I read with interest and appreciation Ben Greenberg’s recent post “Synagogues: Begin with Why.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about the same phrase, but substituting the “Why” with “How.”
I’m currently serving on the rabbinic search committee for my small Jewish congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. This process has compelled us to take a critical look at ourselves. The membership and leadership of the congregation has been asking a lot of questions. We are reflecting about what our congregation is, why our congregation exists, and how everything we do gets accomplished. What are the qualities we think are most important for our rabbi, as spiritual leader and perhaps executive director, to lead the one synagogue in our Bible Belt town? And what will make a rabbi want to bring his or her life into our community?
We are the only congregation in Jackson. Being the only game in town means there is no “shul shopping” to find the perfect fit for one’s family. The congregation must be the one-size-fits-all answer to everyone who lives here. This leads me back to the “how”. How can one congregation, with a very small staff, serve the needs of a diverse membership of 215 family units?
The answer does not begin or end with finding the right rabbinic candidate. The “how” has to involve everyone – all of our congregants who make this temple their home congregation.
All of our members must contribute, and I’m not just talking about money (although that’s vital to keeping the lights on). All must contribute time. All must invest in the feeling of community. Whether welcoming those who come to worship, teaching a class, planning a program, visiting the sick, answering phones, helping with office work, landscaping, preparing a holiday meal, organizing meaningful activities with the larger community… the list goes on and on. No one will do this for us, and no one should. We get out of synagogue life what we put into it. Without us, there is no “how.”
And then I think about some of the challenges of the smallest synagogues—those with 50 members or fewer. There are congregations where every member has a key to the building—because they are all responsible; members take turns ensuring there is wine and grape juice for Kiddush, and even purchasing the toilet tissue for the restroom. Many of these communities can no longer afford to have a full time rabbi, so their “how” is that everyone must contribute resources, expertise and time to make their synagogue a spiritual home, a place where everyone is welcome.
That is the challenge for us in smaller communities, but it is also our strength. It is what will make the right rabbinic candidate feel at home here, because they will be welcomed and meaningfully put to work—as are all our active members.
Synagogues: Begin with “why,” yes, absolutely. But we will only continue and be sustained, year after year, by all of us asking (and answering) “how.”
Why did the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) meet in Chicago for its recent board meeting?
Well… why not?
Many of our board members divide their time and attention between both large and small towns in the South. Others share a story similar to my story.
I grew up in Wynne, Arkansas, also known as “The City with a Smile” and home of the Wynne Yellowjackets. I attended synagogue, religious school and youth group events at Temple Israel in Memphis, Tennessee, just a short 60 mile drive east over the Mississippi River. I loved spending my summers going to camp at Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, where I embraced my Jewish identity and found lifelong Jewish friends. Always, I had my immediate family around me who lovingly taught me how family and Judaism were intertwined and a part of my life and tradition.
For the past 25 years, I have lived in Chicago and its suburbs. I am involved in the Jewish community, ensured my children went to religious school and had their bar and bat mitzvahs, and remain an active member of a congregation. However, I have continued to have a strong connection with my Southern heritage, my Southern Jewish heritage. Visiting my parents when they still lived in Wynne, and now where they live in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is wonderful—but visiting was not enough.
I felt like I wanted and needed to do more to stay involved and be involved. A few years ago, I was approached about serving on the Board of the ISJL, and was asked if I would be interested in working with the group that delivers amazing rabbinic services, educational programming and cultural events to communities throughout the ISJL’s thirteen-state region. I found out more about the history department and preservation initiatives, as well as the cultural tours and travelling exhibitions of the museum department. I was intrigued with the community engagement department, which was newly formed at the time but has now developed into a program which partners with nonprofits, schools and congregations to pursue tikkun olam, repairing our world, in meaningful ways.
I decided that joining the ISJL Board to promote Judaism and our heritage was just what I needed and wanted to do.
Are there others like me in Chicago? Yes, I know there are. There are other similar Southern transplants who would like to reconnect with their roots and be involved with the ISJL and support the ISJL. They are here in Chicago, and they are also in Detroit, Seattle, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, Des Moines, and New York City. They live all over our country and outside our country.
So, gathering in Chicago made good sense. As will gathering in other cities, and finding other Southern transplants and allies to become friends and active supporters like me of the ISJL. Of course, next time we meet in this part of the world, perhaps we’ll pick our spring board meeting instead of our fall/winter meeting… still, discussing Southern Jewish life as the snow began to fall brought both of my worlds together in a meaningful way.
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The stereotype that “Jews run Hollywood” didn’t come up much when I was a little kid; I doubt it comes up for most kids. This is not only because, hopefully, we’re spared from some stereotyping when we’re really small—but also because as a little kid, if Jews were running Hollywood, well, you sure wouldn’t know it from children’s entertainment.
As the only Jewish family in our little town, I didn’t see a lot of other Jewish families around. I also never saw my family reflected in the television or movies we watched. I mean, like, other than our annual Passover screening of The Ten Commandments, or our way-too-early introduction to Fiddler on the Roof. But both of those movies had been made a long time ago, and were obviously For Grown Ups. I fully expected that, like all of my friends and neighbors, the characters in the movies and TV shows I watched would celebrate Christmas, not Chanukah.
Until the Jewish mice.
When I saw Don Bluth’s now-classic animated feature, An American Tail, I was thunderstruck. The movie begins with the Mousekewitzes, gathered together to celebrate Chanukah. They even pronounced the “ch” right. The father played a violin, just like in Fiddler on the Roof, but for kids! And then, of course, the Cossacks raided their little Mouskewitz home in The Old World, and then the little mouse family was off to America, going through Ellis Island… just like my family.
Those mice are Jewish, I thought. Fievel and Tanya, they’re Jewish. They’re like me.
But here’s what I really loved about those Jewish mice: Their Jewishness was just part of who they were, and the story was about big ideas that everyone could relate to—starting somewhere new, family, growing up. The same way that in most of the other movies and TV shows I watched, the show wasn’t about them being Christian—they just were Christian, and therefore celebrated Christmas and Easter and everything, but their stories were about big ideas. My friends who weren’t Jewish still loved Feivel and related to his little Jewish-mouse family.
Even later, when I started going to Hebrew School and watched Torah-toons and holiday specials that reflected Judaism in the characters onscreen, there was something special to me about those Jewish mice. When Fievel is searching for his family, he didn’t stop along the way to explain what “kosher” is, or to teach the viewers how to play dreidel. He wasn’t a token Jewish character in a holiday special, designated as “The Jewish One.” He was Fievel, a lost immigrant kid who happened to be Jewish (and happened to be a mouse). I loved that in his little mouse family, they just were Jewish, and that fact was treated as casually as other movies treated the Christianity of their characters.
That felt like my own American tale. Being Jewish is part of my story, and influences my experience. Even when I’m not “doing something Jewish,” it’s still part of who I am. Those are the characters that still resonate with me most: not the ones overtly teaching us something about Something Jewish (or, sadly, playing into one of those old Jewish stereotypes), but the ones who just are Jewish. Like Fievel.
Seeing that reflected onscreen as a little kid had a lasting impact on me. Maybe that’s why I still tear up when I hear Somewhere Out There.
Mickey and Minnie are great. But Fievel and Tanya? Those mice helped me feel a little more included. They helped me believe that somewhere, out there – all of us can be represented.
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