This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.
What began years ago has now become a very common event in our Delta community of Greenwood, Mississippi: we host a group from “somewhere else” as they tour the Jewish South.
The groups are diverse, find their way to Greenwood and the South for many different reasons. In recent years, as a Board Member of the ISJL and through my association with Rachel Jarman Myers—this thriving experience has grown and become something I’m proud to be part of with increasing frequency.
This past spring we hosted a number of groups. Two of my favorites were a congregational group from Syracuse, New York, led by Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord; the other was The University of Maryland’s Hillel organization. The Syracuse group was a warm, enthusiastic community that connected with our own. I received a lovely letter from the rabbi following their visit. Our shared love for our Jewish community was so evident, throughout the visit and in our communication thereafter.
The coordinator for the Hillel group, Amy Weiss, became a great email friend of mine as she planned this wonderful Alternative Spring Break Trip to the Mississippi Delta. Led by Corinne Bernstein, Anna Koozmin, and Noah Stein, a total of 14 young folks flew into Memphis and spent a full week in Mississippi. The trip represented a combination of service, experience, culture, Judaism, and fellowship. Our family farm in Carroll County served as their “base camp,” providing a wonderful refuge after each day’s service to the community.
The group invited our family and our shul members to Friday night dinner and services at our farm. The evening was just amazing… from the food, the fellowship, the services, and most importantly, sharing Shabbos with our new friends.
T. Mac Howard, founder of Delta Streets Academy, an initiative that identifies and mentors at-risk young African American men, was one of the Hillel group’s favorite work sites. An email introduction between T. Mac and Amy parlayed into a working relationship between the two groups.
The school benefited, the Hillel group experienced a component of life most had never seen, and connections were established that will all be for good. It was a win–win, and the perfect Tikkun Olam for the Hillel group.
Greenwood is a natural place to stop because of the amenities available: The 5-star boutique Alluvian Hotel and a variety of restaurant opportunities rival anywhere in the South, and the charm of our small community is unparalleled. Ahavath Rayim, our Greenwood synagogue, was founded in 1907; more than 100 years later, we continue to gather and we fully participate in Jewish life—Delta Style.
In addition to touring our shul, both groups were treated to a “walking tour” of Downtown Greenwood by Dr. Mary Carol Miller, a noted historian and author. Greenwood is surrounded by three rivers and for decades has been known as the Cotton Capital of the World. The Jewish presence in our community is wide-spread.
What’s the value of the experience? The values are as diverse as the groups we host.
To understand that a Jewish community does exist in the Jewish South, to experience some of the sites, like the BB King Museum in Indianola, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and to visit the offices and meet the staff of the ISJL are all important components of the experience.
What’s so special to me is the relationship that we develop with these groups—although some we will never see again, we still form lasting bonds. The understanding and the conversations that we engage in as a result of these encounters are meaningful. To expose our “guests” to the Jewish life we live every day is important. We are unskilled and untrained ambassadors for our Judaism, as we reach out to the predominately non-Jewish world of the South. Hopefully, the “outreach” of these trips in small measure—makes this world a better place.
And if you’re interested in your own Southern Jewish Experience trip, contact Rachel Jarman Myers!
I’m what you would call a reluctant business traveler. While I am the director of the Education Department of the ISJL, with the main office being in Mississippi, I actually live in San Antonio, TX.
Thanks to technology, I mostly telecommute, but once a month I fly into the Jackson office. I HATE flying. I mean I really HATE flying. Although I fly a lot, I am a very anxious flyer and as a result I have developed a very fixed coping routine mixed with superstition, prayer, and just a splash of OCD. I will spare you the details but just know that I recite the Shema A LOT!
What makes matters worse is that most of the people around me seem to be fine with flying. Some of them even look cheerful and like to make all kinds of new friends. It shouldn’t surprise you that I am not fond of plane chatting. I am often in my own world of Shema-ing and yoga breathing, and don’t really feel much like hearing where people are headed or the reason for their travel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rude and I will always answer questions when asked but I have figured out what to politely say that will end the conversation quickly.
Here’s how it usually goes:
Passenger: Is this trip work or fun?
Passenger: What do you do for work?
If I say I work in education, there are immediately more questions….
Passenger: Oh, are you a teacher? What grade do you teach? What subject do you teach?
Then I have to explain that I’m not actually a teacher…..
Me: I actually work in the-non profit world.
Passenger: Oh, how interesting. What’s the name of the non-profit? What does it do? Have I heard of it?
When I bring up the word Jewish, the questions/comments reach a whole new level…
Passenger: Oh! Are you Jewish? I have a Jewish friend named ____________. Do you know him/her?
The conversation/questions can go on and on and can involve my own personal belief system or could just involve some comments about Jewish foods they have tasted. Regardless, I just want to sleep or cope with my flying anxiety, so I have come up with what to say that provides some information but that shuts down the conversation as soon as possible.
This has become my new go-to response?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
This usually sounds uninteresting to most, and I am done with my plane chatting for the flight (phew!). But every once in a while, someone really just wants to chat. Last week on my flight was one of those times. She was a nice middle aged woman who let me know that she was going to visit her son and help him to move into his new apartment. She had an art magazine in her hands and continued to let me know that she was a painter. For her day job she worked for a printing company in Jackson. She was getting ready to retire in the next few months and paint full-time. After she had given her me her back-story, I knew that she was ready to hear from me and that my usual end the conversation technique would be ineffective.
Nice lady: What do you do?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
Nice lady: Oh! That’s exciting. We do a lot of printing for non-profits. What’s the name of your organization?
Me: The ISJL.
Nice lady: Oh my goodness!!! We do all of your printing!
Me: You do!? I’m the one that has y’all printing all of those spiral-bound curriculum books each year. They are lessons for the teachers we work with. I’m soooo sorry that we get them to you so late each year, but you always come through for us.
Nice lady: We just love working for y’all.
Me: I’m so glad to have the chance to say thank you. Those lessons are important to many schools and we couldn’t do our work without you.
Nice lady: I have a Jewish friend named____________. Do you know her?
Even though my conversation that morning ended up being predictable, this one was also special. Sitting next to me was a stranger that I couldn’t do my job without. She took our words, ideas, and experiences and literally put them on the page so that we could share them with roughly 500 teachers throughout our region. It was a nice connection, and a chance for me to say thank you. After we chatted LOTS more, I returned to my role of grumpy business traveler… but with a pretty full heart.