On Tuesday night, I hosted a large Passover seder at my home in Jackson, Mississippi. Out of love for this Jewish dinner party, I may have opened my big mouth—then, inevitability, my door—to a few too many friends.
I realized this seder would be different as I prepared the charoset. Ever since I was old enough to wield a knife, I have been the one to slowly hand chop apples and walnuts for our family seder. It’s cathartic for me to count down the apples, add lemon juice so the apples won’t brown, and stir in the honey with my hands. After about two minutes of chopping, though, I realized my stack of apples was taller than usual; they went straight into the food processor – and this year, convenience trumped tradition, resulting in charoset with more liquid than usual.
Yikes! Why was I compromising my usual charoset consistency? Because I was too excited about sharing Passover, and ended up inviting 30 people for seder. And no, these weren’t just Jews who needed a place to go, I had 13 seder virgins! I chose to invite my non-Jewish friends and neighbors because most of them didn’t grow up in places with a significant Jewish population and had never been invited to help celebrate Passover. In fact, many of my guests don’t know many Jewish people besides, other than myself and other members of the ISJL staff.
We went through the seder with some moments of quiet reflection, and some of laughter and levity. I encouraged guests to read along with the Hebrew transliteration, and my heart swelled when everyone’s voices joined together for “Go Down Moses.” We had a surprisingly successful gefilte fish tasting, sang a song about the afikomen to the tune of “Oklahoma” and answered a lot of questions about matzah.
Was it the most traditional or religious seder? No, not by any means. But I made that clear to my guests and encouraged them to take home the haggadahs to study up for next year. But even with soggier charoset, I’m glad that I was able to provide some of my guests their first Jewish seder experience.
I enjoy having my home filled with friends and food, so it’s understandable why I got so excited about hosting a Passover seder. It’s a tradition that lends itself to bringing people into your house and sharing a meal that’s interactive, educational and delicious. I’m already planning for next year—with a tent outside!—and you are all invited.
T.A.P. (Talk About the Problems), the ISJL’s peer mediation program, trains students to help their peers resolve conflicts peacefully. The peer-led-model is really important to us, but even when the youth are leading, they are not alone. There are many partners in making T.A.P. successful – and one of the greatest recent elements is the way we’ve been connecting legal professionals with the project.
There are many benefits to involving legal professionals in community engagement programs like T.A.P., but two stand out for me. The first is that legal professionals can be role models for the students – or, as we sometimes say now, the aspiring lawyers! Here in Mississippi, as in many places, it is not uncommon to find middle school students who have never met a law school student, a lawyer or a judge—particularly students who live in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. Meeting a legal professional can inspire students to explore the possibility of entering the field of law, and can make the profession more accessible to them; all the more so when we have volunteers who are relatable, because they share the same race, or gender, or background and life experiences. Another benefit is that students see legal professionals engaged in peaceful conflict resolution. TV programs and movies often portray lawyers as adversarial and aggressive; real, live legal professionals can emphasize that mediation and finding a more peaceful solution are their daily working goals.
Last week, Judge Carlton Reeves helped us launch T.A.P. at Whitten Middle School. The mediators had completed a training conducted by members of Mississippi College School of Law’s Black Law Student Association. To recognize the students’ achievements and to signal the start of their responsibilities as mediators, Judge Reeves administered an oath during which they committed to, among other things, maintain confidentiality.
Judge Carlton Reeves helped set the tone for the program by encouraging the students to utilize the program and take it seriously. By administering this oath, Judge Reeves demonstrated his commitment to peaceful conflict resolution and showed students that they too can enter the legal profession as a lawyer and perhaps even as a judge.
After all, like the students, Judge Reeves grew up in Mississippi. He attended college and law school before going into private practice in Jackson, Mississippi. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Judge Reeves to serve as a federal court judge, making him the second African American to be appointed to the Federal Court of the Southern District of Mississippi.
Having the Judge “preside” over our ceremony at Whitten Middle School put a face to the notion of potential for these students, and to the notion of community engagement for us all.
Who are some of your role models? Do you see yourself as a role model for others?
Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of working to put together a Southern Jewish Heritage tour for a group of Prozdor high school students from the Boston area. Using our resources and contacts in the region, we were able to create an itinerary through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham that introduced these students not only to the South, but also to the role that Jewish communities played in this region’s history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Below is a story written by one of the trip participants, re-posted from Prozdor Heads South, a blog that the students collaboratively maintained during their trip.
Yesterday we visited Auburn, Alabama, and Beth Shalom – the only temple in east Alabama. We were greeted by Mike Friedman, who immediately offered us food, and lots of it. He then began to speak to us about the history of the temple, his life, and the Auburn Jewish community.
Mike repeatedly mentioned that his story was also the synagogue’s story. He is originally from New York, but throughout his life, he and his wife moved around a lot, eventually ending up in Alabama.
My favorite part of the visit was hearing about his leadership skills. The Auburn Jewish community consists of about 35 families. He was the one that got the synagogue started, but more importantly, he was the one who kept it going. He is not a “certified” rabbi, but he explained that in the sense of teaching a community, he is a rabbi.
Beth Shalom is a Reform temple, which runs services weekly. The fact that he has kept the synagogue going for years is inspirational. They hold high holiday services, Passover Seders, Purim parties, and much more.
This experience left me with a new sense of profound appreciation for the Jewish community I am surrounded by in Needham. I find that often it is easy to take advantage of the fact that we all have close knit and supportive Jewish communities back in Boston. Mike had the courage to get one going and recruit others to keep the sense of community alive.
Just before leaving, he said, and I quote, “Someone has got to lead.”
This resonated strongly with me. I often feel this way about different aspects of my life, especially USY. My chapter started out small, but we have grown into a strong and great chapter with great leaders. There is still room to grow, but the fact that we have come so far is amazing.
Personally, this was the highlight of my trip and I am grateful that Prozdor has given me this opportunity.
We are so glad that this group was able to receive true Southern hospitality from a variety of hosts along the way, and we hope they will value their experiences here for years to come. If your group is interested in creating a similar trip, you can find more information on the ISJL website.