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.
By Education Fellow Reva Frankel
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox community, so when I came to work at the ISJL, I knew that I would need to modify my Shabbat observance. During my interview, I remember thinking that my compromises would be well justified by the chance to share meaningful Jewish experiences with our partner communities. Though I anticipated that this would be difficult, I have been surprised to realize that changing my practice is the easy part. The biggest challenges for me have been the contradictions between my new experiences and the mindset that I developed in day school—beliefs that I never realized were so ingrained in my thought.
The biggest struggle has been reconciling my views on intermarriage. The belief in my community at home, at least among my teachers, is that intermarrying is the worst thing a Jew can do. It is better to separate completely from those who have intermarried, become more insular, and focus on perpetuating Judaism, than it is to accept such a transgression and risk the erosion of traditional Jewish identity and practice.
I don’t think I ever truly believed that this was the best response to intermarriage, but I realized one day during a webinar with Rabbi Kerry Olitzky from the Jewish Outreach Institute that I had been deeply affected by what I heard when I was younger. My mind latched onto Rabbi Olitzky’s words, understanding that the way to include Jews in Judaism is to accept those who intermarry, embrace their spouses and help them teach their children how to be Jewish. My body, however, was tense and uncomfortable. The thought kept cropping up—that intermarriage will bring about the end of Judaism.
I understand why the community I grew up in was so insular. It is easy to believe other Jews are less Jewish if you don’t know them, haven’t spoken to them, haven’t seen them be Jewish. On a recent community visit, I spent the weekend with a family in which only the father is halachically Jewish. The mother, who referred to her own family as interfaith, and I had many conversations over the weekend about religion and Judaism. Three years ago this woman knew very little about Judaism; now she is the only teacher in her children’s religious school. She has gone out of her way to understand Judaism and figure out the best way to teach it to her children as well as the other children in the community. During one of our conversations she again referred to her family as interfaith. We both laughed out loud, recognizing how absurd it was that she should still separate herself out, still hesitate to claim a stake in the Jewish faith. I was impressed with this woman and her awareness that some people just could not get over the fact that she is not halachically Jewish.
I understand the reasoning behind halachic Judaism. I understand that Orthodox conversion is important for halachic and traditional reasons. However, I cannot accept the stark lines we draw and the barriers we place between different factions of what is supposed to be one people. I don’t think that the Orthodox should change their standards and tell their children it is OK to marry anyone they want, but now I also don’t believe that people should only be considered Jewish if their mother is Jewish or they had a conversion with a beit din and went in the mikvah.
I knew that spending two years at the ISJL would challenge me, and truthfully I was looking to be challenged. My experiences on the road have fundamentally changed the way I think and who I am. Now I feel like I am trying to live simultaneously in two worlds, but I am not sure if that is really possible.
What are your thoughts on pluralism, and the “multiple worlds” of Judaism?
The following thoughts come to us from Education Fellow Erin Kahal.
A few weeks ago, another Education Fellow, Sam Kahan, and I were at the end of several back-to-back summer visits that took us on a whirlwind six day trip through Virginia and Arkansas.
We had a blast with each of our congregations, but we were exhausted since this was also the last round of a month of non-stop travel. We were standing in the Atlanta airport when Sam looked at me and asked, “Where are we? What state are we in right now?!”
I looked back at her, unsure, and we both started giggling hysterically. Our laughter continued for several minutes, even as strangers gave us awkward glances. I enjoyed the fact that this moment was a typical event in the life of an ISJL Education Fellow. The embarrassing scene provided me with great relief, but it also reflects my journey toward discovering my own joy working for the ISJL. The fellowship is challenging at times, but I have learned to harness a sense of happiness through laughter.
As soon as I heard of the fellowship, I knew the job was the perfect for me. I did not realize, though, how challenging it would be to jump straight out of school and into the working world. At first, I felt homesick and unsure of my exact role as a part of an amazing staff comprised of outstanding individuals from all over the country. However, as soon as I started going on my visits, I overcame my fears. I discovered just how much I love department brainstorming, leading and writing programs, and interacting with the wonderful people in all of my communities. In turn, my newfound confidence allowed me to discover my own sense of joy in the job.
We take our roles very seriously at the ISJL, but we also laugh together as a way to bond as a team and cope with everyday demands. My supervisor, Education Director Rachel Stern, guided me in this process by helping me to remain positive in the work I was doing. One way that she did that was by encouraging me to create a “Blue Folder” that contains all of my saved emails from communities that reflect my achievements; that way, I have something to cheer me up whenever I needed encouragement. As I began to feel more at ease in my job, I learned that my own happiness has a direct impact on my performance and on my community members. Enthusiasm is contagious, and being around so many different people throughout the South has allowed me to discover the ripple effects of positive thinking.
Earlier this year, Rachel proposed that we create a program dedicated to the joy of teaching, and her thoughts eventually turned into a session for one of the keynotes at our 2012 Education Conference. Afterward, I reformatted the talk as a program that we can take it on the road for summer visits. The lesson provides a serious analysis on joy, but it ends on a comical note, which you can watch below.
Leading this session, I have witnessed firsthand how simple laughter can transform the energy of a room. In Atlanta, it transformed my experience of the airport. Education fellows, like so many people, keep hectic schedules. Airports, roads, and rest stops often blur together, but it helps tremendously to hold fast to our enthusiasm. At times, I may forget my location, but when I stop to laugh and smile, I remember my place: serving the people of our congregations.
As Reb Nahman of Bratslav said: “Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimchah tamid! (It’s a great mitzvah to be happy always!)”
So, how do you find joy in your daily life?