Recently, I was sitting in my office listening to a Hanukkah mix on Spotify (one of the many reasons that I know that I will always, always be a Jewish professional). A song came on that immediately transported me to the back-roads of the Mississippi Delta: Neal Katz’s “Be A Light.”
The Neal Katz “Be a Light: Chanukah Songs for Grown-Ups” CD graced the middle console of the ISJL van when I was an Education Fellow (2010-2012). I often listened to it on long drives, regardless of the season. Seriously, have I mentioned I am destined to forever be a Jewish professional? The chorus begins: “Be a light, be a light / Shine proudly and loudly in the dark of the night.”
Humming this song, which I had listened to approximately 22 times as the holiday approached, I rang in Hanukkah with a Google Hangout. I set up my menorah, and placed it in front a computer screen. This doesn’t sound very intimate or personal, but let me explain.
For the last three years, my cohort of 2010-2012 ISJL Education Fellow alumni has spent one night of Hanukkah virtually together. I invite them to a video chat, and from three different time zones, we kindle the lights, singing the blessings down South, up North, all over. It’s certainly a “Shehechiyanu moment,” if there ever was one.
This year we had a special guest in our virtual midst—ISJL Education Director Rachel Stern, our old boss. We all spent over an hour talking and laughing and reminiscing about our collective time together. When we hung up, close to 11:00pm EST, we agreed that we would have to try and gather on our computer screens every Jewish holiday. And I know that it will really happen.
This virtual candle lighting—a symbol of unity, of community, of family—is a tradition that I can see continuing forever. The ISJL Education Fellowship fosters and nurtures continued relationships like these. Friendships that sustain themselves long after we go on our last community visit. I never could have imagined the power and the importance of these friendships in my life, of these Fellows in my family. Lighting the candles together once a year is a gift that I cherish, a gift that constantly reminds me of how lucky we are, and how brightly and proudly we shine our Fellow lights.
The hashtag #OnceAFellowAlwaysAFellow has become a joke among all Fellows. You use it whenever something magical and ridiculous converges, or when you have a Fellow reunion, or when you listen to things like “Be A Light” on repeat in your office. It started as something that was just sort of a joke, but as our candle lighting tradition reminds us, it’s not really a joke—it’s true.
Once a Fellow, Always a Fellow.
For that, I am thankful—this Hanukkah, and every Hanukkah to come.
Throughout the high holiday season, we think a lot about judgment. It’s a heavy word, and also a word that brings to mind lots of possibilities. In the month of Elul, God is judging us to see what we have done in the past year and what will happen to us in the future. Knowing this we reflect and pass judgment on ourselves and, often, others.
I am going to borrow a phrase from Rachel Stern’s #BlogElul post and say: life is about perspective. She used this phrase to encourage people to see things as blessings. Here, I’d like to remind everyone that our judgments are also a matter of perspective.
When I tell people I work for a Jewish organization in Mississippi I occasionally get a response like, “there can’t be a lot of Jews there!”… and it’s true that there are not as many Jews here as there are in New York or Los Angeles. But I am sad when people say things like “It’s great that you are helping those Jews, they must really need it.”
I think this statement reflects a judgment, intentional or not, lacking in firsthand knowledge. It also reflects a judgment about what a Jewish community should look like, that it should look one certain way, when in fact there are lots of different ways to build a Jewish community. The Jewish communities that I visit have rich Jewish lives, they just might not look like the life we know in New York or Los Angeles.
“Those Jews” don’t need judgment. None of us do—but we can all use support.
I also have to be careful of my own judgments. I am a visitor in the communities I serve as an ISJL Education Fellow, and it is my job to empower educators. It is not my place to judge what a community’s priorities should be, how they should spend their resources, or which values they should hold most dear. And it is also not fair for me to judge them against any other community, Northern or Southern. Each congregation is its own special place.
Throughout this month of Elul, as I begin my fall visits and my second year as a Fellow unfolds, I will have to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the communities with which I work, so that I can help them plan for a successful year. As I do this I am being extra careful to evaluate, but not to judge. I want to help each community be the very best versions of themselves, whatever that might be; evaluating their needs will help guide me to what support will be most helpful.
So, too, as we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, should we strive not to judge, but rather to evaluate. To take a personal inventory of what worked for us and against us in the past year, and how we can—and what support we need.
Each congregation I work with deserves respect, evaluation, and support—not judgment; each of us deserves the same. We are all “those Jews” who “really need” that!
Fellow Standard Time: (noun): Nothing standard about it all…
Thriday (noun): The combination of Thursday & Friday, used when Thursday is the last day in the
office. Common element of Fellow Standard Time.
There’s a lot of talk about the differences between Jews in the North and Jews in the South. Some differences certainly do exist. But in a world where the Jewish experience can be so drastically different based on where you live, there is one thing that binds all Jews together, from New York to Alabama: Jewish Standard Time.
In the Jewish world, when events are late to start or people are late to arrive, you’ll often hear it blamed on “Jewish Standard Time.”
Person A: “It’s ten after. When do you think we’ll get started?”
Person B: “Oh, we run on Jewish Standard Time around here.”
OK, in the South there might be a “y’all” thrown in there, but the conversation would sound more or less the same anywhere. Hearing this phrase uttered so often in my community and the communities to which I travel got me thinking about life as a Fellow and the way we spend our time. What is Fellow Standard Time?
Turns out it has even more to do with calendars than with clocks. Our whole week is shifted off-kilter from the rest of the world’s week!
For most people with full-time jobs, the week starts on Monday and ends on Friday. It’s a little different for an ISJL Education Fellow. On Fellow Standard Time, our weeks generally start on Tuesday and end on Sunday (yes, you read that right). On Tuesday and Wednesday we are in the office having meetings, brainstorming, touching base with our communities, and planning for our upcoming visits. Then comes Thursday, the day most others celebrate as a final push before the weekend. It’s a final push for us too, but in a different way. At the ISJL office, Thursday becomes “Thriday” (the natural hybrid word of Thursday/Friday) since Thursday is our last day in the office before we head off on our trips.
“Thriday” is an exciting day full of shopping, cutting, gluing, printing, and even sawing. You name it, we’re doing it. When the week is winding down for other folks, we’re getting pumped up.
On Friday, we hit the road. While you might be getting home at 5 PM, heading to Shabbat services or getting into your PJs, watching your favorite TV show, and looking forward to some R&R, we are just getting started with the most fulfilling part our job. We are lucky enough to spend our weekends with communities and in homes, teaching and learning. And then, on Monday morning, when everyone is gearing up for another week, we’re the ones in our PJs, enjoying our “weekend.”
Yes, it’s official: there really isn’t anything “standard” about Fellow Standard Time after all!