In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine came to America and made new lives for themselves in the Deep South. Last week, some Alsatian Jews embarked on the same journey (made much more convenient by intercontinental air travel) to learn about Jewish history and heritage in the South.
Traveling up from New Orleans, last Friday this group of 33 Jewish Alsatian tourists found themselves spending a day with ISJL staff in Jackson, Mississippi. We have worked with tour groups in the past, but never in a different language! While many of them did speak English, the group leader translated every presentation into French. Take a look at this short clip I filmed of Dr. Rockoff presenting to the group…
From our office we went on our usual tour of Jackson sites, stopping at Tougaloo College, the COFO Civil Rights Education Center and the Medgar Evers House Museum. These sites mainly focus on the events of the Civil Rights movement, so I did my best to explain how that history has shaped this region. Questions like why so many buildings were empty downtown, why students pay so much for a college education, and inquiries regarding contemporary race relations, covered huge topics that while difficult to explain easily in English, are especially challenging to explain in French, to an audience without a native understanding of American history.
The cultural exchange went both ways, as I got to hear about the French Jewish experience as well. One woman asked me about how Southerners practice Judaism, and if they still identify as Jewish if they aren’t active in a congregation. She explained that while there are many secular Jews in France, many strongly identify as racially Jewish because of their direct connection to the Holocaust. The leader told me later that a few of the visitors were hidden children during the war. I also found it interesting in discussing our ISJL education program when a few of the guests then explained to me that their children never had any formal Jewish schooling; they simply learned Jewish practices and customs in the home.
It was a great learning experience and such a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with this group. We’re happy that they chose to spend their time in our neck of the woods and I hope this post will encourage some of you with fewer oceans to travel across to make plans to join us soon for your own Southern Jewish experience!
As we approach the winter holidays, one thing will likely dominate our minds: doors.
What? Doors weren’t the first thing on your mind? Come on! We just had the ringing of doorbells on Halloween; next up is the opening of doors to family and friends on Thanksgiving; and this year, that occasion will coincide with the rededication of the Temple’s doors, as we celebrate Hanukkah (and the mash-up “Thanksgivukkah” we keep hearing about).
Understanding that doors play a central place in our secular and religious lives, as the threshold to meaning and community, I wanted to share with you something interesting that I observed while visiting Temple Emanuel in Longview, Texas. There, the mezuzot are affixed to the left side of the doors, not the right; and, they lean outward as opposed to inward.
When I asked the co-president of this Reform congregation how they got into this “unorthodox” position, I was told a fascinating story. Originally, the mezuzot were on correctly. The doors, however, were not, as they opened inwards as opposed to outwards, which is the standard for all public buildings. Thus, the congregation was forced to turn the entire door frame around.
“But, what difference does the door’s direction really make?” I wondered. Then, it hit me! In cases of emergency, the doors in a public building need to open outward as to manage the rapid flow of people exiting. Go ahead. Look around you. I promise that you’ll notice that just about all public buildings’ doors open outward.
“So, where,” you may ask, “do they open inward?”
And here is where we find a powerful message. In outward-opening doors, a public space unconsciously imparts the message of departure and exclusion; whereas, our homes – through their inward opening doors – relates welcoming and inclusion. Likely, that was the original intent behind Emanuel’s construction: to be an extension of home, wherein all would be welcomed.
So as friends and family, neighbors and strangers, get poised to go from door to door this winter holiday season, let us keep in mind that every knock is a knock of opportunity. And, whether the door opens inward or outward, let’s just be mindful to keep it open to all.
Picture this: a really mean kid.
A kid who spends each day at school calling others names, like fat and loser. He chooses specific targets to publicly humiliate. He excludes people from the lunch table where their own friends sit, getting other kids to “vote out” someone who was once their friend, which they all do for fear of becoming the next target. His behavior is documented, but his parents take no responsibility, and the school needs more concrete evidence before they can suspend him. He faces no consequences, despite behavior that is hurtful, harmful and unacceptable.
In fact, that same year, he stands on the bimah and is welcomed with open arms as an adult in the Jewish community. His bullying is known to many, but he is given another title: Bar Mitzvah.
In most congregations, to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there are many requirements to fulfill. A students must attend x number of services, master the prayers, learn Torah and haftarah portions, and write a speech about what he/she has learned during this process. We ask that students adhere to the guidelines that Judaism provides for living a moral and ethical life. But what about the children who go against what the Torah instructs us to do? If a student is a known bully, do we ignore that as long as his prayers are memorized and his speech pays lip service to kindness and being a good Jewish adult?
Judaism instructs us clearly that it is a sin to shame another person. Many Jewish children’s first lesson is the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself. And if you do something wrong, you HAVE to make it right. The Jewish system of teshuvah, repentance, provides explicit guidelines instructing us how to make right our wrongs. The essential step of teshuvah is taking responsibility and saying sorry for your actions.
When someone converts to Judaism we conduct a Beit Din (mini jury) as part of the conversion ceremony, to determine if the candidate for conversion is ready and that her intentions are good ones. What would it look like if we had a similar vetting for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student? What if our clergy and tutors interviewed and even convened a Beit Din with their B’nai Mitzvah students before they began working with them? What would that look like? Would it involve other children – the peers of the bully?
Perhaps part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation should be letters of recommendation, in which the recommenders needed to answer some pointed questions about the student’s behavior and character. These recommendations could come from teachers, peers, community members. We could ask the Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates to answer questions in an essay that describes their character and intentions.
Does it seem extreme? Consider this story.
Recently, a high school coach from Utah suspended his entire football team because he caught wind that some of the players were involved in cyber-bullying. Those of us in the South know that you DON’T mess with football – but this coach did. His brave gesture was so against the norm that it made national news. This coach made examples of his players, showing that being a good person is the main requirement for any life experience and if this requirement is not met, then additional experiences and privileges are taken away. The football players could earn back their spot on the team through participation in community service.
This act not only had a direct consequence on the players but also offered a public message to the students that had been mistreated that they mattered, and that people were there to help them.
If a coach can do it, why can’t a rabbi? Or a teacher? We’re the ones who have the chance to show all kids they matter, and maybe even through teshuvah and attention, turn a bully into a mensch. What a mitzvah that could be.
Do you think bullies should be allowed on the bimah? Should a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student’s treatment of others be considered?