Jews across the world are preparing to sit down with their families and read the Haggadah this Passover. Although this is annual experience, it is never exactly the same as the year previous. In fact, for those attending a Seder at someone else’s home, there is no telling what the reading of the Haggadah will mean to their hosts, and they likely won’t know until the Seder begins. Reading the Haggadah can, after all, mean decoding the Hebrew words, or speeding through the text and getting right to the meal, or long discussions that allow us to better comprehend the story, or discussions around how the texts apply to our lives and current events.
But whatever the interpretation, at its core Passover is a holiday that revolves around a story (the Exodus), a book (the Haggadah), and a concept (freedom).
For many Jews, literacy is a priority. Many congregations across the South champion the cause of literacy in their community. We shake our heads in disappointment and sadness when we talk about children who don’t have someone to read with them regularly. But, when we talk about literacy, we are talking about a few dimensions: decoding, fluency, comprehension and application. Decoding refers to associating sounds with letters and blending them to create words. Fluency refers to the pace of reading and the ability of a reader to read a word without forgetting the words that came immediately before it. Comprehension is the level at which a reader understands the meaning of the words. Stronger readers will also apply what they read to their life’s knowledge and experience. They will determine whether it is consistent with what they know and have experienced in the past or whether it speaks to something new.
When we read with children, we might know how advanced their reading abilities are. However, particularly with struggling readers, it isn’t always clear. In fact, there are times when as adults who have been reading for a while, we wonder whether our time reading with children is productive, whether we made them feel badly because they couldn’t read as well as we had hoped they would. But, we can learn a few tips that help ensure that both the child and the adult have a positive reading experience. There is a lot of information out there but the proven tips are usually gleaned from research by individuals with the specific expertise of teaching reading. This is just one resource with reading tips, and you can certainly find some more by searching the internet for “research based reading tips or interventions.”
I wish all who will read the Haggadah this Passover, a meaning-filled Seder. I would also like to wish us all renewed energy as we continue to battle illiteracy in our world and particularly in our communities. After all, the ability to read brings not only stories and books to life – but also brings readers a very real freedom.
In celebration of the completion of the Kentucky section of our online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, we bring you another piece of Kentucky Jewish History.
Beginning in the early 20th century, a handful of Jews settled in the coal country of southeast Kentucky. Most of them owned stores that catered to the local coal miners. Over the years, miners squared off against the coal companies in a series of sometimes violent strikes and labor disputes. As these labor struggles became increasingly virulent, Jews were sometimes caught in the middle.
Polish immigrants Harry and Bina Appleman were one of these Jewish families who were drawn to Kentucky’s coal country, opening a general store in Evarts, Kentucky, thirteen miles from Harlan. After many local miners were fired for joining a union in 1931, the Applemans decided to help their families. They would feed 40 to 50 children each day during the standoff. During Passover, the Applemans ran an ad in the local newspaper stating that they would give away a railroad car full of flour to anyone in need “regardless of color and creed.” Each needy family would be given a 24-pound bag of flour. This donation was a significant expense for the Applemans, who had scrimped and saved the money which they now decided to use to help the needy miners. The Black Mountain Coal Corporation did not appreciate the Appleman’s largesse, and swore out a criminal complaint against the couple for criminal syndicalism. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the Applemans were targeted by company thugs, who shot into their home. Because of these threats, the Applemans left Evarts, moving to Brooklyn.
The Applemans’ story reminded me of the civil rights era, when southern Jews were often caught within the larger social turmoil. Many southern Jews tried to stay out of the conflict, but others, like the Applemans had done three decades earlier in Kentucky, made a courageous public stand at great personal risk.
As always, you can visit our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities for more information.
Did you grow up watching Captain Planet? (I didn’t – but that’s a long story; apparently I have some catching up to do on cartoons and sitcoms of the ‘80s and ‘90s). The point is, if Captain Planet were Jewish, he would be preparing right now to celebrate his favorite holiday: Tu Bishvat, the New Year for trees.
The timing of Tu Bishvat seems perfect; it follows a period of introspection where we reflect on our past year and make resolutions for the coming year. But, by the end of the month, we look outward – at our external world and think about how our existence impacts the environment and what we can do to make this year a better one for the trees-our universe. Better yet, congregations can come together and make a communal commitment to our universe.
These are just a few of the many ways in which congregations can make the sacred experience of going to the synagogue more environmentally friendly (remember, as Captain Planet would say, “The power is YOURS!”):
- Flowers in the sanctuary: Use living plants in pots, not cut flowers.
- Candles: Beeswax candles are the most environment-friendly choice.
- Bulletins: Go paperless! Email out your congregational updates.
- Programs: Congregations that distribute programs at services can place a container at the exits so that the programs can be recycled.
- Kiddush cups: Congregants can keep their own reusable glass at the synagogue or can be asked to bring a cup with them to services.
Youth can also play an active role in improving our environment. In fact, a communal focus on the environment can also serve as a bridge-builder—all religions have lots to say about the environment. Youth groups from local churches and synagogues can join hands to promote a cleaner environment. Actually, an interfaith coalition to preserve the environment might be of interest to Captain Planet—his diverse group of “Planeteers” were just that sort of youth group. So, young and old, we all have the power to help and respond to the needs of our trees, and our environment as whole.
And guess what?
That’s right. The Captain Planet Foundation helps us exercise our powers to help the environment by funding initiatives that inspire youth and communities to participate in environmental stewardship activities. Preferential consideration is given to requests seeking seed funding of $500 or less and to applicants who have secured at least 50% matching or in-kind funding for their projects.
Do you think that your congregation has the power? Do you have an idea for a great project? If you do and you require funds to put it into action, please find information about how you can apply for the funds right here. Don’t forget to share your ideas with the rest of us!