Late June is a special time at the ISJL office. Education Fellows are hard at work on programs, crafts and multimedia projects. The halls are lined with boxes of newly edited curriculum, which will be picked up by the Education Department‘s partner communities in just a few days. Everyone is preparing for the ISJL Education Conference, which takes place June 23-25 (Sunday through Tuesday) here in Jackson, Mississippi.
As we’re all busy prepping for the big event, please enjoy these pictures taken around the office.
As our Monday post indicated, it’s that time of year when we have new staff starting at the ISJL. During orientation we have time to get to know each other, sit around lunch tables discussing our former homes (Florida, Washington, New York, Wisconsin!) when it inevitably comes up—regional differences.
I started using this phrase during my first year as a fellow. I was making my summer visits and found that I was having the same conversations over and over again.
“So Rachel, where are you from?”
“Oh my goodness, it’s so cold there! How are you adjusting!”
“Um.. air conditioning?”
Soon I was having the “the temperature varies in different parts of the country” and “people are interested in different sports teams” conversations over and over again with new host families throughout the region. And so the “regional differences” title stuck.
Someone else must have known it was Orientation Week because this great article with regional dialect surveys was recently posted on the Business Weekly website. Joshua Katz, a Ph. D student in statistics at North Carolina State University, just published a group of awesome visualizations of a linguistic survey that looks at how Americans pronounce words.
It’s a perfect example of the typical regional differences dialogue. My particular favorite is the survey for “pecan.” Early in my ISJL tenure someone on a visit told me the way I pronounced it was not the ingredient featured in pecan pie but that a “pee-can” was something you take on a fishing trip. I always think of the anecdote before I utter the word aloud!
I had never even heard of crawfish, yet alone tried to eat them, before I moved to Mississippi, so I’m not sure my pronunciation would gave mattered. But after spending time in Louisiana, I know how delicious they are!
And of course y’all is always a heated topic of conversation in this office of transplants. I myself could never pick it up.
The diverse make up of our staff makes for a really interesting summer, as new interns and fellows join our team and spend time in the South. I’m going to make sure I figure out where everyone places themselves on these surveys. Where do you fit on the map?
By Education Fellow Benjamin Chaidell
The weekend after Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to speak about my experience as an Education Fellow at my home synagogue in New York City, the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale.
It is always inspiring to return to where I was bar mitzvah’ed and where, as a baby, I took my very first steps amid the dancing on Simchat Torah. This, though, was extra special. It was a chance to share just what I am doing in the South with the folks who always ask my parents what I am up to. It was a time to explain to born and bred New Yorkers that there are not only Jews in the South but also vibrant Jewish communities. Finally, it was an opportunity to show this loving community that has supported me throughout my life how their investment in me has paid off, that I’ve grown into someone who can share their vision of Judaism with others.
The reaction could not have been better. People were intrigued by the work we do and by the opportunities that I have been given, which made me appreciate this fellowship all the more.
With help from my coworkers at the ISJL, I crafted a dvar Torah on the week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei. I focused on the line that Jacob exclaims after his dream of a stairway to heaven: “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
From this jumping off point, I described how I have discovered Jewish communities and God in the places that I least expected and how those discoveries have transformed my views of other people and of the divine.
I talked about three kinds of places: physical places, cultural/idea spaces, and spontaneous/ improvisational places, and how God has surprised me in each of them.
Among the numerous locations I’ve visited, a few stand out. I experienced a moment of joy next to a huge shofar sculpture outside the Congregation Ahavas Chesed in Mobile, Alabama, and enjoyed heartwarming Rosh Hashannah meals in a garage in Greenwood, Mississippi, where over 25 family and friends gather with the nine remaining Jews of Greenwood to celebrate the holiday.
Beyond the pshat (literal interpretation) of a physical place, I’ve realized that we can find God in cultural spaces and “idea places” that I once thought had nothing to do with religion. I’m now an accomplished paper bag puppeteer, having performed a Purim play with my coworkers for small children in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’ve also found that “When the Saints Come Marching In” can infuse new energy into Adon Olam.
Finally there is the very place of the unexpected: spontaneous, go-with-the-flow, improvisational space. What I’ve learned most from this job in Jewish education is that it is OK for life not to go according to plan. Man plans, God laughs; the best thing to do is to embrace those surprises as God-given gifts.
I think back to the intimate impromptu hevruta text study I had with a man named Alfred in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Alfred was the only one that showed up for my program, and we were both locked out of the Temple. So we went to a nearby congregant’s bakery. at the bakery, two folks from Mississippi introduced themselves when they saw my kippah. Their son had converted to Judaism and they were looking for a kosher turkey for their Thanksgiving meal in Hot Springs. Alfred knew where to find one! Because we took our setbacks in stride, we were at the right place to help someone else maintain his own practice.
Judaism is all about being present and open to the unexpected. Surprises spice up life, reminding us to live in the moment, to learn and to explore and to wonder at the beauty of the world we live in.
“Surely the LORD is present in this place”…and maybe we do know it.