Every summer, the ISJL office is privileged to be one of the stops on the journey of teens participating in Operation Understanding.
Operation Understanding, which has sites in Philadelphia, PA, and Washington, D.C., brings together African American and Jewish youth, who spend time learning together first in their own communities, then traveling to visit civil rights sites. They learn about each other’s cultures and unique legacies, and also find common ground in their shared values and experiences.
As the students who participate in OU know all too well, while as a society we’ve made tremendous strides there is still so much work to be done. Working together, across racial, religious, and other potential “divides” that can instead become uniting, we can move forward. The painful realization that divisions still exist and the hopeful knowledge that unity is possible inspired this video, put together by OU-D.C. students.
They shared it with us when they visited the ISJL office, and we’re honored to share the #TrayvOnward video here:
You can also keep up with the Operation Understanding Students on their blog, which shares the lessons and adventures of their journey.
Continuing with excellent posts from our excellent summer interns, history intern Caroline Kahlenberg considers the southernness of Alexandria, Virginia.
Two weeks ago, during our History Department research trip to northern Virginia, the same question continued to crop up: Is Virginia—and the northern border of the state, specifically—still considered the South? When we posed the question in our interviews with rabbis and long-time Jewish community members, the response was never simple. On some occasions, in fact, the phrase, “two Jews, three opinions,” took on a literal meaning.
Indeed, it’s a hard question. Defining the American South—and who is considered a southerner—has long been a topic of debate among journalists, historians, and social critics alike. It seems that everyone has their own criteria: some use the SEC football league as a guiding principle, while others prefer to base it on the sweetness of their tea.
Being neither a football fan nor a tea drinker, I turned to Virginia’s history to explore this question further. While discussions of southern identity surfaced in every congregation we visited, the city of Alexandria poses an especially interesting case.
Alexandria—today just 6 miles south of Washington, DC—was actually founded as part of the nation’s capital in 1791 and remained part of the city until 1846. During that era, Alexandria’s economy was deeply involved in tobacco production and in the slave trade. Alexandria was also the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. Not surprisingly, when the Civil War broke out, most Alexandrians—including the city’s Jewish citizens—were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Certainly, then, 19th century Alexandria aligned economically and politically with the Old South, and it remained culturally removed from Washington DC well into the 20th century. But in the decades after World War II, as the greater D.C. metropolitan area grew to once again encompass the city, Alexandria lost much of its distinct southernness .
Suburbanization largely explains this shift. In the 1950s, many federal employees moved out of DC and into the newly developed northern Virginia neighborhoods surrounding Alexandria, greatly altering the “Southern” character of the region. Alexandria, too, became one of the many “bedroom communities” catering to Washington. The shift also altered Virginia’s political landscape by bringing more liberal voters into a traditionally conservative state, which eventually transformed it into the swing state that it remains today.
As new arrivals transformed Alexandria into a suburb of Washington D.C., the Brown v. Board decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 brought new energy to the struggle for African American civil rights. Led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., most areas of the Commonwealth of Virginia engaged “massive resistance” to school integration. While Alexandria was slow to enforce the federal verdict—integrating in the mid 1960s—the city did come to terms with integration sooner than other parts of Virginia. Prince Edward County, for example, shut down its schools for five years in defiance of integration. While the history of Alexandria’s integration is neither a perfect nor complete measure of the city’s regional identity, it provides some insight into its demographic and cultural transformation.
Hailing from a suburb of Washington, DC myself (though on the Maryland side) I can certainly relate to this complicated geographic identity. Personally, I don’t call myself a southerner. And according to the native Mississippians that I’ve met during my time here in Jackson, I’m most definitely a Yankee. But in Vermont, where I attend college, friends and teachers quite often consider Maryland the South, or at least close enough to it; to them, I’m not a true Yankee. The South is relative.
So, is today’s northern Virginia still the South? Looking at its recent history, I’d say “not exactly,” but it certainly retains some Southern elements. In addition to the historic Old Town, the people we talked to in Alexandria, for instance, were extremely hospitable, something I’ve come to greatly appreciate in Mississippi. I can’t exactly say the same about northern Virginia’s heavy traffic, which had a certain “DC” feel. Ultimately, though its location on a map has remained the same, the area’s cultural, demographics and politics have become less aligned with today’s Deep South, and more so with the country’s Mid-Atlantic region. Overall, it’s a tricky question. Next time, maybe I’ll just try the tea.
Today’s post comes from Linnea Hurst, the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department intern this summer.
I am from Portland, Oregon, and had never visited to the South before this summer, so the adjustment to living in Jackson was a big one for me. Yet despite the fact I have only lived here for a month, I already feel at home. This is because I have been initiated into two welcoming and vibrant communities: the ISJL community and the larger community of Jackson.
In recognition of everything I’ve learned since arriving in Mississippi, here are a few of the new things I’ve learned:
1) It is extremely exciting to watch older students teach younger students to read.
Every day I oversee our Read, Lead, Succeed reading program, and recently I have learned to stop nervously circling the room waiting for an older student to goof off or lose focus. Instead, I spend most of my time simply watching in awe as the reading leaders take on the role of teacher and encourage their student to stay focused or tackle new words.
2) Medgar Evers was an advocate for youth involvement during the Civil Rights Movement.
All the ISJL summer interns were lucky enough to attend some of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination here in Jackson. We learned that while other Civil rights leaders were hesitant to include young people in the activism, Evers made a point to encourage involvement of younger activists in local youth councils.
3) There is no one way to approach social justice.
When I’m not working with the reading program, I spend my days researching social justice efforts taken by Jewish communities in the South. I have discovered that inter-faith work, forming women’s advocacy groups and radio broadcasting have all been ways in which Jews in the region have historically tackled social issues in their communities.
4) The drive for equality and justice is something felt by everyone, no matter their faith. In my research I have found that in many Southern communities (including Jackson), Jews have worked alongside the larger community to advocate, organize and create change. Although for Jews this urge to help others may have originated from their Jewish identity, it could be understood and picked up by those who were not Jewish. This is not just an occurrence of the past. I am a living example as I work with the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department to create positive change here in Jackson, even though I am not Jewish.
5) Pickled eggs are pink on the inside, and I am not entirely opposed to their taste.
As you might have guessed, this was a learning experience that took place outside of the ISJL. As I was standing in line at a gas station, I wondered aloud if I should try one of the pickled eggs floating ominously in a large jar. The woman behind me overheard and told me of her love of pickled pig lip. She then suggested that yes, I should try an egg. Before I knew it, I was biting into a pink slippery sphere. The egg tasted strongly of vinegar, but I managed to eat it all. I left the gas station excited to live in a city that is full of people eager to get to know newcomers and proud to teach them about Southern culture.
6) The ISJL’s annual education conference is a unique and inspiring event.
While I could go on and on about Education Director Rachel Stern’s infectious positive attitude or the education fellows’ dedication to honing their rapping skills, the Department of Community Engagement’s panel on Building Inclusive Communities stuck with me the most. The session addressed how congregations’ responses (or lack thereof) to issues like race, poverty, disability or mental illness leave some members of the Jewish community feeling invisible or unwelcome. Unless encouraged to do so, most people do not naturally talk about such difficult and sensitive topics. Yet, to my delight, I heard many conversations not only directly after the panel, but also for days afterwards addressing how conference participants and ISJL staff plan to approach these issues, and their own personal privileges, more mindfully and sensitively in the future.
7) There are more Jewish holidays than just Passover and Hanukkah
Those are the two I heard about growing up, but there are many more, and they all have incredible meaning and values behind them. Malkie (Schwartz) and I are brainstorming how to connect congregations with resources to aid with inclusion and awareness of minority Jews, interfaith families, LGBTQ Jews, and more. We quickly discovered that the easiest way to do this would be to link these social issues to the values behind various Jewish holidays – not just Passover and Hanukkah!
Stay tuned to Southern & Jewish and to our Facebook page for more updates on what the ISJL Community Engagement Department is up to this summer!