.
Still, I was curious about the Jewish camp experience that so many of my friends and colleagues had growing up, so I jumped at the opportunity to spend a week on faculty at URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas.
Lucky for me I was visiting with two camp veterans, my ISJL coworkers Rachel Stern and Missy Goldstein. Before I even left my apartment they had already imparted great wisdom about how to pack, especially about “camp-propriate” fashion. When I arrived the staff at camp led us on a whirlwind a tour of the grounds, which included a visit to the new eco-village, a view of Lake Jake, and an introduction to the camp llama, Caramel.
On subsequent days I spent most of my mornings at camp leading alternative t’filah (prayers) and short shiurim (classes) in various bunks. One of my favorite t’filah activities was an adaptation of the game Things, in which campers wrote down what they thought of when they thought about God, prayer, or being Jewish. Everyone then had to guess who in their bunk had submitted each answer. It was amazing to see the different responses throughout the groups, and a lot of fun to see how close friends could guess each other’s answers after so much time together at camp!
I also learned a lot of important skills, including how to dodge flying grasshoppers, how to bus tables in the dining hall, and the appropriate Hebrew words for all camp locations.
Reflecting on my visit to camp, I have learned so much about the value of Jewish camp and why it is such a formative experience. At camp, kids get to be themselves. For a lot of Jewish students it is one of only a few opportunities they have to spend time with other Jews their age. They get to just hang out, be friends, and learn through experiences rather than formal education. Interacting with campers also showed me a lot about how to teach students with actions, not just with words.
Whether we are clergy, teachers, volunteers, or just Jews around town, we are all role models for young Jews. We have to take that responsibility seriously, including in informal settings, and realize how life-changing those informal moments can be. I am excited to go forward into my second year as an ISJL Fellow with my new camp experience in mind.
I smile. The man stares back at me and I look away, embarrassed. I feel my ears growing hot and I know my face is turning red, too. I am from here. I should know better.
DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE ON THE SUBWAY!
Before I moved to Jackson, I lived in New York City for four years of college. I was a pro at navigating the subway, walking quickly, avoiding obstacles on the sidewalk, and crossing the street irrespective of the traffic signal. I did not let people cut me in line and was very capable of intercepting those who tried. I mastered the art of hailing a cab and absolutely did not tolerate people who tried to steal my taxi by standing up-street from me.
In short, I was an excellent New Yorker.
When I moved to Jackson a year ago, I immediately started worrying that I was accidentally rude to people. I just was not used to making small talk with strangers, and oftentimes I didn’t realize strangers to speaking to me because, well, who talks to strangers? I had to learn to call people “sir” and “ma’am.” Where I come from (Massachusetts, then New York), women especially are very offended when you call them “ma’am.” It makes them feel old, and seems rude. But in the South, it is a much appreciated sign of respect. I quickly learned to love these habits. I think it is adorable when the students I work with call me “Miss Allison” and it is so sweet to see people holding doors open for one another.
I recently returned to NYC to visit my college friends. I landed at La Guardia airport, hopped over to the Upper West Side to visit campus, and then caught a train to Tribeca to meet up with my friends after work. That’s when things started to go wrong. I accidentally bumped into someone in the rush to get on the express train, so I said excuse me and let him go through the door first. He just looked at me and sort of smirked. How rude!
I was fortunate enough to find a seat and, like a true New Yorker, plugged in my headphones. Looking around at the other passengers, I smiled each time I made eye contact with someone. Once again, I must reiterate, this is the WRONG THING TO DO on the New York subway. People stared back or looked away or rolled their eyes. I could almost hear them thinking “where the heck is she from?”
This is not to say that New Yorkers are mean, or that Southerners are all quaint, sweet people. Most New Yorkers often offer subway seats to people who need them, and some Southerners drive like inconsiderate maniacs. Individually, I think we are more alike than we realize. Dan Ring discussed various theories of the difference between North and South, City and Small Town, in his blog post a few weeks ago, so I will direct your attention to that post for more details. What I will say here is that I think my ideal world is a combination of the two.
Without offending anyone, I would like to say that in my experience, people in the South are definitely overtly friendlier, but perhaps also a little less hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one. Meanwhile, Northerners (specifically, New Yorkers!) might not be as gregarious to strangers, but are also a little more hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one.
And what’s funny is, I always identified with the pace and attitude of New Yorkers… but after only a year in the South, when I went back up to the big city, I felt like a country mouse. I had begun displaying some outward signs of Southernness… and I’m okay with that. I love New York, I love the South, and having lived in both places I am now hoping to embody the best of both worlds.
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