Category Archives: Community Engagement

“Chosen” Doesn’t Have to Mean “Apart”

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As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.

At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:

“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”

In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.

So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?

Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.

I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.

“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”

We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.

Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.

Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest.  Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.

I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:

Before the gate has been closed,

before the last question is posed,

before I am transposed.

Before the weeds fill the gardens,

before there are no pardons,

before the concrete hardens.

Before all the flute-holes are covered,

before things are locked in the cupboard,

before the rules are discovered.

Before the conclusion is planned,

before God closes his hand,

before we have nowhere to stand.

-Yehuda Amichai

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Posted on August 8, 2014

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Operation Oneg: A Southern & Jewish Soldier Story

10527579_10152386621819900_688915388354685383_nLast week was my first adventure on the road as an Education Fellow. I went to Montgomery and Auburn, Alabama, and then continued on to Columbus, Georgia. My road trip buddy for this adventure was Lex Rofes, a second year Education Fellow. We met a lot of new people and had some great experiences. But the best part of our four-day excursion happened at the end—and involved the military.

Early Sunday morning, Lex and I joined some dedicated volunteers from Temple Israel in their weekly pilgrimage to provide the soldiers at Fort Benning with a morning service followed by a food-filled oneg. “Oneg” literally means delight, and usually involves tasty treats and socializing. These soldiers have come to enjoy this delight—and so there were around 600 soldiers who came to enjoy the services and oneg on the Sunday Lex and I were there.

We were invited to participate in services, lay-led by Neil Block, a congregant of Temple Israel who is extremely passionate about this operation. Neil was in the U.S. Navy, and he has made it his responsibility to ensure that the soldiers of Fort Benning have access to Judaism. To him, it does not matter that the majority of the soldiers in attendance are not Jewish. The Jewish soldiers appreciate this weekly gift, but so too do the other men and women in uniform.

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Lex observed that this might well be the largest Sunday morning Jewish service in the country. The soldiers come for some quiet time to reflect and of course, for the oneg. Local businesses donate cookies, cakes, bagels, and cream cheese for the weekly oneg. Even with over 600 soldiers in attendance, there was enough for everyone to have a sweet and a bagel. The soldiers were all extremely polite and efficient. In no time at all, everyone was fed and we were out of food!

(I also learned that soldiers in basic training are on a high-protein-low carb diet, so this oneg was a special treat.)

The congregants we volunteered with echoed the sentiment that it did not matter if the soldiers in attendance were Jewish or not; what matters is a positive Jewish presence, and just giving back to the soldiers who serve our country. The 600 soldiers who showed up included people from all faiths. Some ask Neil and the volunteers about Judaism after the service, but most want to hear news from the outside world; they appreciate the sense of connection and community.

Many of the families at Temple Israel have ties to the military, and they are thereby dedicated to serving those who serve our country. It was an amazing experience for me and I cannot wait to go again the next time I am in Columbus. It’s a uniquely Southern and Jewish tribute to our troops, quietly carried out each week with food and fellowship, and I was proud to be a part of it.

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Posted on July 30, 2014

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Moving Mississippi Up

“Where do we start?”

KIDS_COUNT_logo_shakaThat’s a question I hear often from groups of people seeking to make an impact in their community. I can’t ever say I have the answer but I often suggest looking at the data and studying the community’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.

Kids Count just released data from 50 states that ranks each state according to the well-being of families and children in the state. The state I live in, Mississippi, is on the bottom of that list—and not for the first time.

As someone who works in community engagement, teaming up with Jewish congregations and other committed partners to make meaningful and sustainable change, reports like this are important. They can also be disheartening. So when we are presented with data, we ask again: “Where do we start?”

Luckily, the data itself can help guide our tikkun olam efforts.

Jamie Bardwell, Program Director at the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi (an organization that has supported the ISJL’s peer mediation program, T.A.P.) points out that advancing in ranks requires that interconnected indicators are simultaneously addressed. In other words, to alleviate poverty, we cannot focus solely on job training for single mothers, or better education for their children, or access to affordable child care; we must work on all of these interconnected indicators of poverty.

One thing to point out is that there is hope. Even while Mississippi is ranked lowest, there is evidence of some improvement. And while we know we have our work cut out for us, we can use this data to create benchmarks. For example, Mississippi ranks 50th in the economic well-being of children. A total of 256,000 children, or 35% of all children living in Mississippi, live in poverty. As a starting point, what would it take to get us from 50th up to 49th in children’s poverty?

New Mexico currently sits at 49th with 29% of their children living in poverty. That means, if we can move approximately 43,000 children out of poverty, we could move up in our rankings. This might still seem daunting, but the data provides us with benchmarks and goals to strive toward. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce child poverty to 0% and that is an important goal to keep in mind. But, the data can help us push our state to move ahead in increments.

Have you looked at the data released about your state? Is there anything that surprised you? Are you and your congregation helping to move the needle in your state? If you are, please share what you are doing!

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Posted on July 23, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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