I’ve been thinking about numbers lately. Not in a Jewish, gematria-type way, but in a way that kinda makes me wish I had developed my quantitative reasoning skills. If I had, I’d be a bit better prepared for life moments like this…
When I was at Brandeis, I was required to take a course for “Quantitative Reasoning,” which ended up being something about the history of scientific innovation. In other words, it was a course designed for people like me, who got itchy thinking about integers.
But when the organization you’ve been employed by for the last seven years turns 15 years old, you start to consider a lot of numbers. The number of programs and services delivered, the number of partners in our region, the number of staff over that number of years. In an organization that has grown so much, in a region that is so large.. well, all that number-crunching is what I like to call a “special project.”
So where to start?
Well, where would you start? Think about your own workplace- who’s keeping up with the daily ins and outs of your organization? Who in your family or among your friends is keeping records of important life moments? Do you have someone that holds all the institutional memory?
Most of us rely on digital assistance these days — large archived email lists, folders of uploaded photos. But collecting all this data for work has gotten me thinking about the importance of archives! (Hey, I’m a museum professional, what did you expect?)
Our museum collection is filled with records from Southern congregations. These records are incredible resources for looking back into the everyday lives of Jewish communities. Minutes from sisterhood meetings, confirmation photos with names carefully handwritten on the back, ledgers with all the members and when they paid their dues, newsletters that include gems like the rabbi’s sermons and welcomes given to guests to town. Groups that have a designated secretary often embody record keeping at its finest.
The primary source documents are precious — and the documentation that goes along with preserving everything in an archive is just as important as the items themselves. As a museum registrar, I’ve got filing cabinets filled with records about records, digital files and images on all the objects in our collection. Collections management is essentially that fine balance of not only preserving objects but also creating and maintaining documentation to provide accessibility and accountability to the interested public, and to ensure that their meaning and origin is not lost.
All that to say, because the ISJL provides such a wide range of services to a variety of audiences, each department has been maintaining data in their own unique way. To commemorate our 15th year, I’m starting on a project to develop a common institutional memory, a system where we can access when we had programs in Montgomery, Alabama over the last 15 years, whose weddings were officiated by ISJL rabbis, and how many people have attended Jewish Cinema South Film festivals. I’ll be looking through old CIRCA magazines, trip reports, conference rosters, digital folders on our common drive… and figuring out the best ways to quantify our impact on this region.
So invite you to join me in this journey into numbers and impact. Take a minute and reflect on what you’ve got archived from the last 15 years of your life. What would your numbers be? How would you quantify the impact of your life? And how do you quantify your personal Jewish impact? Number of d’vrei torah given, number of matzoh balls made, or number of blog posts written? Looks like I’m already working on my own numbers, and not just my colleagues’ collective contributions!
I’m a historian, and a native Texan, and Jewish; I love food and especially food history. So when those interests intersect, I get excited.
That’s why I love writers like Marcie Cohen Ferris, who wrote such great works as Matzo Ball Gumbo and The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region. This week, I have a new little treasure bringing together my interests—this amazing food feature, which chronicles Jewish food and memories of Jewish life in Texas.
I am proud to hail from the Lone Star state. I think the following John Steinbeck quote rings true, “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation, in every sense of the word. And there’s an opening convey of generalities. A Texan outside of Texas is a foreigner.” To be sure, Texas is unique, and everything IS really big there; but, this native Texan would like to contest it is still downright Southern. From the chicken fried steak to the homecoming mums worn by girls with hearts as big as their hair, the state is a bastion of both hospitality and more importantly, terrific food.
What was particularly striking to me about the article is that in addition to food, its focus is on growing up Jewish in Texarkana—my mother’s hometown! As a child, I visited Texarkana many times, but I never knew that the town boasted a rich Jewish history.
Reading this article, and re-visiting the Texarkana entries in the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities (a massive historic resource I am now tasked with growing and maintaining), it warmed my heart to know that the town of my mother’s birthplace was home to Jews like clothing merchant Sam Heilbron, bankers Joseph Marx and Leon Rosenberg, café owner Martin Levy, and Joseph Deutschmann, who helped the development of water and gas companies in Texarkana, owned a stake in the city’s first street-cars, and worked in real estate, developing housing in the growing town at the turn of the 19th century.
In Texarkana, Jews were actually present since shortly after the city’s founding in 1874 and were quite instrumental in its development and growth over the course of the twentieth century. The Texarkana synagogue, Mount Sinai, is still going strong. Be sure to stop there for services if you ever find yourself in the part of the country. In the meantime, you can read all about Texarkana right here.
My Texan grandmother never made Jewish delicacies such as matzo ball soup, borscht or stuffed cabbage, but she sure could make a mean raisin pie, and she made her living baking and decorating delicious cakes. I am sure if she had the recipe for kugel, she would have made it all the time for Sunday dinners, making sure that her version had twice the butter the recipe calls for, because why not add more butter?
If you have any fun Southern and Jewish recipes that are a part of your history, please share! As the saying goes, the next best thing to eating food—or being in Texas—is talking about it.
This Friday, I will be giving a lecture about my dissertation, Choice Among the Chosen: The School Choice Movement and the American Jewish Community, at Millsaps College.
I haven’t really looked at my dissertation since defending it this past June, but it has been fun to revisit the story – and good motivation to start moving it toward publication. It’s a story worth sharing; here’s just a taste.
I was driven to write about the topic after attending a rally for school choice initiatives at Beren Academy in Houston, Texas. Houston boasts an ever-growing Orthodox Jewish population. I attended the rally with my father, who was a Republican at the time—and remains a Southern Baptist to this day. He had never met an Orthodox Jew, but quickly felt right at home when “Rabbi T.” began speaking.
With a strong Brooklyn accent, the rabbi fired up the crowd by asking: “Who’s a proud American? Who’s a proud Texan?!”
The crowd cheered, and Rabbi T. continued: “We proud Americans like having choice…this is what democracy is all about. We choose our profession, how we lead our lives, what brand to buy at the supermarket, so why shouldn’t we as Jews be able to choose our education and not decide between food or day school tuition?”
My father was nodding in agreement. He asked, “Are these people Jewish? They sound like Republicans to me.”
I looked at him in amazement. “Dad, there are plenty of Jewish Republicans.”
It wasn’t a new thing for me to hear observant Jews espousing rhetoric that reflected Republican values. What was more surprising was the fact they were staunchly arguing for government funding for parochial schools. Historically, the American Jewish community has ardently supported church-state separation. When did that change, and why?
Turns out that some Jews have been advocating government funds for parochial/religious schools for decades – since the early 1960s. The leading advocates for government funds for Jewish schools were Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, and the Orthodox Union. For Orthodox lobbying groups, who did not want to send their children to mixed-gender schools, their constitutional right to education trumped Establishment clause concerns. They claimed to need government support because the Jewish community wasn’t funding their institutions.
At the time, Jewish Federations did not want to support Orthodox schools teaching values not held by Jews in the mainstream community. In fact, at one debate, a female American Jewish Congress member threw a subway token at Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel, snarkily remarking, “…you must need this for your ride home. That’s all the aid you will get from the liberal Jewish community. It isn’t my responsibility to support your religious choices.”
Leo Pfeffer, the leading Jewish lawyer who fought against school prayer, fought tooth and nail against the work of those like Sherer. The harder Pfeffer fought against federal and state funds going into these schools, the more motivated the Orthodox community became. The battle grew ugly. Pfeffer and his allies were able to convince the Courts throughout the late 1960s and 1970s to declare all but paltry aid to nonpublic schools unconstitutional. In response, Orthodox Jews and Catholics tried new approaches – namely tax credits and vouchers, which come with very little government oversight.
When evangelical Protestants joined the mix, powerful changes in educational policy occurred, ones that increased economic inequality and decreased racial diversity in the American educational system. The voucher and tax credit approach was eventually deemed constitutional. Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and evangelicals collectively wrought this change, all believing it led to more moral schooling for their children. (Evangelicals were once against government funding for private schools as well, especially since up until the 1960s public schools reflected distinctly Protestant values. Public schools were essentially tools for disseminating their values, but that changed after the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and bible reading at school.)
A lot of people think the Moral Majority grew as a result of Roe v. Wade. But the Moral Majority was formed as a result of the Carter administration trying to withdraw tax exemptions from Christian schools, formed in the wake of des-segregation and secularization of public education. Tax exemptions saved these private schools a tremendous amount of money. If those had been revoked, these many of these schools would have dissolved.
Religious private schools clearly still exist, receive tax exempt status, vouchers, tax credits, and so on – a victory for Sherer and his allies. The amount they receive is no longer paltry, either. Last year, $1,233,200,000 was spent on tuition for approximately 337,000 students attending private schools, and that money essentially comes with no government oversight, allowing schools to teach whatever they want and admit whomever they want. Depending on the state, some of that goes to the nearly 255,000 students enrolled in 861 Jewish day schools. In states like New York, yeshivot receive millions each year for things like mandatory services. In all of these cases, that is money not going to public schools. With charter schools also booming, public schools are ultimately getting fewer resources which in turn, hurts public school students.
This reality is very pronounced here in Mississippi, and certainly in Jackson. Statistics show that a large percentage of Jackson Public School students drop out in ninth grade, and the turnover rate for teachers and administrators is abysmal. Jackson residents who have the means to leave the public school system have plenty of nice private school options from which to choose.
So, what do you think? When it comes to Jewish values, is it more important for Jews to fight against school choice initiatives, advocating for better public education for all? Or should they push for more school choice/voucher and tax credit initiatives, promoting private school options while giving lower and middle income Jewish families more funding to access to an increasingly expensive Jewish day school education?
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