“Do you live in the same place where you were raised?”
The ISJL’s founder, Macy B. Hart, likes to ask people that question. He asked it of me, and like so many others, I had to say no.
I was born in Texas and have lived in many different states—California, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and now, Mississippi. I recently found this New York Times article, which shows where we came from, state by state, since 1900. As a historian, it fascinated me, and I wanted to share it with our readers here.
In 1900, 86% of Mississippians were born in Mississippi. By 2012, that number dropped to 72% — which is still higher than a lot of states, such as Texas, where only 61% of Texans originally hailing from the state.
The number of native born Mississippian Jews has declined precipitously. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews spread themselves throughout the state. In 1937, Jews lived in 107 different Mississippi towns. It reached its peak in 1927, with 6,420 Jews. Since then, it has declined steadily. In 2012, only 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi, with Jackson having the largest community. The generation of Jewish merchants produced children who became college-educated professionals and had little interest in taking over family businesses. The decline of Mississippi’s rural economy and the rise of national retail chains have also pushed Mississippi Jews to such booming Sunbelt cities as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.
I never expected to live in Mississippi, but I am so glad to be here and to call Jackson my home. The Jewish community here has been more than welcoming. It is a testament to the fact that despite their small size, Mississippi Jews continue to identify with their heritage, and have kept Judaism alive in the Magnolia State.
Wherever they may end up living, Southern Jews are proud of their heritage. As a native Southern Jew, I am honored to be able to tell those stories. So what about you? Do you or your other family members have Southern roots? I am curious to hear from all of our readers about their journeys so I can continue to share them on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities.
Y’all don’t be shy now!
I have very fond memories of my first time at Jewish summer camp. It seems like it was only yesterday.
Actually, it kind of was: my first Jewish summer camp experience was this summer, at 23 years old.
That’s right, somehow I made it this far without a Jewish camping experience. I understand that it may shock you that I am a Jewish professional who never went to Jewish summer camp. Please don’t be too upset: I had plenty of Jewish education and lots of fun with my family doing other summertime activities.
Still, I was curious about the Jewish camp experience that so many of my friends and colleagues had growing up, so I jumped at the opportunity to spend a week on faculty at URJ Greene Family Camp in Bruceville, Texas.
Lucky for me I was visiting with two camp veterans, my ISJL coworkers Rachel Stern and Missy Goldstein. Before I even left my apartment they had already imparted great wisdom about how to pack, especially about “camp-propriate” fashion. When I arrived the staff at camp led us on a whirlwind a tour of the grounds, which included a visit to the new eco-village, a view of Lake Jake, and an introduction to the camp llama, Caramel.
On subsequent days I spent most of my mornings at camp leading alternative t’filah (prayers) and short shiurim (classes) in various bunks. One of my favorite t’filah activities was an adaptation of the game Things, in which campers wrote down what they thought of when they thought about God, prayer, or being Jewish. Everyone then had to guess who in their bunk had submitted each answer. It was amazing to see the different responses throughout the groups, and a lot of fun to see how close friends could guess each other’s answers after so much time together at camp!
I also learned a lot of important skills, including how to dodge flying grasshoppers, how to bus tables in the dining hall, and the appropriate Hebrew words for all camp locations.
Reflecting on my visit to camp, I have learned so much about the value of Jewish camp and why it is such a formative experience. At camp, kids get to be themselves. For a lot of Jewish students it is one of only a few opportunities they have to spend time with other Jews their age. They get to just hang out, be friends, and learn through experiences rather than formal education. Interacting with campers also showed me a lot about how to teach students with actions, not just with words.
Whether we are clergy, teachers, volunteers, or just Jews around town, we are all role models for young Jews. We have to take that responsibility seriously, including in informal settings, and realize how life-changing those informal moments can be. I am excited to go forward into my second year as an ISJL Fellow with my new camp experience in mind.
At this year’s ISJL Education Conference, I helped lead a session about “Conflict Transformation.” The term is used to describe a response to conflict whereby our goal isn’t to view conflict as something negative that has to be quashed, but as a positive opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships.
With that in mind, I was delighted to see “The Questions We Share,” an article in last week’s New York Times highlighting the work of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions, an initiative that aims to foster constructive conversations among students. The goal is to make room for everyone’s knowledge, beliefs and opinions while ensuring that people are genuinely listening to each other. At the core of this initiative distinguishes between hard and big questions.
In the article, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, co-founder of Ask Big Questions, clarifies the difference between hard and big questions: “A hard question…requires special knowledge to answer. A ‘big question,’ by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.”
He demonstrates his point by using the following example: If one were to start a discussion about the Middle East that attempts to uncover how we can bring peace to the Middle East, it is very likely that the conversation will be limited to the people who have the most knowledge and passion regarding the issue. Rather than fostering a dialogue, it is likely to turn into a debate and create a rather hostile environment. Instead, the Ask Big Questions model focuses on building empathy around shared issues by asking questions that establish trust and invite everyone’s input. A potential question could be “How do you feel when you are a part of a conversation that turns to the Middle East?”
In the South, Jewish individuals are often seen as representing “the Jewish view,” though of course no individual Jew can speak for all Jews. When asked hard questions, it can be helpful to re-frame the question, so that you are able to talk about personal experiences rather than responding for all Jews. In this way, and in many others, big questions can generate informative and authentic discussions.
Hillel put together this conversation guide for facilitators who are leading a discussion centered on “Big Questions”. The guide is based on teachings from the Center for Civic Reflection. I encourage you to download it—and use it!
What are some hard questions your community has grappled with? Can you think of a big question that would encourage people to share related feelings and experiences?
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