This post is from a new staff member, 2013-2015 ISJL Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
A few weeks ago, I listened intently as Beverly Wade Hogan, President of Tougaloo College, gave a truly inspirational speech. Entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege,” President Hogan discussed the importance of recognizing the advantages each of us may have in life, and taking from those advantages not a sense of entitlement but rather a sense of obligation to better the communities in which we live.
Tougaloo College is located in Jackson, Mississippi. I too am located in Jackson, now –so it might be logical to assume that I heard this speech at Tougaloo itself or somewhere else nearby. In fact, that is not the case. A few weeks ago, as I listened to President Hogan’s speech, I was sitting in a Baptist church not in Mississippi but in Providence, Rhode Island, at my college graduation ceremony.
It felt poetic, almost as if this gathering was specifically catered to my life. My classmates in Providence (my past community) listened intently as a leading figure in my future community (Jackson, Mississippi) provided some words of motivation as I transitioned from one to the next. As I sat in that church, I couldn’t help but feel a little bit special. Whereas just about every student in that room had no tangible way of connecting to our graduation speaker, I felt close to her because I knew I would be moving to the place that she calls home.
I felt like I knew Jackson, and I felt like I knew Mississippi. For two months, I had known I would be moving there to be an Education Fellow at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, and for two months I had done a little bit of Googling about my soon-to-be home. I knew the names of a few restaurants, I looked up the names of some of Mississippi’s leading political figures, and I even could tell you which area parks had facilities for me to play my beloved sport of disc golf. These surface level bits of information, in my head, were grounds for a real emotional connection to what would become my new home.
Since arriving down here, I already resent Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex. I would even say that Two-Weeks-Ago-Lex was incredibly presumptuous. If I had a time machine, I would go back and give him a piece of my mind. Basically, I was operating under one incredibly flawed assumption: that from my computer in New England, I could gain an understanding of a city a thousand miles away by reading a few books and running a few Googling searches. In reality, it takes time to understand the nature of a new place, and the only way to do so is by immersing yourself in it fully.
Now, more than ever, I am taking President Hogan’s advice to heart. Along with the other new ISJL Fellows, I am committed to more than living as passive recipients of the attractions Jackson has to offer. I am committed to engaging in the community where I now live, contributing to better our city and our region, and take responsibility.
Pictured: A peaceful spot on the Reservoir… a place best discovered when you meet Mississippi, in person.
Full disclosure: Kveller.com is a partner site of our host, MyJewishLearning.
In a recent blog post on the Jewish parenting site Kveller, Joyce Anderson wrote about the process of teaching her oldest son to pray. For Anderson, teaching her child to speak to God, preceded (or facilitated, perhaps) her attempts to talk with him about God. Interestingly, Anderson is not Jewish; she is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her article is one of several non-Jewish perspectives in Kveller’s God Month, an ongoing series on the challenges of talking to children about God.
While Anderson shows no ambivalence about encouraging her child to develop a personal relationship with the divine, the other responses in the series present more complicated experiences of parenting and faith. Among all the essays, Jewish or not, hers is the only one that takes for granted that children should believe in God. Taken together, the articles point towards a basic truth: we aren’t that good at talking about God.
At first, I found this troubling. The ambivalence about God in the Jewish responses certainly reflects editorial choices or selection bias, but it still squares with my own experience of non-Orthodox Jewish life in America. Reading through the pieces, I found myself wondering, “Do any of us simply believe?”
Anderson’s prayer-based solution makes a lot of sense, especially given the deeply personal relationship between individuals and God in Christ-centered theologies. Prayer takes a central role in a few of the Jewish responses, as well, but in a different way. For the Jewish parents that write about prayer, showing a child how to pray also helps him or her relate to God personally, but the contributors’ own sense of God remains less defined. For them, the advantage of prayer is that it acknowledges and celebrates a creative force in the universe without limiting how we conceive of that force.Tellingly, of the two Jewish parents who write about sharing their personal religious practices with their children, both include prayers from Eastern traditions, like Buddhism.
Several God Month contributors—including self-identified Jews—reject the idea of God altogether, or at least bracket off questions about God’s nature and existence as unknowable and inessential to an ethical life. These writers express ambivalence about the prospect of raising a religious child, though they note the importance of teaching their kids to respect other people’s religious traditions. Some of the skeptics are attached in one way or another to Jewish culture and identity, and even want their children to have the option of choosing a more spiritual life.
Now, I’m neither traditionally observant nor deeply spiritual. I do not intend to criticize anyone’s personal practice or to bemoan some lost golden age of Jewish observance. I am struck, however, by absence of modern Jewish voices that speak confidently about God, both in the Kveller series and in my own experiences.
Perhaps, though, the issue is not that we are bad at talking about God, but that God is and should be difficult to talk about. Sometimes, especially when children come into play, we may feel need for a simpler or more concrete sense of the divine. But complete certainty (fundamentalism) is a dangerous thing, and what kind of God could be understood through mere human speech, anyway?
The tensions and contradictions expressed in the Kveller series might not reflect deficiencies in our communities, but a healthy struggle between traditional beliefs and universal values. I still hope that the series will include a Jewish writer who approaches the topic of God with more certainty and less ambiguity, but I can also accept and appreciate the articles that are there so far. They represent a real effort to do right by our children when it comes to God talk. I’m not a parent yet, but I hope (God willing) that the questions raised by God Month are ones I will one day have to answer both for myself and my children.
By Education Fellow Rachel Blume
“Office was destroyed. Walking to hospital with Mom. Can’t find your brother.”
I received this text message from my father just after 5:00pm on April 27, 2011, after an EF4 tornado ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, my hometown. This storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, killed more than 50 people, and left both physical and emotional scars on countless others.
At the time, I was finishing my last week of graduate school and packing up my apartment in Atlanta, which had been my home for the previous 6 years. I had accepted a position as an ISJL Education Fellow and was preparing to move to Jackson, Mississippi. Now, as my time here comes to a close and I prepare for my next transition, I’m amazed at how quickly two years have come and gone. I also find myself recalling the natural disaster that I will always associate with my move to Jackson.
When I tried to call my dad or text back, nothing would go through. The tornado had taken out all of the cell towers, and it was nearly impossible to get a signal in town. I was unable to contact either my parents or my brother. I felt completely helpless. I was over 200 miles away and couldn’t reach anyone.
When I was finally able to make it home roughly 72 hours later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of what used to be my parent’s law firm, my second home.
The remains of my parents’ old building.They were inside when the tornado hit and survived by sheltering themselves between shelving units in a storage room. Their firm is up and running again in a brand new facility.
Though both the experience of nearly losing my parents and the the destruction that I witnessed in Tuscaloosa were unnerving and even traumatic, the outpouring of support from the greater community to my family was a revelation. Numerous people showed up to aid in the clean-up process, and those that couldn’t physically help sent meals or found other ways to show their concern. I’d never experienced that type of love and support from such a large number of people.
The most important lesson I have taken from those events is how a community can become like family. Prior to this, I had taken a passive role, not only in my Jewish community, but also in the community at large. While an interest in connecting with and supporting Jewish congregations had already led me to take the job with the ISJL, the collective response that I witnessed in the aftermath of the tornado further inspired me to work for the betterment of the communities—Jewish or otherwise—in which I live.
I carried this motivation with me to all of the communities I worked with during my two years as an Education Fellow. I have been lucky enough, not only to contribute to these communities, but also to benefit from them. Seeing the camaraderie and closeness of our communities has encouraged me to continue as an active participant moving forward.
In the next few weeks, my time at the ISJL will end, and I will move into the next phase of my life, attending law school in Houston, Texas. While I’m thankful that my family has not gone through another natural disaster, I know that the lessons I learned from the last one will serve me well through my new transition.