In addition to being the Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I’m a proud member of the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) Rabbinic Council, an organization established in 1917 to support the spiritual needs of Jews in the United States armed services.
I recently received word that three pallets of Jewish prayer books were damaged in military efforts, and are now unusable. The military was in desperate need to find Jewish burial plots in the South that could provide a proper resting place for these words of God and the long-held traditions of our people. This would be a great and rare opportunity for a congregation to be of unique service to our nation, a way – if you will – to say ‘thank you’ for our freedom to worship as we choose.
Regrettably, earlier efforts to secure those plots in large metropolis were a bust. Those in charge of coordinating this holy endeavor never received a response from the large congregations to whom they had reached out and called.
Thus, they called me: “Please, can you be of any help? We don’t understand how these large communities could be so silent in the face of this request.”
Yes, we could help.
Land space, particularly in large communities and congregations where there is the realistic hope of continued growth, is more limited. Reasonably, one can assume that much of that limited space is already claimed. But in many of our smaller southern congregations, where the populations are more likely to be on the decline, there is some land to spare.
Therefore, I made a suggestion: “Allow me to reach out to our smaller southern congregations. I believe they’ll respond more promptly. Not simply because they may have space available, but because they know well the meaning of ‘sacrifice.’ It’s what allows these small congregations to defy the odds and continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish identities and values in their area so richly.”
And respond they did.
Within a day, there were offerings from smaller congregations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. These were thanksgiving offers to this nation. These offers were also a tribute to all of the American Jews who have valiantly served this nation in uniform since its earliest days. And of course, the response showed respect for the prayer books themselves; as one congregation shared: “It’s only proper that these words should rest here with us, as – for us – they lead the way here!”
The damaged prayer books now have a resting place in the South, and the words within continue to enrich our lives. God bless our communities, God bless our soldiers, and God bless America.
This week, as I perused the internet, I stumbled upon a quiz entitled “Where You Belong: Your State Personality.”
It involved a series of ten questions and, at the end, it tells you in which state you should live. I’m a little bit of a sucker for these kinds of quizzes, so I took a stab at it. Based on my answers to the ten questions, I belong in… Georgia!
I was pretty unfazed by this, considering I was raised about twenty-five minutes from the Florida-Georgia Line (the boundary, not the band) and feel comfortable in the area. But this whole concept of a person “belonging” in a state really got me thinking. Is it true? Are there states in which I “belong,” and states in which I do not?
I have never felt this way. In Florida, I belonged. In Massachusetts, I hated the cold, but I belonged. In Mississippi, I belong. However, when I talk to some of my friends, I don’t get the same reaction. Sometimes, my friends are too nervous to even try a new place, a location different from where they grew up.
“The South?” My Northern friends will say. “Oh, no. No thanks, I’m fine up here. I don’t think I could ever move down there.”
“The North?” My Southern friends will say, “Oh, no. I’m fine down here. I don’t think I could ever move up there.”
Why do I feel comfortable everywhere I go, when others just… don’t?
I think I’ve figured it out, though. It’s not that I’m a perfect blend of Northern and Southern, or that I’m more adaptable than most. It’s that I’m Jewish.
After much thought, I realized that this defining characteristic – being Jewish – is what has consistently allowed to me to find a home and to feel comfortable in all the states, and all the countries, in which I have lived. I don’t have to worry about where I will make my first friends, where I will find meaning, or how I will be spiritually fulfilled. All that is a given: I just find the other Jews!
I now realize how incredibly lucky I am, but I also am hopeful that others will understand that they too can belong anywhere once they find their niche, be it a faith community, activity, cause, or passion. Besides, as dynamic personalities, we change and find new ways to fit in, too.
Case in point? I took the quiz three days later to see if it was the same, and this time it said I’m made for Tennessee…maybe that’ll be my next stop!
November 9, 2013, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “The Night of Broken Glass.” It is the night many point to as the beginning of the Holocaust.
I remember observing Kristallnacht in the small Jewish community I grew up in – Flint, Michigan. In Michigan, by November, it’s usually pretty cold after dark. My memories of Kristallnacht services, held outdoors, consist mostly of people huddled together for warmth; solemn readings of prayers and poems; candles lit, blown out, and lit again. The dark, cold night lent itself well to an imaginative child putting herself in her ancestor’s shoes, feeling the cold grip of fear they must have felt as windows shattered and screams sounded and evil went from local to government-sanctioned.
Recalling these events, the eve of the Holocaust, people from all walks of life came together over a brokenness in the world.
Shortly after I moved to Mississippi in 2003, I was invited to attend another sort of memorial service. Several of us drove from Jackson up to Neshoba County, Mississippi, for the 39th anniversary of Freedom Summer, and in particular to commemorate the brutal murders of three Civil Rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner.
One black man from Mississippi, two Jewish men from up North, all working for freedom – all killed on a dark, terror-filled night. The memorial service for them took place in a small Baptist church. In Mississippi. In June. There was no central air conditioning, just people crammed together, waving church fans, sweating, crying, singing gospel hymns. The sweltering, singing church lent itself well to an imaginative young woman putting herself in the civil rights fighters’ shoes, feeling the echoes of the evil they faced and the losses their families endured. Though this was my first time at that church, there was something so familiar about where we were and what we weredoing.
Recalling the events, the casualties of Freedom Summer, people from all walks of life had come together over a brokenness in the world.
This November, we mark 75 years since Kristallnacht. This coming June, we will mark 50 years since Freedom Summer.
We are always hesitant to connect tragedies, to link one loss to another, fearing diminishing the pain or significance of either. Facing these two milestones of memory, I find that I cannot – I dare not – compare the Holocaust to the Civil Rights movement. However, I do find that I absolutely can, and will, and must compare the way that both of these events are remembered. Years later, people of different faiths and backgrounds come together, demonstrating by their very presence that they understand this truth about brokenness: Bad things happen when good people do nothing, and what impacts one group impacts us all.
We do not always learn this the first time, but when we come together and remember, our understanding is strengthened. We acknowledge past wrongs and pledge to build something better in the future.
The histories may be different. The weather, the setting, the stories are not the same. But whether we are standing outside and shivering in the cold, or fanning ourselves in an oppressive heat, we come together over brokenness. We remember. And together we say, amen.