I read with interest and appreciation Ben Greenberg’s recent post “Synagogues: Begin with Why.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about the same phrase, but substituting the “Why” with “How.”
I’m currently serving on the rabbinic search committee for my small Jewish congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. This process has compelled us to take a critical look at ourselves. The membership and leadership of the congregation has been asking a lot of questions. We are reflecting about what our congregation is, why our congregation exists, and how everything we do gets accomplished. What are the qualities we think are most important for our rabbi, as spiritual leader and perhaps executive director, to lead the one synagogue in our Bible Belt town? And what will make a rabbi want to bring his or her life into our community?
We are the only congregation in Jackson. Being the only game in town means there is no “shul shopping” to find the perfect fit for one’s family. The congregation must be the one-size-fits-all answer to everyone who lives here. This leads me back to the “how”. How can one congregation, with a very small staff, serve the needs of a diverse membership of 215 family units?
The answer does not begin or end with finding the right rabbinic candidate. The “how” has to involve everyone – all of our congregants who make this temple their home congregation.
All of our members must contribute, and I’m not just talking about money (although that’s vital to keeping the lights on). All must contribute time. All must invest in the feeling of community. Whether welcoming those who come to worship, teaching a class, planning a program, visiting the sick, answering phones, helping with office work, landscaping, preparing a holiday meal, organizing meaningful activities with the larger community… the list goes on and on. No one will do this for us, and no one should. We get out of synagogue life what we put into it. Without us, there is no “how.”
And then I think about some of the challenges of the smallest synagogues—those with 50 members or fewer. There are congregations where every member has a key to the building—because they are all responsible; members take turns ensuring there is wine and grape juice for Kiddush, and even purchasing the toilet tissue for the restroom. Many of these communities can no longer afford to have a full time rabbi, so their “how” is that everyone must contribute resources, expertise and time to make their synagogue a spiritual home, a place where everyone is welcome.
That is the challenge for us in smaller communities, but it is also our strength. It is what will make the right rabbinic candidate feel at home here, because they will be welcomed and meaningfully put to work—as are all our active members.
Synagogues: Begin with “why,” yes, absolutely. But we will only continue and be sustained, year after year, by all of us asking (and answering) “how.”
I recently completed a one-year Kahn Fellowship for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. My aim during the fellowship was to specifically work on engaging the young queer Jewish community. In return, my own personal growth would be nurtured through an additional immersive experience. My colleague Margalit suggested something called TENT.
One of TENT’s week-long intensive programs, “Tent:The South,” would be take participants from all over the country on a road trip, from New Orleans to Memphis through Mississippi, learning about Jewish history and contemporary culture in these regions.
I had never thought about Jews in the South. It was so far removed from everything I knew about the history of the South – which was delineated along racial lines that excluded Jewishness. I was excited to go on this trip. Who were these Jews in the South? Perhaps even more interesting, who are they now?
We started out in New Orleans, a city rich with history and supporting three synagogues. Even the Orthodox synagogue in town, Anshe Sfard, is working toward inclusivity and seeks LGBT involvement. This was astonishing to me, but also exciting. From there, we traveled up through Mississippi and into the Delta, all the way up to Memphis. We stopped in many towns and small cities, and met with local Jewish communities, continuously learning about our Jewish history in the South.
I had many emotional and informative experiences on this trip. Perhaps most personal to my understanding of my own identity was really digging into what the South “is” and “isn’t” and what it really means to me as someone who was raised in a border state.
Growing up in Maryland, whenever I spoke with Northerners I was told I was from the South, and whenever I spoke with Southerners, I was told I was from the North. I tried to claim my border-statehood, but that wasn’t good enough for people – they needed to “other” me to the other side of the tracks, or in this case, the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. I left Maryland at 14 to go to a private school in Pennsylvania, and I’ve never identified as a Marylander since.
It was on this trip, this Southern Jewish trip that I got to go on as a result of my work with the LGBTQ Jews in Los Angeles, that I learned to own the Marylander in me. And in a way, more of my Jewishness too.
Growing up, I saw myself as an “other” compared to the Jews I knew, because of my queer identity. But now I really see the cultural narrative of Jewishness as one of “otherness;” and I see my Jewishness as part of my personal narrative. Many people say they are Jew-ISH; I used to say I wasn’t practicing – I was just good at it. Now I don’t know what to say. I suppose I am “exploring my Jewishness.”
Finally, now I see: not feeling like I’m from the South or from the North, not feeling like my home state has a place in this country’s delineation, is really part of my greater narrative. I am a person in-between, or on the line, an “other” from the norm like all Jews and from the Jewish “other.” Never here nor there. I live on the border between the LGBTTQQIA2S (and growing) alphabet. I live on the border between secular and religious (and changing). And now I am finally owning that I grew up on the border between North and South. I am from a border state, and like the place from which I hail– I, too, am a perpetual border state.
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Recently, Southern Sunday School students did a program on Jewish heroes. The students were having a great time, collaborating, playing games—all while hundreds of miles apart.
For the Global Day of Jewish Learning, we gathered students and teachers in Pinehurst, North Carolina, for this program on Jewish heroes. More students than you’d usually find in the Pinehurst classroom showed up—because half of our participants weren’t in Pinehurst. They weren’t even in North Carolina. They were actually in Greenville, South Carolina, three and a half hours away!
Stop the presses. Has the ISJL figured out how to split Education Fellows like me into two pieces, so that we can be in two different cities at once? Have we discovered the secret to Hermione Granger’s famous time-turner from the Harry Potter books?
Unfortunately, we are still working on the time-turner. But what we have mastered is an important 21st century skill – the art of effective, engaging interactive video calling.
We use video calling technology almost every day from our office in Jackson, Mississippi. Whether communicating with staff members working in other cities or with Bar/Bat Mitzvah students located around our region, doing important Jewish work via Skype or Google Hangout is a regular part of day-to-day work at the ISJL. So, when Sandhills Jewish Congregation in Pinehurst and Congregation Beth Israel in Greenville expressed interest in setting up a program, where their students could meet (virtually), I was eager to make it happen.
Our program was entitled the “Jewish Olympics” and it was very similar to a Maccabiah experience that might occur at Jewish camp. There were a variety of games that we played with and against one another, from Jewpardy (Jewish-themed Jeopardy) to a Play-doh sculpture contest. The ruach (spirit) of all the teams, across both cities and through our screens, was quite impressive.
One of the highlights of the program was our Jewish Heroes scavenger hunt. For this scavenger hunt, there were images of 20 Jewish Heroes hidden in the two congregations, with short biographies of their achievements included so that the kids could learn a bit about them. Half of the images were hidden in Beth Israel (Greenville) and half were at SJC (Pinehurst). The blue team in Greenville, for example, had to find all ten of their heroes, while their teammates in Pinehurst, had to find all ten of theirs. On the back of each clue was a letter, and upon finding all the clues, in both cities the teams had to work with their teammates in the other city via Skype to put the letters together and decode a secret message.
The message? “We made new Jewish friends.”
We wrapped up with “Closing Ceremonies” and with students in Greenville performing “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish” for the students in Pinehurst.
In years to come, I think it is safe to say that technology will help us innovate entirely new ways of educating Jewish students. But we should not assume that such innovating can only occur in the future. We are already living in a time when it is possible to program across virtually any geographical boundary using applications available for free . What this means for the future of Jewish education is still an open-ended question. But with some imagination and experimentation, we just might find answers to that question that fundamentally re-shape and re-create our Jewish future.
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