As you may be aware, during this past year a young boy year fought a brave battle with cancer, and lost. His name was Samuel Sommer, affectionately known as “Superman Sam,” and his Mom, Rabbi Phillis Sommer, decided to document the family’s experience through a blog as they fought their way through life. He became an internet sensation, being sent on trips, dealing with hospital visits, and facing the potential end of his life. First the blog was created, but it caught fire and not only were social media sites, but actual news sites were covering his story.
I first became aware of this when people began to change their profile picture to the icon of Superman. A comic book aficianado, I immediately took notice. Then, my staff brought something to my attention that I hadn’t yet seen. St. Baldrick’s, an organization that raises money for children’s cancer research, was having an event… for Rabbis. It is called 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and I signed up. At an annual convention for Rabbis, at least 36 rabbis will be shaving their head to raise money for these kids as well as to show support for their brave fight.
The shave will take place at the CCAR Convention in Chicago on April 1. Following the shave, I’ll share some more of my thoughts on the experience, here on the Southern & Jewish blog. For now, you can visit http://bit.ly/36rabbis to make a donation to St. Baldrick’s in memory of Samuel Sommer, and support Rabbi Kassoff, my other rabbinic colleagues, and me, as we prepare to go bald for children and a brighter, healthier future.
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Are we doing enough to nurture Jewish introverts?
It’s a fair question. Jewish culture is often depicted as loud, full of debate, everyone cracking a joke or raising their voice to make a point. And here in the South, hospitality is so important – but does Southern Hospitality, and Jewish community, do enough to be genuinely nurturing to the more introverted among us?
Susan Cain is the author of Quiet, a book that challenges cultural biases for and against extroversion and introversion. The term introvert, she points out, denotes a personality style that is often more “reserved, contemplative, and passive” while the term extrovert denotes a personality style that is often associated with “assertiveness, charisma, gregariousness, social dominance.” But, why, she asks, are extroverts viewed as superior to introverts?
My sister sent me this TED talk and—rather than infer whether or not she sent it to me because she thinks that I am an introvert—I have spent some time wondering whether the Jewish community fits Susan Cain’s characterization of many modern day institutions which she suggests are structured for extroverts – including schools, offices and camps. The Jewish community, as a microcosm of the world at large, is made up of similar institutions and places tremendous value on the concept of “community” which seems intrinsically extrovert friendly. (How much more so, those of us working in Community Engagement?!)
Ms. Cain points out that many change-makers would describe themselves as shy, soft-spoken and quiet. She names Ghandi and Rosa Parks as examples. Soft-spoken leaders, she argues, are popular because people know that they are not at the helm because they are craving power and attention. Instead, they are at the helm because they don’t think that they have a choice. They have a mission. She mentions that her grandfather who was a Rabbi—spent a lot of time in solitude. Yet, he led a congregation in Brooklyn and gave sermons in front of large audiences. She shared a suitcase of books written by her grandfather’s favorite authors and talked about how, as a child, reading and wandering off in her own mind, was one of her favorite things to do. When she went to camp, she was encouraged to be more “social.” Ms. Cain acknowledges the importance of being social but believes that the world loses out when introverts are expected to be pretend-extroverts and, like her, are not encouraged to read books at camp. As a girl, she figured out that the suitcase of books she brought with her to camp belonged under her bed.
She ends her talk with three calls to action which made me consider whether there are calls to action that would be particularly appropriate for members of the Jewish community to reflect upon. Here are my calls to action:
-Share ideas on how your Jewish community provides space for people who may be introverts to thrive Jewishly.
-Ask yourself: Does our community make introverts feel guilty for wanting to experience Judaism on their own? If so, how can we change that?
-Ask yourself: What is in your “suitcase?” Why did you put them there? If you are an introvert, on occasion, have the courage to, as Ms. Cain says, speak softly and share your thoughts and wisdom with the community. If you are an extrovert, share what is in your suitcase and have the courage to recognize the value of the soft-spoken people in your midst.
Like many Jewish children, my kids live for camp! They count down every day of the year until it’s time for camp to begin. It’s the highlight of their year. They come by this camp obsession naturally, because I was the same exact way. Camp was and is still a profound experience in my Jewish life. For many of us, the moment we arrived at camp we were forever changed.
My husband and I share four kids, and with a price tag of about $4,000 per child, that means it will cost us roughly $16,000 to send our kids to summer camp. Yes, you read that right: sixteen thousand dollars.
I know the three-and-a-half-weeks my kids spend at camp are priceless. I also know that with $16,000, I could pay a full year’s tuition at a state college.
For almost 20 years, I have worked in the field of Jewish education. I am not destitute, but I do not have $16,000-a-summer kind of money. Camp isn’t the only expensive Jewish experience for our children – there’s religious school tuition, youth group events, retreats, and let’s not even talk about Israel trips.
Especially in the South, and small communities anywhere – we can’t afford to make these opportunities anything other than amazing and accessible for our Jewish children and families. The question is – are we? Specifically, do Jewish organizations provide Jewish financial assistance in a way that honors and displays the values of Judaism?
Judaism teaches us time and time again the importance of tzedakah and how it is our obligation, not choice, to help others. (That’s why it’s great to see lots of new camp scholarship opportunities, like BunkConnect—though it’s for first-time campers only.) We need to give assistance, and just importantly, we must give it the right way.
We don’t make this process very easy. As an educator, I have helped countless families find aid because they had no idea where to look. If you don’t know the system, you can get overwhelmed fast. Then, once you find an opportunity, you start on the paperwork. Oh, the paperwork! I have had to provide less financial paperwork to buy a car than to receive a $500 camp scholarship. This paperwork is to be filled out each and every year, despite the fact that most people’s financial situations do not change drastically from one year to the next.
Because of my public role in the Jewish community, I am very open about the fact that I get scholarship money to send my kids to camp. If people know that I do, perhaps they will feel more comfortable asking me about it and doing the same. I actually try to model that asking for Jewish dollars to send Jewish kids to Jewish camps is a good thing.
However, going public with that information is my personal choice. Many people who need assistance do not want everyone to know their circumstances. Yet last year, my synagogue listed all of the children by name that received financial assistance for camp in our monthly congregational bulletin. When I called to ask why they felt the need to do this, I was told that it “could encourage others to ask for money.” I thought just the opposite. If people knew that they would publicly be categorized as needing help, many would be less likely than ever to ask for it. Nowhere did it say on the forms that if your family received aid, your child’s name would be publicly listed. My complaints resulted in yet a new question on the application; now you check a box if you DON’T want your child’s name listed. I would wager that 100% of families check the NO box. Yet the question remains.
I know that funding agencies do need to know some information to determine who needs aid and who doesn’t, but this could be a far less invasive process. This year I saw a new question on the paperwork. I was asked to calculate my family’s food expenses for the year. I was stunned. Why would anyone need to know this? This question brings up so much that is wrong in our society and I was saddened that the Jewish community was so insensitive and uninformed. It is a fact that healthy, fresh food such as produce and proteins cost more than processed and packaged food.
Why would the scholarship committee want to know what I spend on food? Will I be penalized for feeding my family healthy, more expensive food? What if I spent a lot of money on food because I fed others, as an act of tzedakah—or what if I invited people to my home when they needed somewhere to celebrate the Jewish holidays? What if someone in my family had a food allergy that necessitated us to follow a specific and more expensive diet? Why am I second-guessing what I feed my family as I am asking for help sending my Jewish children to Jewish summer camp? I remain stunned.
This has been on my mind for some time. I have spoken with some of the heads of these funding agencies as well as those who serve on the committees. These are people who are committed to helping others and who are engaged in doing good work for the Jewish community. I am certain of this and yet we have a lot to fix in this process. I am charging all of us to do better and to be guided by the principles of Judaism that somehow always lead us in the right direction.
It starts with each of us. My husband and I talk about how we will spend our money when our kids are grown and when we have a little more to give, and our top choice is always to give back to the places that helped us send our kids to camp. We want to support those important scholarships— and we want the funding to require little to no paperwork, bring absolutely no stigma, and instead just make access to life-changing camp experiences more affordable for all families.
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