Recently, I was sitting in my office listening to a Hanukkah mix on Spotify (one of the many reasons that I know that I will always, always be a Jewish professional). A song came on that immediately transported me to the back-roads of the Mississippi Delta: Neal Katz’s “Be A Light.”
The Neal Katz “Be a Light: Chanukah Songs for Grown-Ups” CD graced the middle console of the ISJL van when I was an Education Fellow (2010-2012). I often listened to it on long drives, regardless of the season. Seriously, have I mentioned I am destined to forever be a Jewish professional? The chorus begins: “Be a light, be a light / Shine proudly and loudly in the dark of the night.”
Humming this song, which I had listened to approximately 22 times as the holiday approached, I rang in Hanukkah with a Google Hangout. I set up my menorah, and placed it in front a computer screen. This doesn’t sound very intimate or personal, but let me explain.
For the last three years, my cohort of 2010-2012 ISJL Education Fellow alumni has spent one night of Hanukkah virtually together. I invite them to a video chat, and from three different time zones, we kindle the lights, singing the blessings down South, up North, all over. It’s certainly a “Shehechiyanu moment,” if there ever was one.
This year we had a special guest in our virtual midst—ISJL Education Director Rachel Stern, our old boss. We all spent over an hour talking and laughing and reminiscing about our collective time together. When we hung up, close to 11:00pm EST, we agreed that we would have to try and gather on our computer screens every Jewish holiday. And I know that it will really happen.
This virtual candle lighting—a symbol of unity, of community, of family—is a tradition that I can see continuing forever. The ISJL Education Fellowship fosters and nurtures continued relationships like these. Friendships that sustain themselves long after we go on our last community visit. I never could have imagined the power and the importance of these friendships in my life, of these Fellows in my family. Lighting the candles together once a year is a gift that I cherish, a gift that constantly reminds me of how lucky we are, and how brightly and proudly we shine our Fellow lights.
The hashtag #OnceAFellowAlwaysAFellow has become a joke among all Fellows. You use it whenever something magical and ridiculous converges, or when you have a Fellow reunion, or when you listen to things like “Be A Light” on repeat in your office. It started as something that was just sort of a joke, but as our candle lighting tradition reminds us, it’s not really a joke—it’s true.
Once a Fellow, Always a Fellow.
For that, I am thankful—this Hanukkah, and every Hanukkah to come.
As I began the long trek down to Mississippi a few weeks ago, I found my mind constantly wandering into the past. And no, I wasn’t thinking back to my prior semester of college or fun times with friends. I was reflecting on exactly fifty years ago: the summer of 1964.
Better known today as “Freedom Summer,” this was a transformative moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of volunteers descended on the state of Mississippi to focus national attention on the horrors of segregation; they came to establish “Freedom Schools” and register African Americans to vote. Most of the volunteers were white college students just like myself. And over half of them were Jewish.
Since moving to Jackson and beginning my work as a Museum Intern with the ISJL, I find myself thinking about the many parallels between my own current journey and the experiences of young, white, Jewish students fifty years ago.
Why did they decide to come to Mississippi? How did Southern Jews view them once they got here? What challenges did they face while pursuing their work? While I continue to have more experiences in this state, the enduring legacies of history become more and more real to me. It has been so exciting to retrace the footsteps of many of these Freedom Summer veterans.
One of my most memorable experiences so far has been attending the 50th Commemorative Memorial Service for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering black voters and investigating the firebombing of Mt. Zion Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the very same place the service was held. Besides the strong sense of place that I already felt that day, I was surrounded by the living history of the summer of 1964.
In addition to many lifelong residents of Neshoba County (many whom attended the Freedom Schools or could recall volunteers coming to their homes in attempt to register their families to vote), prominent civil rights activists such as Congressman John Lewis, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Bob Moses, Rita Schwerner, and Dave Dennis were present. I had goose bumps as I bore witness to how far our nation has come, while still realizing how the struggle continues today, particularly when it comes to voting rights and education. The very faces associated with the movement, profiled in documentaries, touched directly by this fight.
This week, I am continuing this journey at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events. We have been working hard to create supplemental programs for reflection on the legacy of Jewish volunteers during Freedom Summer, and I am so excited to meet Jewish veterans like Heather Booth, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Lew Zuchman. I know that it will be a powerful gathering of younger and older generations; together we will exchange ideas and demonstrate how Jewish activism continues to thrive. I cannot wait to hear their stories and create new ones together.
There’s a lot we’re thankful for at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. We are thankful for the work we get to do. We are thankful for the wonderful region in which we get to do it. We are thankful for partners like MyJewishLearning.com that help us connect with even more of you throughout the year. The list goes on and on – and throughout Chanukah, we’ll be adding candles to our menurkey to shine the light on our thanksgiving:
Tonight, we light the first candle for COMMUNITY. Like us on Facebook to keep up with our candles all this week, and tonight let us wish you a very HAPPY CHANUKAH, HAPPY THANKSGIVING, and yes, for once-and-only-once tomorrow: HAPPY THANKSGIVUKKAH!