I took a look at my cell phone clock, which read 7:05 AM. I was incredibly sleepy, but not because I had just woken up. No, this was because I had not even gone to sleep in the first place.
I’m not in college anymore, so I didn’t need to pull an all-nighter to study for a test—this was absolutely, completely voluntary. I was at Limmud Atlanta + Southeast, taking place at Ramah Darom, a gorgeous summer camp. And if I were to go to sleep, that would mean sacrificing a few hours of an unbelievably wonderful Jewish experience.
Limmud Atlanta is hard to describe without seeing it up close and personal, but here’s my best attempt: take a fun Southern camping trip, mix it with a gloriously-overwhelming amount of Jewish learning, and sprinkle a 72-hour-long jam session on top. Stir it all together. Baddabing baddaboom—that’s my short and sweet approximation of Limmud Atlanta.
Here were some of the most memorable, totally-worth-sacrificing sleep experiences I had over the course of the conference.
- Tying together the concept of Tzedakah and episodes of Orange is the New Black
- Making percussion noises to best imitate what the 6th day of creation would sound like, in a session whose title asked me to “Get my Soul Vibration On”
- Learning how to play a board game entitled Settlers of Canaan – all about the Holy Temple in Jerusalem
Limmud Atlanta was educational. It was fun. It was, for close to 72 hours, thoroughly, awesomely ridiculous, in the best and most Jewish of ways.
Most importantly, it reminded of something I’ve long held to be true: Jewish conferences are, without a doubt, one of the best tools towards deepening Jewish identity, both personal and communal. Limmud Atlanta helped me remember that there is no substitute for deeply immersing in Jewish life for an extended period of time—even just a few days.
But some of you might be wondering…okay, so Limmud Atlanta sounds amazing, but what about all of the Jewish conferences out there that aren’t so dynamic? My response might sound a bit unorthodox: it is my heartfelt belief that attending even a sub-par Jewish conference is a substantially better allocation of Jewish time and resources than the vast majority of briefer Jewish engagement experiences.
This might seem strange at first, but hear me out. When at a conference—even one that does not achieve its goals particularly effectively—you enter into a mental framework. For two or three consecutive days, you immerse yourself in a particular subject matter. At a political science conference, attendees expand mental energy, for a couple days on the topic of political science. Same for a conference about feminism, or the Middle East, or anything else. At a Jewish conference, everyone there spends at least a couple days of their lives focused specifically on Judaism: On Jewish community, Jewish learning, Jewish history, Jewish culture, and of course, on Jewish food.
Now, I am very lucky to work for a Jewish organization. I spend at least 8.5 hours a day connecting to Judaism in some form. But many people struggle to allocate substantial time to Jewish engagement. There’s work, there are family commitments, perhaps some time for recreation here and there—important elements of our day-to-day existence that make any sort of intensive Jewish engagement difficult from one day to the next.
But by attending a Jewish conference, that paradigm breaks. It might normally take two full months to accrue 48 hours of “engagement” time in the Jewish community—and that’s for an actively involved Jew spending 5-6 hours a week in some sort of Jewish context. At a 72-hour Jewish conference, even after subtracting 8-hours a night for sleep (if, unlike me, you choose to indulge in some shut-eye!), you can reach that same 48-hour threshold in just three days. Even if the programming isn’t perfect, the experience is powerful. It’s transformative. Occasionally, it can be life-changing.
So, I would ask each of you reading this, please look for a Jewish conference happening near you. Don’t go just to make me happy (though I assure you, I will be, especially if I see you there)! Go because, odds are, it will help you evolve and grow as you undertake your own Jewish journey.
(And seriously, don’t you want to learn how to get your soul vibration on???)
“Um, Rabbi? Don’t you feel a little bit weird with a cross on the back of your car?”
I fielded this question recently on a jaunt down to New Orleans for a weekend of football and food. The inquiry came when my passenger, an Atlanta Falcons fan, noticed my Mississippi license plate, with its Saints loyalty on proud display. No doubt, my companion was puzzled that a Jew (kal v’chomer a rabbi!) would choose to put something that looks like a cross on his license plate.
But it’s not a cross. It’s a fleur de lis. And while this flower has had some interaction with the cross, that’s not what it represents to me. As I began to explain this, it got me thinking, oh, this is gonna turn into a blog post. And here it is.
The fleur de lis (sometimes spelled fleur de lys) is French in origin. The little symbol decorates flags, yards, jewelry, and crowns. The earliest fleur de lis are thought to be representative of the iris flower. Long adopted by royalty, it’s no surprise that many may associate the fleur de lis with Christianity, because the vast majority of kings and queens who used the symbol on their crests and in their commissioned paintings were of the Christian persuasion. It became Christianized as well when drawn so specifically with the trinity of three leaves, with various interpretations as to what those three things meant symbolically. In addition to the trinity, some ascribe it to the Song of Songs (“lily among thorns?”), while others have associated it with Mary, with the flower representing virginity.
New Orleans, along with many other cities/regions that were under heavy French influence in the New World, adopted this symbol. And when, in 1967 they received their first NFL franchise, they named their team the New Orleans Saints, and adorned them with a fleur de lis where other helmets had lions or stars.
So not only does the fleur de lis have some religious connotation in its past, the name of the football team that now claims the flower is the Saints – yeah, a bit of religion embedded there, too. Their moniker is no doubt an allusion to November 1st, AKA All Saints Day. Also, the jazz hit “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” came to represent the city. Catholic influence can be seen throughout Louisiana, a state still made up not of counties but of PARISHES.
Hence, my favorite football team is surrounded by symbols with Christian connotations. But, as with any symbol, meaning and interpretation can change. So, too, can our connection to them.
I spent some time in the Superdome under the futile leadership of Aaron Brooks, but it was after Hurricane Katrina that all of a sudden I found myself purchasing shirts, flags, and hats adorned with the fleur de lis symbol. For the longest time, perhaps because they were the Ain’ts, it seemed as if there were more LSU decals than Saints floating around the city. But, as we began to resurge, as the team began to be a symbol for the entire city, the fleur de lis lost its old connotation.
Like the flower it is, the fleur de lis began to unfurl again and show us that spring had sprung. New Orleans would be in full bloom again. The fleur de lis gave hope to all, regardless of their religious affiliation.
After years of trying to figure out how to watch my team play while I was elsewhere, living in this city or that country, I’m proud to have finally returned to the region that I call home. It’s exciting for me to look around and see that I can connect with my neighbors over a symbol and a team, that our faiths and unique backgrounds can come together and be united. We can cheer for touchdowns, or be despondent over the most recent free agent departures. All this is only evident when we display our symbol—on our shirts, on festive game day cookies, and yes, on this rabbi’s license plate.
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Last week was my first adventure on the road as an Education Fellow. I went to Montgomery and Auburn, Alabama, and then continued on to Columbus, Georgia. My road trip buddy for this adventure was Lex Rofes, a second year Education Fellow. We met a lot of new people and had some great experiences. But the best part of our four-day excursion happened at the end—and involved the military.
Early Sunday morning, Lex and I joined some dedicated volunteers from Temple Israel in their weekly pilgrimage to provide the soldiers at Fort Benning with a morning service followed by a food-filled oneg. “Oneg” literally means delight, and usually involves tasty treats and socializing. These soldiers have come to enjoy this delight—and so there were around 600 soldiers who came to enjoy the services and oneg on the Sunday Lex and I were there.
We were invited to participate in services, lay-led by Neil Block, a congregant of Temple Israel who is extremely passionate about this operation. Neil was in the U.S. Navy, and he has made it his responsibility to ensure that the soldiers of Fort Benning have access to Judaism. To him, it does not matter that the majority of the soldiers in attendance are not Jewish. The Jewish soldiers appreciate this weekly gift, but so too do the other men and women in uniform.
Lex observed that this might well be the largest Sunday morning Jewish service in the country. The soldiers come for some quiet time to reflect and of course, for the oneg. Local businesses donate cookies, cakes, bagels, and cream cheese for the weekly oneg. Even with over 600 soldiers in attendance, there was enough for everyone to have a sweet and a bagel. The soldiers were all extremely polite and efficient. In no time at all, everyone was fed and we were out of food!
(I also learned that soldiers in basic training are on a high-protein-low carb diet, so this oneg was a special treat.)
The congregants we volunteered with echoed the sentiment that it did not matter if the soldiers in attendance were Jewish or not; what matters is a positive Jewish presence, and just giving back to the soldiers who serve our country. The 600 soldiers who showed up included people from all faiths. Some ask Neil and the volunteers about Judaism after the service, but most want to hear news from the outside world; they appreciate the sense of connection and community.
Many of the families at Temple Israel have ties to the military, and they are thereby dedicated to serving those who serve our country. It was an amazing experience for me and I cannot wait to go again the next time I am in Columbus. It’s a uniquely Southern and Jewish tribute to our troops, quietly carried out each week with food and fellowship, and I was proud to be a part of it.