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!
You might have seen these adorable pictures on our Facebook page of smiling children with a Hamsa in the background. We thought we’d lend a Hamsa—er, hand—and share how we put our class Hamsa together!
First, we discussed the root of the word Hamsa, which shares the three Hebrew letters that can be found in the word Hameish, meaning “five” in Hebrew. A hand has five fingers. We also talked about how we use our hands. In addition to holding or taking something, we give with our hands. In addition to giving things to people, we may consider helping others fulfill their needs.
To better understand what these needs might be, we took some time to consider our own needs. We found that in addition to food, clothing and shelter we all share some universal needs. We pointed out that even the rabbi of a community and the religious school teachers have these needs.
To start, we considered the universal need of belonging, meaning to feel connected to and accepted by others. Each student received a sticky note and was asked to do one of two things. The students could either draw a picture of a situation where they feel a sense of belonging OR they could write a word or sentence that describes how it feels to have the need of belonging fulfilled. The students drew pictures of themselves with people who gave them a strong sense of belonging and wrote what the experience of belonging felt to them. Each student then came up and stuck their sticky to one of five fingers that was labeled belonging. We repeated this part of the activity four times, each time for a different cluster of needs including power, the needs to feel important and respected; security, feeling safe from put-downs and other harm; fun, enjoyment of life; and freedom, the ability to make choices.
The students had the chance to talk about when they each felt most content and assured that their needs were met. We talked about what it must feel like not to have some of the needs. If we weren’t having such a great discussion we might have had some time to work on a Hamsa of how we can give to others as they seek to fulfill their universal needs. Instead we brainstormed ways in which we could do something if we notice that someone doesn’t seem to feel like they belong. We could invite them to play with our friends or spend some time talking with them individually.
Please feel free to try this activity in your community and let us know how it goes!
I am a lover of stories and often find myself drifting into worlds outside my reality. My young mind fought to protect Gotham City, sailed aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab, traveled time with Billy Pilgrim, mourned the loss of Professor Snape, and fought beside Odysseus so he could return to his beloved Penelope.
Outside of the realm of literature, I am also a wanderer, collecting stories of those I have the pleasure to meet. Upon graduating college in New York in May 2012, I engaged in a major adventure – moving from Westborough, Massachusetts to Jackson, Mississippi – as part of the ISJL Education Fellowship.
The only thing I had to rely on were the stories I had read of the Mississippi – Aibileen bravely advocating for her fellow maids, the stream of consciousness surrounding the passing of Addie Bundren, and the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (on the Mississippi River and not in the state, a subtle geographical distinction I initially failed to grasp). I knew Mississippi in books.
Upon arrival, I expected to be an outsider. I dreamed of absorbing the idyllic South as if I was reading it in a book, surveying the lives of the Magnolia State residents, seeing their narrative as separate from my own. What I found could not have been further from my hypothesis.
The last two years, my story has become our story, the Fellowship chapter. This is the story of five people from different walks charting undiscovered and rediscovered worlds together. The story of sharing, spreading, and discovering Jewish wisdom and knowledge throughout the South, sometimes in the most unexpected places. That of leading song sessions and musical experiences, or Geocaching to explore Passover. We deduced that there are over a hundred different ways to eat grits and that flight times are negotiable. We found love and support in our communities – and strength and family in our relationship with each other.
And now, our stories diverge, as my fellow Fellows and I all prepare to begin our next chapters.
Sam will travel to Baltimore, MD to begin her studies at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Adam’s next chapter takes him Memphis, to begin his training to work in Development for the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity.
Dan’s story will have him teaching high school history in a public school in the DC area, bringing along the skills and ideas he learned in the fellowship.
Elaine, too, will continue teaching, and she’s going to be doing it in an exciting new Jewish setting up in Boulder, Colorado, working as the Adventure Educator with the Adventure Rabbi program.
And my story takes me back up North, to the Big Apple, where I will begin my graduate work in Education and Jewish Studies at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.
Who knows where our stories will take us? Wherever they do, I’m glad to have spent this chapter in the Southern Jewish world.