Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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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???)
You may not picture central Mississippi as central to Jewish life. But every summer, one of the most dynamic Jewish conferences anywhere takes place in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every June, Jewish educators from throughout the South, and great presenters from around the country, gather together for three days of learning, networking, celebration and inspiration at the ISJL’s teacher training institute, AKA “the education conference.” While Jackson may not be known by most as a Jewish metropolis, and most folks wouldn’t guess that this Southern town is the location for one of the leading Jewish education conferences in the country, the simple truth is that if you come to Jackson in June, you’ll know it’s true.
That conference begins this Sunday, and as always, I couldn’t be more excited. Volunteer teachers, along with full-time educators, rabbis, and Jewish professionals from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and all over the region will sit beside one another, sharing challenges, sharing best practices, and of course, sharing meals. (Hey, you can’t have a Jewish event without food!)
I’m certain this year’s conference will lead to wonderful connections, great stories and plenty of what I like to call “goosebump moments.” For now, our team is working hard to take care of every single last-minute detail so when participants arrive Sunday, everything is in place. We’re watering the seeds and can’t wait for this blossom to once again bloom into beautiful life, nurtured in the warmth of a Mississippi summer.