You may not picture central Mississippi as central to Jewish life. But every summer, one of the most dynamic Jewish conferences anywhere takes place in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every June, Jewish educators from throughout the South, and great presenters from around the country, gather together for three days of learning, networking, celebration and inspiration at the ISJL’s teacher training institute, AKA “the education conference.” While Jackson may not be known by most as a Jewish metropolis, and most folks wouldn’t guess that this Southern town is the location for one of the leading Jewish education conferences in the country, the simple truth is that if you come to Jackson in June, you’ll know it’s true.
That conference begins this Sunday, and as always, I couldn’t be more excited. Volunteer teachers, along with full-time educators, rabbis, and Jewish professionals from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and all over the region will sit beside one another, sharing challenges, sharing best practices, and of course, sharing meals. (Hey, you can’t have a Jewish event without food!)
I’m certain this year’s conference will lead to wonderful connections, great stories and plenty of what I like to call “goosebump moments.” For now, our team is working hard to take care of every single last-minute detail so when participants arrive Sunday, everything is in place. We’re watering the seeds and can’t wait for this blossom to once again bloom into beautiful life, nurtured in the warmth of a Mississippi summer.
I’m what you would call a reluctant business traveler. While I am the director of the Education Department of the ISJL, with the main office being in Mississippi, I actually live in San Antonio, TX.
Thanks to technology, I mostly telecommute, but once a month I fly into the Jackson office. I HATE flying. I mean I really HATE flying. Although I fly a lot, I am a very anxious flyer and as a result I have developed a very fixed coping routine mixed with superstition, prayer, and just a splash of OCD. I will spare you the details but just know that I recite the Shema A LOT!
What makes matters worse is that most of the people around me seem to be fine with flying. Some of them even look cheerful and like to make all kinds of new friends. It shouldn’t surprise you that I am not fond of plane chatting. I am often in my own world of Shema-ing and yoga breathing, and don’t really feel much like hearing where people are headed or the reason for their travel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rude and I will always answer questions when asked but I have figured out what to politely say that will end the conversation quickly.
Here’s how it usually goes:
Passenger: Is this trip work or fun?
Passenger: What do you do for work?
If I say I work in education, there are immediately more questions….
Passenger: Oh, are you a teacher? What grade do you teach? What subject do you teach?
Then I have to explain that I’m not actually a teacher…..
Me: I actually work in the-non profit world.
Passenger: Oh, how interesting. What’s the name of the non-profit? What does it do? Have I heard of it?
When I bring up the word Jewish, the questions/comments reach a whole new level…
Passenger: Oh! Are you Jewish? I have a Jewish friend named ____________. Do you know him/her?
The conversation/questions can go on and on and can involve my own personal belief system or could just involve some comments about Jewish foods they have tasted. Regardless, I just want to sleep or cope with my flying anxiety, so I have come up with what to say that provides some information but that shuts down the conversation as soon as possible.
This has become my new go-to response?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
This usually sounds uninteresting to most, and I am done with my plane chatting for the flight (phew!). But every once in a while, someone really just wants to chat. Last week on my flight was one of those times. She was a nice middle aged woman who let me know that she was going to visit her son and help him to move into his new apartment. She had an art magazine in her hands and continued to let me know that she was a painter. For her day job she worked for a printing company in Jackson. She was getting ready to retire in the next few months and paint full-time. After she had given her me her back-story, I knew that she was ready to hear from me and that my usual end the conversation technique would be ineffective.
Nice lady: What do you do?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
Nice lady: Oh! That’s exciting. We do a lot of printing for non-profits. What’s the name of your organization?
Me: The ISJL.
Nice lady: Oh my goodness!!! We do all of your printing!
Me: You do!? I’m the one that has y’all printing all of those spiral-bound curriculum books each year. They are lessons for the teachers we work with. I’m soooo sorry that we get them to you so late each year, but you always come through for us.
Nice lady: We just love working for y’all.
Me: I’m so glad to have the chance to say thank you. Those lessons are important to many schools and we couldn’t do our work without you.
Nice lady: I have a Jewish friend named____________. Do you know her?
Even though my conversation that morning ended up being predictable, this one was also special. Sitting next to me was a stranger that I couldn’t do my job without. She took our words, ideas, and experiences and literally put them on the page so that we could share them with roughly 500 teachers throughout our region. It was a nice connection, and a chance for me to say thank you. After we chatted LOTS more, I returned to my role of grumpy business traveler… but with a pretty full heart.
Like many Jewish children, my kids live for camp! They count down every day of the year until it’s time for camp to begin. It’s the highlight of their year. They come by this camp obsession naturally, because I was the same exact way. Camp was and is still a profound experience in my Jewish life. For many of us, the moment we arrived at camp we were forever changed.
My husband and I share four kids, and with a price tag of about $4,000 per child, that means it will cost us roughly $16,000 to send our kids to summer camp. Yes, you read that right: sixteen thousand dollars.
I know the three-and-a-half-weeks my kids spend at camp are priceless. I also know that with $16,000, I could pay a full year’s tuition at a state college.
For almost 20 years, I have worked in the field of Jewish education. I am not destitute, but I do not have $16,000-a-summer kind of money. Camp isn’t the only expensive Jewish experience for our children – there’s religious school tuition, youth group events, retreats, and let’s not even talk about Israel trips.
Especially in the South, and small communities anywhere – we can’t afford to make these opportunities anything other than amazing and accessible for our Jewish children and families. The question is – are we? Specifically, do Jewish organizations provide Jewish financial assistance in a way that honors and displays the values of Judaism?
Judaism teaches us time and time again the importance of tzedakah and how it is our obligation, not choice, to help others. (That’s why it’s great to see lots of new camp scholarship opportunities, like BunkConnect—though it’s for first-time campers only.) We need to give assistance, and just importantly, we must give it the right way.
We don’t make this process very easy. As an educator, I have helped countless families find aid because they had no idea where to look. If you don’t know the system, you can get overwhelmed fast. Then, once you find an opportunity, you start on the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! I have had to provide less financial paperwork to buy a car than to receive a $500 camp scholarship. This paperwork is to be filled out each and every year, despite the fact that most people’s financial situations do not change drastically from one year to the next.
Because of my public role in the Jewish community, I am very open about the fact that I get scholarship money to send my kids to camp. If people know that I do, perhaps they will feel more comfortable asking me about it and doing the same. I actually try to model that asking for Jewish dollars to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps is a good thing.
However, going public with that information is my personal choice. Many people who need assistance do not want everyone to know their circumstances. Yet last year, my synagogue listed all of the children by name that received financial assistance for camp in our monthly congregational bulletin. When I called to ask why they felt the need to do this, I was told that it “could encourage others to ask for money.” I thought just the opposite. If people knew that they would publicly be categorized as needing help, many would be less likely than ever to ask for it. Nowhere did it say on the forms that if your family received aid, your child’s name would be publicly listed. My complaints resulted in yet a new question on the application; now you check a box if you DON’T want your child’s name listed. I would wager that 100% of families check the NO box. Yet the question remains.
I know that funding agencies do need to know some information to determine who needs aid and who doesn’t, but this could be a far less invasive process. This year I saw a new question on the paperwork. I was asked to calculate my family’s food expenses for the year. I was stunned. Why would anyone need to know this? This question brings up so much that is wrong in our society and I was saddened that the Jewish community was so insensitive and uninformed. It is a fact that healthy, fresh food such as produce and proteins cost more than processed and packaged food.
Why would the scholarship committee want to know what I spend on food? Will I be penalized for feeding my family healthy, more expensive food? What if I spent a lot of money on food because I fed others, as an act of tzedakah—or what if I invited people to my home when they needed somewhere to celebrate the Jewish holidays? What if someone in my family had a food allergy that necessitated us to follow a specific and more expensive diet? Why am I second-guessing what I feed my family as I am asking for help sending my Jewish children to Jewish summer camp? I remain stunned.
This has been on my mind for some time. I have spoken with some of the heads of these funding agencies as well as those who serve on the committees. These are people who are committed to helping others and who are engaged in doing good work for the Jewish community. I am certain of this and yet we have a lot to fix in this process. I am charging all of us to do better and to be guided by the principles of Judaism that somehow always lead us in the right direction.
It starts with each of us. My husband and I talk about how we will spend our money when our kids are grown and when we have a little more to give, and our top choice is always to give back to the places that helped us send our kids to camp. We want to support those important scholarships— and we want the funding to require little to no paperwork, bring absolutely no stigma, and instead just make access to life-changing camp experiences more affordable for all families.
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