Around Mother’s Day last month, we started wondering what the Jewish mothers (and fathers!) thought about their sons and daughter coming to Jackson, Mississippi, to serve as Education Fellows. If they were from the South or from a small town, were they particularly proud? If they were from the North or a big city, were they particularly nervous?
We thought it would be fun for you to hear from our parents about the experience of having a child move to Jackson. We also want to let them know how grateful we are for their support as we enjoy this great adventure. After all, ISJL’s Education Fellows come from all over the country. Some of us grew up in the South and some of us had never even been to Mississippi before taking this job, so we have a diverse range of experiences. Some of our parents were frankly “concerned” when we first announced these plans, while others were thrilled.
Despite concerns, our parents were supportive, and we needed all their help! The first “real job” out of college is a big step, and we are all so grateful to our parents for teaching us how to buy a car and shop for renters’ insurance and other grown-up necessities. We are also so excited and proud that we have been able to share our Southern stories with them—and now we’re enjoying reading about their initial reactions!
Here are what some of the parents of our second year Fellows (2012-2014) have to say, at the end of their sons and daughters’ time with the ISJL. We’ll also share a second piece with the thoughts from the first year Fellows (2013-2015) as they arrive at the midpoint of their fellowship. So now – find out what the parents think…
My Fellow: Elaine Barenblat
My Thoughts: When we first heard that Rachel Stern was pressuring our daughter Elaine to become a Fellow, my only thought was: “Why would I send my 5 foot nothing blue-eyed blond to Mississippi to become a target?”
All through the vetting process, I was very skeptical of this adventure—or misadventure—with her safety as my one and only concern. It wasn’t until we made the drive to Jackson and fell in love with the city that we finally “got it.” Jackson is a glorious city, full of charm and history. The ISJL has created a program that absolutely surpassed my wildest dreams of how this experience would enrich my daughter. She has taken the basics of education and her love for Judaism and expanded her knowledge to all aspects. She is more experienced in dealing with so many unusual situations which would probably never have come her way. Elaine has grown personally and professionally and I am sure the ISJL experience will propel her future in ways we’ve ever imagined possible. The friendships made in these 2 years will certainly last a lifetime. We are extremely grateful Elaine was given this opportunity, and I am happy to be a “go-to” parent if there is another nervous mom out there—just send her my way and I’ll convince her that her child should not pass up this amazing opportunity! – Sheri Barenblat, San Antonio, Texas
My Fellow: Dan Ring
My Thoughts: When I told friends about our son moving to Mississippi, several of them jokingly asked me if I’d seen the movie Mississippi Burning! I knew he’d be fine…I’d served as a Synagogue Education Director for 10 years, and had met other Ed Directors from all over the south. I knew Southern Hospitality was the real thing! I worried about all of the travel, but I was happy for the travel too. The ISJL offered quite an opportunity for work and travel and personal growth. But I was always glad to hear when Dan made it back to Jackson after one of his long drives. I love hearing about the personalities at the different congregations [he visits]. There are so many people that Dan would like to see again. I hope he gets the chance and I’m glad he got to meet these people through ISJL. Based on his descriptions….I’d like to meet them too!! — Janet Ring, Reisterstown, MD
My Fellow: Amanda Winer
My Thoughts: I never really thought about it until about a year ago, but it was very easy for [my husband] Steve and me to raise and educate our children as Jews. Living on Long Island when they were young we sent them to the Y-JCC preschool, joined one of a half dozen synagogues in our small town, spent holidays with family and friends… exposure to Judaism was easy and fellow Jews were all around us. When we moved to Massachusetts, it was still relatively easy. We looked for a town to live in where there was a vibrant synagogue community, and we easily found Westborough and Congregation B’nai Shalom. From there, our children discovered Wafty, NFTY-NE, NFTY, Eisner Camp, and many other easily assessable opportunities to learn about and experience Judaism.
But when our youngest daughter Amanda began looking for a job in Jewish Education, Steve saw an ad for Jewish education fellow positions at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi. I was shocked. Mississippi? Are there even any Jews to educate in Mississippi? And why would Amanda go to Mississippi to work in the field of Jewish education when there are so many Jewish related opportunities in the Northeast?
It was then that I began to realize that educating and raising Jewish children was not nearly as easy for some parents. I learned about ISJL founder Macy B. Hart’s own stories of his parents driving 160 miles round trip every Sunday morning to bring their children to Sunday School. I realized that for some parents, educating and raising Jewish children was not nearly as easy as it was for us. I realized, as Amanda had already, that she could make much more of a difference providing Jewish education in the south where there was a much greater need. So Amanda signed on, and has since then shared stories like the miracle of assembling 150 Jews for a Chanukah party in Northwest Arkansas, tri-lingual Shabbat morning services in McAllen, TX, and kosher jambalaya in Lafayette, LA. I am proud to have taken part in the formation of Amanda’s Jewish identity and education, and am beyond thrilled that she is standing on that foundation to reach out to over 3,000 Jewish students. — Lori Winer, Westborough, MA
Stay tuned for Part II, when we’ll hear from some moms and dads of the 2013-2015 Education Fellows!
Where is this rabbi?
What is the rabbi wearing?
What is this rabbi doing?
And finally… was that rabbi you pictured a man, or a woman?
When I asked this series of questions at a Sisterhood Shabbat service a few weeks ago in Mississippi, more than half the congregants said they pictured a male rabbi. This was not surprising to me. Men filled this role for hundreds of years, and the idea of a male rabbi is part of our tradition. But it is also important for us to consider the role women have in leading our communities and embrace them as leaders. I will go ahead and tell you right now that I am especially invested in this conversation, because I plan to enroll in rabbinical school and hope to serve as a congregational rabbi.
When I spoke on this topic at Sisterhood Shabbat, I called on the congregation to empower women as leaders in the Jewish community. I was especially adamant that women rabbis receive equal pay, which is not yet a reality. These sentiments were mostly well-received, as I believe they would be in many congregations I visit. Most people have adjusted to the idea that women can be rabbis and that they should be treated with respect, but some communities are not quite sure how to do that.
In my travels across the South I have come across some interesting questions related to the role of women as rabbis. One thing I have found very interesting is the Name Question. As in, should rabbis be addressed as “Rabbi (last name)?” “Rabbi (first name)?” Just by a first name? I have met rabbis who employ each of these combinations and their reasons for doing so are compelling. Those who choose to go by their first names do so because it creates a closer relationship and allows them to do more sincere pastoral care. At the same time, calling clergy by their title and last name is a tradition which many people feel is a necessary sign of respect. I think there is an added layer of nuance for female rabbis, who might struggle to command an appropriate level of respect and who might choose to go by their last names to help with this issue.
Speaking of what to call someone, people in the communities I visit are often riveted by the question of what to call a woman rabbi’s husband in place of “rebbetzin,” the Yiddish word used for a rabbi’s wife. Some suggestions I have gathered include rebbetz-bro, rebbetz-him, rebbetz-sir, and “the luckiest man in the world.” These questions and related suggestions are funny, but they also show that the concept of a woman rabbi is still relatively fresh, and we still have some details to work out.
Being an ISJL Education Fellow has prepared me for some of the challenges I expect to face as a young female rabbi. You might be shocked to learn that teachers, directors, and congregants are not always excited to take advice or direction from a 23-year-old. I have been learning to present myself in a dynamic, professional way that convinces these people to take me seriously despite my age. I expect the strategies I have learned to cope with this issue will be useful as I go forward. Being a Fellow has also confirmed for me how much I love to help Jewish communities grow to their fullest potential and how much I do, in fact, want to be a rabbi.
When I close my eyes, I can even picture it.
 According to a study published by the CCAR, women head rabbis receive, on average, as little as 80%-93% as much pay as their male counterparts.
 Thanks to the HUC Rabbinical School in Israel class of 2007 for the first two suggestions.
In the South, we love our sports. March Madness is on the horizon and our minds are on the game! Of course, Southern-and-Jewish sporting (especially if you’re an Education Fellow) can look a little different.
In this afternoon’s game we have the number one seeded Queen Esther up against the number four seed, Hannah.
Esther’s story is probably fresh in your minds as we’ve just celebrated her holiday of Purim. As Megillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther, tells us, the beautiful young Esther won a beauty contest to become Queen of Persia after Ahashveros kicked his first queen out of the palace. Esther then went on to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the evil Haman. Esther was brave enough to enter the court of the king even when faced with the possibility of death for speaking to the king without being summoned. She was then clever enough to invite him to a feast and flatter him before asking the difficult question she truly wanted.
She has a lot going for her, this Esther. She has a whole book named after her, a holiday to celebrate her bravery, and we all know who every little girl wants to dress as on Purim.
The one area in which Hannah might outplay Esther is prayer – and a strong prayer player is a good skill! Esther’s account of the Purim story does not mention God at all, not even once! She appeared to be pretty pious when she fasted and prayed before going to see the king, but even then we did not have any idea of what she said or if she was really praying to God. Hannah, on the other hand, has this prayer thing down. She is acknowledged as the first Jew to employ personal prayer. Devastated by her inability to conceive, Hannah went to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem. She prayed so fervently, moving her lips but not making a sound, that Eli the High Priest thought she was drunk. Being the strong woman that she was, Hannah stood up for herself and told Eli no, she was not drunk, she was praying to God from her heart.
We see that God obviously approved of Hannah’s actions because he granted her wish and she became the mother of Samuel, the famous prophet. We never saw that kind of Godly approval for Esther. And don’t think that Hannah is left out of the important scripture. She may not have a book of Tanakh named after her, but the haftarah portion narrating her story is read on one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah. We wouldn’t read the story of just anyone on this holy day!
Folks, it looks like Hannah may come from behind to win this one, after all. Sure, Esther has that fame thing going for her, but Hannah is responsible for Judaism’s acknowledgement of personal prayer. What an incredible game this has been! Prayer, subterfuge, and all at the hands of two brave and intelligent leading ladies.
Hannah, The PRAYER PLAYER, will go on to face whoever wins the showdown between Miriam and Devorah… keep tuning in, sports fans!