Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
When I opened a recent daily e-mail from The Jewish Daily Forward, that’s what author J.J. Goldberg invited me to do.
Reading the headline, “Why We Should Honor Slain Civil Rights Workers With Jewish Holiday,” my instinct was to feel skeptical. We’ve already got the High Holidays, three festivals, Chanukah, Purim, Tu Bish’vat, days devoted to the state of Israel and the Holocaust, minor fast days, and 52 Shabbatot every year. We have the Omer count, the month of Elul, and the 9 days leading up to Tisha B’av – periods of time that, while not quite holidays, are additional times of year already marked with meaning.
We need another holiday now?
The headline startled me a little and confused me even more. But then I did what I probably should have done right away. I read the article. It turns out that Goldberg might just be onto something.
I won’t spell out all of the specific points of the article, but I will hone in on one portion, where Goldberg describes a large group of modern-day Jews – those who connect to Judaism largely because they believe that it relates issues of social justice. Furthermore, he explains, these people are often not connecting with Jewish institutions – despite the fact that many of them feel a passionate connection to their Jewish identities.
He asks a vital question about this sub-section of the Jewish people. “How can the Jewish community approach them, when its agendas, institutions and even calendar so little resemble their Judaism?”
Many Jewish texts, including our most holy, contain ideas that many in this modern-day cohort would love. Environmental ethics can be found all over the Torah. Anti-war activists need look no farther than the book of Isaiah’s cry to beat our swords into ploughshares. Texts in the Mishnah can be linked to Transgender equality today.
But there’s a problem with this. The aforementioned sub-section of Jews likely isn’t just picking up the book of Isaiah or a tractate of Mishnah on a regular basis. There needs to be an entry point. An occasion where the Jewish community collectively trumpets from its synagogues and community centers that this tradition exists. That social justice has long been a part of our tradition, and, God-willing, will still be for centuries to come.
We cannot and should not conclude that social justice and Judaism are the same. They are not. In addition to the above examples, there are real elements of the Jewish tradition that challenge, or even directly contradict, many liberal pre-dispositions. Sometimes those of us who are liberal overlook that vital truth, and to do so is a mistake.
But, if done thoughtfully, a Jewish holiday recognizing our historic connection to issues of social justice could be a vital tool as we look for ways to engage this group of Jews. It could be the perfect entry point for those who care about Social Justice and their Jewish identity, but have not yet learned how to blend those two passions into one.
So today, 16th of Tammuz (July 14th), I’m taking JJ Goldberg’s advice, and celebrating those links that exist between Jewish tradition and values of social justice. I’ll be balancing a look back at the past with a gaze into the future. I’ll take some time to reflect on the murders of three civil rights workers in my very own state of Mississippi, and, more positively, on the incredible work that was done in the aftermath of their deaths. As I look forward, I’ll be thinking about steps that I can take, as a Jew and as a human being, to minimize the possibility of similar crimes from being committed today or in the future.
I invite you to join me.
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.