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“It’s The Thought That Counts” Isn’t Good Enough

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

blogelul2014My mother said this at least a thousand times to my brothers and sister and me. And it truly stuck, because as I sit here pondering today’s #BlogElul writing promptDOher words are playing on a loop in my mind.

“‘It’s the thought that counts’ is not a Jewish concept. What you do matters more than what you just think about doing.”

My mother would often follow this admonition with an acknowledgmenta warning, even!that it’s often easier to think about something than do it. To think about visiting someone in the hospital, to think about showing up for the highway cleaning event, to think about attending a funeral. But that’s too easy, and not effective enough.

While people might say, shrugging and smiling and forgiving, “Hey, it’s the thought that counts,” the question is … counts for what?

To use one of the examples my mother might have drawn on in my youth: If your friend mentions she’s thirsty and you think about getting her a glass of water, but you don’t give her any water, why should that count? Pouring her a glass of water and addressing her thirst is what will actually make a difference. Doing counts.

This is what my mother would remind us, as she drove us to the senior citizens’ center to read and sing and spend time with residents there. It is what she would repeat as we went to life cycle events, happy and sad alike. It was her mantra when we volunteered at the soup kitchen as a family, when we visited a cranky relative, when we sent thank you notes for every present ever received.

And as an adult, it’s why I push myself to “do” as much as I can. I saw, time after time, how much it mattered to be there rather than to “keep so-and-so in our thoughts.” When we have the ability to actively do, we also have the responsibility.

We see this reflected throughout Jewish culture and tradition. The Hebrew word mitzvah, which we use to connote good deed, literally means an obligation. We are prescribed to celebrate with bride and groom, to visit the sickto do, to do, to do.

To actively do applies on scales both big and small. When we see an injustice, it’s not enough to notice it. We have to address it. When someone is hurting, it’s not enough to sympathize or empathize with themwe need to find out what they might need, and then whether it’s a hug or a primal scream or to be left alone or whatever, we need to do our best to actively do that.

The balance, of course, comes in the value inherent in thinking. In Jewish tradition, and in life. After all, action without thought, reckless knee-jerk responses without reflection, can be fruitless and even dangerous. I’m a pretty reflective person, and with every fiber of my being, I still want to emphasize thinking. When something challenging is on the news, I still want to ask myself what I really know, and push myself to think and listen and research before settling on what action I will ultimately take. As a first question, I want to ask others “What do you think about this?” and listen to their responses.

But I need to challenge myself, and challenge others, by posing a slightly more difficult second question… not just “What do you think about this?”, but also “What are we doing about this?”

Sometimes, of course, there is nothing we can do. Or we don’t have the ability to take action. But when we can do, we should doand despite what Yoda might have to say about it, sometimes we can at least try, and perhaps the attempt will count for something, too.

It’s not always going to be easy, but hey. Who said it would be easy? Especially when it comes to Jewish stuff? “It’s the thought that counts” is not a Jewish concept. Taking action, and doing the right thing even when it’s hard… that’s a Jewish concept cultivated right down to my core.

Thanks, Mom.

This post was written as part of the #BlogElul project. Today is the first day of Elul, traditionally a time of reflection before the High Holidays. We welcome your reflections, too!

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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Seek Stories, Not Stereotypes

There’s one page I follow obsessively on Facebook: Humans of New York.

Image shared with permission from Humans of New York

Image shared with permission from Humans of New York

Brandon, the photographer and author behind HONY, approaches total strangers, takes their photos, and asks questions that are often incredibly personal. He doesn’t wait for strangers to approach and share their stories, instead he openly investigates and uplifts voices otherwise overlooked.

I’ve been following HONY quite some time now, and recently this page has been sharing stories far away from New York City. In partnership with the United Nations, supported by the Secretary General’s MDG Advocacy Group, Brandon is currently traveling to 10 countries over the course of 50 days, to visit faraway places and listen to as many people as possible.

When I opened the page today, there were several postings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Each photo came with a unique story, informed by personal experience.

A question was on my mind that Malkie Schwartz posed to me when I first came to the ISJL, to begin my work as a Community Engagement Fellow: “What do you think of when you think about Africa?”

Most of the images I associated with Africa throughout my childhood had to do with Aid for Africa campaigns. Young children, malnourished, dusty, reaching out for food and help. This made me think. What if these were the only images you ever saw of Africa? What would you think of someone who came from there?

It’s difficult, and I think wrong, to see an entire continent as one-dimensional: needy, desolate, ravaged by AIDS.

This particular image from the HONY/United Nations project struck me. There’s a young man, standing in the middle of street, next to a poster of some young boys sitting on the ground, asking for food. In the caption that accompanies this photograph, the man says he does not like pictures like the one next to him. The man, credited as a Human of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, says: “It is not good to deduce an entire country to the image of a person reaching out for food. It is not good for people to see us like this, and it is not good for us to see ourselves like this… This gives us no dignity.”

He’s right, and why can’t we elevate voices like his?

There’s a great campaign by The Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund that asks similar questions. They depict Norway as a cold, sad country that can’t afford to keep its citizens warm. They call for Africans to lend a hand and send radiators to Norway, to save the poor people that can’t help themselves. They ask, what if campaigns like this were the only thing you knew about Norway? What would you think of the country?  Malkie wrote about this campaign awhile back, and it’s pretty eye-opening.

So here is my social justice challenge for the day, for all of us: go read a story about a company in Africa, learn about a local initiative. Think of positive adjectives to accompany the many negative ones we see in aid campaigns. Don’t perpetuate the negative stereotypes. We don’t like it when we experience it – we should actively work to avoid doing it to others.

It’s something I’ll be bearing in mind when it comes to Africa, and to my community engagement work here in the South, as well. Stereotypes are limiting. Stories open doors.

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Posted on August 26, 2014

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Team Jewish

Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.

When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.

Or, y'know, Team Miriam...

Or, y’know, Team Miriam…

There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.

The same is true of Argentinian Jewry. Or Japanese Jewry.

There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.

Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.

From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?

How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?

I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.

It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.

Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/dribbling/hitting a whole lot of different balls/pucks/shuttlecocks/you get the idea. Actually, when it comes to the sports metaphors, maybe Team Jewish is best characterized as a wrestling team? But I digress.

We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.

What does that mean for the Jewish future?

Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.

At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.

But I keep going to the mat.

Or the stadium. Or whatever.

What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?

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Posted on August 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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