As an ISJL Education Fellow, I hit the road a lot and spend time in communities that are new to me—and many of them might be new to you, too! So I’ll sometimes shine the Southern & Jewish spotlight on one of my new communities… starting today with Midland/Odessa, Texas.
I recently took a trip to Midland/Odessa, Texas. For anyone who hasn’t heard of these twin-cities and the surrounding area, it’s worth a peek at a map. The city of Midland was founded in 1881 as a midway point between El Paso and Dallas on the Pacific Railway. Traditionally, white collar workers lived in Midland, while blue collar workers lived in Odessa. Twenty-three miles separate the cities from one another, but it is clear today that the cities have a symbiotic relationship.
This relationship exists clearly in the business function, the thriving oil industry, but also in other affairs, such as Jewish life. (Speaking of which, there is a full history of the Jewish experience in Midland/Odessa available through the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities!)
When many people think of a combined metro area, some famous ones come to mind: Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul… Most of these metros are less than 15 miles apart. And between the centers of them are suburbs and businesses that serve both cities. Midland and Odessa, however, are 23 miles apart, downtown to downtown, and between the two cities lies almost nothing besides the local “cash crop”: oil fields. The cities only agreed to a combined statistical designation recently, as it allowed for larger companies to come and serve the now combined “Petroplex.”
Though the synagogue building is in Odessa, the membership population is split between the cities of Midland and Odessa.
I spent the weekend hanging out in both Midland and Odessa. Erev Shabbat services on Friday night were at the synagogue in Odessa. I was also hosted overnight in Odessa. A community lunch the next day was held in Midland. Havdalah was at a community member’s home in Midland. I went on a tour of the “Petroplex” with a community member, exploring both Midland and Odessa (including George W. Bush’s childhood home). Religious school on Sunday was in Midland. Last but not least, I was taken to the airport on Sunday afternoon, located smack dab between Midland and Odessa, to spend a little time at the oil fields.
In no place is the symbiotic relationship between Midland and Odessa more obvious than in the Jewish life. There are separate school districts for Midland and Odessa. There are separate Walmarts and other businesses of the like for the two cities. But there is only one synagogue – Temple Beth El, and it draws people from both Midland and Odessa, to observe Jewish traditions, and also to celebrate a longstanding Jewish presence in the Permian Basin.
The Jewish community, small but dedicated, consists of approximately 65 families. There are 8 students in the religious school, all enthusiastic and eager young Jewish children. I had a wonderful time teaching students about the Jewish obligation to social justice and tikkun olam.
You may have noticed that lately at your local gas pump prices have gone down. Some places in the country have even seen prices well below $2. Midland/Odessa is the hub of this gas gala that has led to plummeting petrol prices nationwide. Jews were initially attracted to the Permian Basin in the early 1900s for its oil industry… and while this post isn’t intended to be a plug for Jews to move to Midland/Odessa, hey, if you like the oil industry, this may be the place for you. The Jewish community there really is lovely.
Speaking of lovely Jewish communities you may not have visited… I look forward to sharing the stories of some of my upcoming visits here, there, and everywhere in the Jewish South— with all of you!
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!