I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. It’s a pleasant shock that nearly twelve months have passed since I joined the Jewish communal world; before I came to JWA, I maintained a safe distance from full-time employment with a Jewish organization.
I left my position as executive director of a summer writing camp last spring to figure out my next steps. Like many women my age (I am looking directly into the jaws of turning 50) I knew that the time had come to make a deliberate change. My kids were getting older, I needed more colleagues, more intellectual grist, blah blah blah.
Last month, I had the good fortune of reflecting on the changes of this past year, as I prepared to teach my first workshops with my JWA skirt on. I went to Jackson, Mississippi for the annual education conference of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). As a guest presenter, I taught about the importance of primary source-based learning, Jews and the music of the civil rights movement, and what inspiring Jewish women like Bella Abzug and Queen Esther can teach us about costumes and identity.
Moments like this are when I know I made the right shift in my career. I am learning a whole new lexicon. A new prism for viewing the world. A history I knew existed, but didn’t really know how to access. A framework for living the next decades of my life. An understanding that feminism is not monochromatic. And, as a result, a passion for the subject matter I get to shepherd(ess) every day.
Which brings me, again, to the ISJL. I listened to music from the civil rights era pretty much nonstop for a few weeks to get me into the mindset for teaching the topic. I learned many new details about Freedom Summer. I read and re-read Heather Booth’s letter to her brother, in which she writes about her “fear and exhaustion” but also the “songs that help to dissipate the fear.” The more I learn about Freedom Summer (I got an early look at the extraordinary new Stanley Nelson documentary which premiered June 24 on PBS), the more I am humbled by the bravery of all the volunteers.
I am also profoundly inspired by the Jewish civil rights workers who comprised an estimated 50% of those college-age volunteers that summer. They went to heal fractured communities, to encourage the disenfranchised to vote, to bring a modicum of dignity to those whose basic democratic freedoms had been denied for over a hundred years, and to try and build a better world for the next generation through the creation of Freedom Schools.
Is it okay to say I had fun preparing for my first conference, even when the topics were tough? I had fun because I discovered new ways to think about my own history and identity and how to translate these discoveries for others. I have a new modus operandi, which I am proud to have and even prouder to impart—I kinda lectured friends at dinner about the important Jewish role models who preceded us, and not only were my friends encouraging, they were thrilled to learn the stories that were new to them.
And I had a great time teaching at the ISJL conference; the educators were smart, eager to learn new materials, and committed to sustaining Jewish life in their home towns. As a northeastern Jewess, I was moved to learn about the many small communities in the South where one Jewish educator nurtures and nourishes the children growing up there, and how, like Bella and Esther, these educators have to wear a few identities to navigate their different orbits.
My time in Jackson also had an unexpected “shining moment.” I met Pam Confer, who was at the hotel to plan for Freedom Summer activities later in the week. I asked her if she would come and sing “This Little Light of Mine” during my presentation on civil rights and music. I had planned on playing a recording of Betty Fickes’ version of the song, but the thrill of having a local artist sing was too tempting to pass up; her beautiful voice filled the room and showed us all how the power of music can bring people together. Everyone was smiling and clapping; the mood in the room was electric.
Thank you, ISJL, for introducing me to Southern Jewish life, and giving me the chance to experience shining a new light. And as we approach the 4th of July holiday, may we continue working toward liberty for all!
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As I began the long trek down to Mississippi a few weeks ago, I found my mind constantly wandering into the past. And no, I wasn’t thinking back to my prior semester of college or fun times with friends. I was reflecting on exactly fifty years ago: the summer of 1964.
Better known today as “Freedom Summer,” this was a transformative moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Hundreds of volunteers descended on the state of Mississippi to focus national attention on the horrors of segregation; they came to establish “Freedom Schools” and register African Americans to vote. Most of the volunteers were white college students just like myself. And over half of them were Jewish.
Since moving to Jackson and beginning my work as a Museum Intern with the ISJL, I find myself thinking about the many parallels between my own current journey and the experiences of young, white, Jewish students fifty years ago.
Why did they decide to come to Mississippi? How did Southern Jews view them once they got here? What challenges did they face while pursuing their work? While I continue to have more experiences in this state, the enduring legacies of history become more and more real to me. It has been so exciting to retrace the footsteps of many of these Freedom Summer veterans.
One of my most memorable experiences so far has been attending the 50th Commemorative Memorial Service for James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. These three Freedom Summer volunteers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while registering black voters and investigating the firebombing of Mt. Zion Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the very same place the service was held. Besides the strong sense of place that I already felt that day, I was surrounded by the living history of the summer of 1964.
In addition to many lifelong residents of Neshoba County (many whom attended the Freedom Schools or could recall volunteers coming to their homes in attempt to register their families to vote), prominent civil rights activists such as Congressman John Lewis, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Bob Moses, Rita Schwerner, and Dave Dennis were present. I had goose bumps as I bore witness to how far our nation has come, while still realizing how the struggle continues today, particularly when it comes to voting rights and education. The very faces associated with the movement, profiled in documentaries, touched directly by this fight.
This week, I am continuing this journey at the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events. We have been working hard to create supplemental programs for reflection on the legacy of Jewish volunteers during Freedom Summer, and I am so excited to meet Jewish veterans like Heather Booth, Mark Levy, Larry Rubin, and Lew Zuchman. I know that it will be a powerful gathering of younger and older generations; together we will exchange ideas and demonstrate how Jewish activism continues to thrive. I cannot wait to hear their stories and create new ones together.
All this week, we’re deeply engaged in the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50 events taking place in Jackson, Mississippi.
This morning, a piece about this week’s events and the past fifty years’ interfaith collaboration in the civil rights struggle, was published in Zeek Magazine. Called “Interfaith, In Good Faith,” it chronicles the beauty, challenge, and importance of coming together to make the world better, in 1964 and today. Read this piece, let us know what you think, and be a part of the conversation all week long!