The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?
By Education Fellow Rachel Blume
“Office was destroyed. Walking to hospital with Mom. Can’t find your brother.”
I received this text message from my father just after 5:00pm on April 27, 2011, after an EF4 tornado ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, my hometown. This storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, killed more than 50 people, and left both physical and emotional scars on countless others.
At the time, I was finishing my last week of graduate school and packing up my apartment in Atlanta, which had been my home for the previous 6 years. I had accepted a position as an ISJL Education Fellow and was preparing to move to Jackson, Mississippi. Now, as my time here comes to a close and I prepare for my next transition, I’m amazed at how quickly two years have come and gone. I also find myself recalling the natural disaster that I will always associate with my move to Jackson.
When I tried to call my dad or text back, nothing would go through. The tornado had taken out all of the cell towers, and it was nearly impossible to get a signal in town. I was unable to contact either my parents or my brother. I felt completely helpless. I was over 200 miles away and couldn’t reach anyone.
When I was finally able to make it home roughly 72 hours later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of what used to be my parent’s law firm, my second home.
The remains of my parents’ old building.They were inside when the tornado hit and survived by sheltering themselves between shelving units in a storage room. Their firm is up and running again in a brand new facility.
Though both the experience of nearly losing my parents and the the destruction that I witnessed in Tuscaloosa were unnerving and even traumatic, the outpouring of support from the greater community to my family was a revelation. Numerous people showed up to aid in the clean-up process, and those that couldn’t physically help sent meals or found other ways to show their concern. I’d never experienced that type of love and support from such a large number of people.
The most important lesson I have taken from those events is how a community can become like family. Prior to this, I had taken a passive role, not only in my Jewish community, but also in the community at large. While an interest in connecting with and supporting Jewish congregations had already led me to take the job with the ISJL, the collective response that I witnessed in the aftermath of the tornado further inspired me to work for the betterment of the communities—Jewish or otherwise—in which I live.
I carried this motivation with me to all of the communities I worked with during my two years as an Education Fellow. I have been lucky enough, not only to contribute to these communities, but also to benefit from them. Seeing the camaraderie and closeness of our communities has encouraged me to continue as an active participant moving forward.
In the next few weeks, my time at the ISJL will end, and I will move into the next phase of my life, attending law school in Houston, Texas. While I’m thankful that my family has not gone through another natural disaster, I know that the lessons I learned from the last one will serve me well through my new transition.
Every few years, national reporters rediscover the phenomenon of the “disappearing southern
Jew.” This week, Seth Berkman of the Forward newspaper published a thoughtful, well-written article headlined “Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast.”
I am quoted in it, and Berkman seems to have also used the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities as the source for much of his historical background information. We were happy to help him, and appreciate any attention given to the plight of small Jewish communities, especially from the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue building in Meridian, MS, sold in the 1990s; an ISJL visit in Dothan, AL, 2013
Despite the accuracy and quality of the article, it has admittedly ruffled a few feathers down here. While the decline of the Jewish community in places like Selma and Demopolis, Alabama, and in Lexington and Natchez, Mississippi is undeniable, the state of the Jewish South today is far more complicated than just closing synagogues in small towns coupled with tremendous growth in big cities like Atlanta.
I was just in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Jewish community has grown by a factor of ten in the past fifty years. Boone, North Carolina recently saw the dedication of its first synagogue. The Jewish community in Dothan, Alabama has created an innovative program that has attracted several new Jewish families to the town, resulting in growth in the local congregation and religious school. Jewish life remains vibrant in medium-sized cities like Jackson, Mississippi; Huntsville, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and many others. The ISJL was founded in 2000 to serve the needs of southern Jewish communities, be they small, medium, large, or nearing extinction. I think it’s fair to say that our efforts have had a significant impact on Jewish life in the region.
The key to understanding the Jewish South today is a central trend: the movement of Jews out of the retail industry into corporate America and the professions. A new Jewish community recently sprouted in Bentonville, Arkansas because it is the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. Much of the growth in the Jewish communities of places like Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is due to the increasing number of Jewish faculty and administrators associated with the large universities there. Jackson has become the largest Jewish community in Mississippi in recent decades because it is the medical and legal center for the state. The Jewish dry goods merchants who once populated these southern communities have been replaced by executives, doctors, lawyers, and professors.
The dying out of southern Jewish communities is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written the histories of many southern congregations that closed over a century ago. It’s a trend that is neither uniquely southern, nor uniquely Jewish. Small town Jewish communities across the country have declined for similar reasons to the ones described in the Forward article. I recall reading a New York Times article several years ago about Lutheran churches in North Dakota that closed because their membership had dwindled.
Throughout its history, America has never stood still. Towns and regions have boomed and crashed. Jewish communities have been established and died out, usually tied to national trends. As ISJL president Macy B. Hart is fond of saying, “change is neither good nor bad, change is change.” My job as the historian of the ISJL is to ensure that despite these changes, these communities are not forgotten, that their part in the tapestry of American Jewish life is preserved for all to see and appreciate. We are grateful that the Forward has recognized their significance, and helped us in this endeavor.