A recent New York Times online opinion essay, Beautiful Pathologies, got me thinking about the non-profit sector as a whole, and about Jewish organizations in particular.
The writer tells the story of a class of medical students waiting eagerly to be able to witness an organ transplant. After a lengthy process, a fellow student was paged to leave class because a transplant would potentially be taking place:
“It’s eerie to think about that morning, the strangeness of medical students cheering the news of someone’s death. Yet these contradictions happen all the time in our education. Our lecturers say, ‘This is a great case,’ when describing a toddler who died from a rare cancer. Or, ‘Look at this beautiful pathology,’ when holding up the clogged heart of someone’s father. I wonder if other professions share these kinds of perverse excitements. Do human resources trainees hear of ‘great’ instances of sexual harassment? Do law students study ‘beautiful’ murder cases?”
I relate to this feeling of eeriness. After all, there are so many non-profits that have to make their case to funders and what better way than to personalize it. So the most desperate stories of clients who benefit from the organization’s activities are shared and the hope is that people are moved to help. At times it feels exploitative and other times inspiring—after all, we are hearing the most incredible stories of human resilience.
A future doctor learns from watching a transplant. When heart-wrenching stories are shared, funds are raised to support essential and valuable programs.
At the ISJL we are often in a position where we need to make the case for the organization; in the Community Engagement department here, we are now also working with congregations aiming to address the needs of their larger community. It’s important that we pay attention to how we think and talk about these needs. Does it benefit us to highlight the shockingly low literacy rates in places like our home base of Mississippi as we work on a program to bolster literacy? Perhaps. But it is also important to envision what the community would look like if everyone was a fluent reader. Perhaps it can be sufficiently moving to focus on the future, and how the community can look when everyone is a fluent reader.
But then, when we achieve that goal, will the support run out? Will we see slip back to lower literacy levels? Is the ugly truth that we need some level of “beautiful pathology” to keep us focused on making things better – or can we build a good case from good stories, and keep the good going without relying on “worst case” stories?
What do you think?
Studying text is one way to gather knowledge and inspiration as we seek to live meaningful lives and work to improve the quality of life for all people of our community. We usually study ancient texts, but sometimes more modern writing is just as powerful. Such is the case with a letter written by a young man named Andrew Pochter, which I found while preparing for an upcoming social justice text study.
A few weeks ago, Pochter, a role model for those who are dedicated to making the world a better place, died after being stabbed at a protest in Egypt. At his funeral, his sister, Emily, read a letter that Andrew had written to a camper of his. Andrew Pochter had been a counselor for a program called Camp Opportunity, a camp for at-risk children between the ages of six and 12. While Andrew was not a scholar who lived centuries ago, his letter is filled with precious thoughts and reflections that will certainly live on in the hearts of all who are fortunate to read it. May it inspire many, for generations to come.
Transcription of the letter follows:
Hello how are you man? I can’t believe it has been a year since camp. I am sure you are wiser, taller arid smarter since I saw you last. Please accept my apologies that I will not be there for the graduation ceremony. Right now I am in Alexandria, Egypt teaching English to young students who are around your age. They all speak Arabic so learning English as a second language is quite difficult. But they are all really intelligent, just like you! You would really like the Arabic language, you should check it out!
Egypt is hazardous right now because the country is feeling the consequences of a enormous political revolution. I lose electricity and water all of the time but that’s okay because Ihave many Egyptian friends to help take care of me. When I am in trouble, they take care of me and when they are in trouble, I always take care of them. Good friends do not come easily but as a rule, I always appreciate the good deeds people do for me even if I don’t know them well. What is most important is that I am trying to do my best for others. I want to surround myself with good people!
I did not come up with this personal philosophy on my own. Without thoughtful and caring people like you, I would probably be a mean and grumpy person. Your kind heart and genuine character serve as a model for me. I hope that you will never stop your curiosity for the beautiful things in life. Go on hikes in forests, canyons and mountains, go fishing, research wildlife, and get out of city Life if you can. Surround yourself with good friends who care about your future. Fall in love with someone. Get your heart broken. And then move on and fall in love again. Breathe life every day like it is your first. Find something that you love to do and never stop doing that thing unless you find something else you love more.
Don’t blame others for their mistakes. It makes you weak. You are a strong man who does not need to be weighted down by people who only complain and say negative things. Speak with conviction and believe in yourself because your personal confidence is just as important as your education.
I wish I could be there to say my congratulations but I know that it wouldn’t change much. You have earned it. Hopefully one day you will hang up this diploma next your high school and college diplomas as well.
Try not to forget me. If you ever need anything, just email:
Your Friend, Andrew Pochter”
I invite you to consider: how might you use this letter in a text study session with the youth in your community?
May Andrew’s memory be a blessing.
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!