Today’s reflective post comes from Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
The end of summer can be a whirlwind for ISJL Education Fellows, as many of us spend the majority of our time traveling throughout the Southern region, getting to know Southern Jewish communities and preparing for the upcoming year of religious school. It is an incredibly exciting experience, and it has really energized us, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, and still, now – throughout the remaining autumn Jewish holidays. Wonderful as energy is, though, at times reflection is what we crave.
Thus, while in Houston with two other Education Fellows, we decided to take a couple minutes away from the excitement to engage in a little bit of meditation and self-reflection. Now, we could have done this just about anywhere – no specific venue is required to be introspective, nor are there any necessary supplies. But we had heard about a fascinating place called the Rothko Chapel, a multi-faith center for contemplation and prayer, and we decided it might be worth checking out.
We were not disappointed.
The Rothko Chapel is truly one-of-a-kind. As we walked into the lobby, the first thing we did was sign in to the Chapel’s guest book. Looking at earlier visitors, we saw people from all around the country. We proudly added our names, and our home base of Jackson, Mississippi, to this vast and varied list of places, and we headed towards the prayer space.
At its entrance, there were a number of books, humbly resting side by side. Some might not think much of this, but it certainly caused me to stop and think. Next to one another were traditional holy texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and others. They were carefully placed side by side, with none taking precedence over the others. Implicit to me was the idea that none of them was “more correct” or “truer” than the others. This table made me stop in awe, because on it lay eight or nine texts that are, together, the basis for thousands and thousands of years of tradition, all over the world. There they were, quiet and ancient, for all to explore, analyze, study, or question.
What struck me about these books even more was that they were very well-worn. Where the covers might once have been shiny, they were now a little bit duller. Some of the pages were a little yellowed, and maybe even torn a little bit. I thought about this not because it makes the texts any less beautiful. On the contrary, I think it adds a great deal to them. There is something unbelievably tragic about a brand new book, impeccably shiny, being placed on a shelf only to go unused for years and years. These, however, through daily exploration by visitors from around the country and the world, have given new wisdom and growth to countless people. They have earned their scratches.
Next, we went into the chapel itself. There were only a couple of others inside as we entered, but we spread out to a few different corners of the octagonal room. There were benches in the center, mats for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and, most interestingly, fourteen black paintings on the walls. The paintings set the tone for a space that felt incredibly spiritual. I sat there for a while, my mind wandering from the texts in the lobby to how I might best do teshuvah (repentance) over the High Holidays, and eventually, to nothing. I sat there and thought about nothing for the first time in almost forever.
After awhile, the other Fellows and I got up to go. We rose at precisely the same moment, without speaking or gesturing, despite the fact that we had been facing in different directions and did not know exactly where the others were.
Visiting this chapel was an unbelievable experience. Through the texts, I saw quite literally what it looks like when Judaism exists peacefully, side by side, with other world religions. It reminded me of the delicate balancing act we engage in as we attempt to maintain a level of Jewish distinctiveness while simultaneously playing a role in the betterment of the world more generally. As we walked out of the building, I returned to my work for the ISJL, an organization adeptly and simultaneously carrying out both of those missions.
L’shanah tovah, y’all.
Rabbi Klaven will be in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Rabbi Dreffin will be in Longview, Texas.
In these communities, as in communities large and small throughout the world, Jewish people – and often their friends and neighbors – will come together to seek atonement, to reflect, and to prepare for a better year ahead.
Wherever you will be spending your holiday, we wish you a meaningful experience and a sense of community. May you be sealed in the Book of Life!
Where will you be for Yom Kippur?
(Photos of Vicksburg Confirmation Class and Longview’s Temple Emanu-El both from ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.)
Within the liturgy of Yom Kippur, guilt is assumed to be collective, as we communally recite the sins. That being the case, then it is also appropriate – at this time of reflection and renewal – to acknowledge communally our triumphs and successes, as these efforts to sustain and strengthen Jewish identities and Jewish values too could not have been possible without the collective efforts of each and every one of us. Therefore, I offer the following prayer of supplication and thanksgiving for our collective success:
For the good we have done when fully aware,
And, for the good we have done even when unaware;
For the good we have done quite publically,
And, for the good we have done anonymously;
For the good we have done by using gentle comforting words,
And, for the good we have done using strong encouraging words;
For the good we have done by sticking to our principles,
And, for the good we have done through compromising them;
And, for the good we have done in not-so-random acts of kindness;
For the good we have done through passive non-violence,
And, for the good we have done through active confrontations of truth;
For the good we have done in the light of our successes,
And, for the good we have done even in our failures;
V’al kulam, Elohai ezra-ot, azor lanu, s’mach lanu, chazeik lanu,
For all these things, O’ God of our Help, aid us, support us, strengthen us.
In our work here at the ISJL, our partnerships with congregations throughout the South yield shared triumphs every single day. May this sacred cooperation continue, here in the South and throughout the Jewish world. For surely then we can say with great humility and appreciation to our Source of life and strength that while 5772 was remarkable, 5773 will be even better. L’shanah tovah, y’all!
What blessings are you giving thanks for during these 10 Days of Awe?