Around Mother’s Day last month, we started wondering what the Jewish mothers (and fathers!) thought about their sons and daughter coming to Jackson, Mississippi, to serve as Education Fellows. If they were from the South or from a small town, were they particularly proud? If they were from the North or a big city, were they particularly nervous?
We thought it would be fun for you to hear from our parents about the experience of having a child move to Jackson. We also want to let them know how grateful we are for their support as we enjoy this great adventure. After all, ISJL’s Education Fellows come from all over the country. Some of us grew up in the South and some of us had never even been to Mississippi before taking this job, so we have a diverse range of experiences. Some of our parents were frankly “concerned” when we first announced these plans, while others were thrilled.
Despite concerns, our parents were supportive, and we needed all their help! The first “real job” out of college is a big step, and we are all so grateful to our parents for teaching us how to buy a car and shop for renters’ insurance and other grown-up necessities. We are also so excited and proud that we have been able to share our Southern stories with them—and now we’re enjoying reading about their initial reactions!
Here are what some of the parents of our second year Fellows (2012-2014) have to say, at the end of their sons and daughters’ time with the ISJL. We’ll also share a second piece with the thoughts from the first year Fellows (2013-2015) as they arrive at the midpoint of their fellowship. So now – find out what the parents think…
My Fellow: Elaine Barenblat
My Thoughts: When we first heard that Rachel Stern was pressuring our daughter Elaine to become a Fellow, my only thought was: “Why would I send my 5 foot nothing blue-eyed blond to Mississippi to become a target?”
All through the vetting process, I was very skeptical of this adventure—or misadventure—with her safety as my one and only concern. It wasn’t until we made the drive to Jackson and fell in love with the city that we finally “got it.” Jackson is a glorious city, full of charm and history. The ISJL has created a program that absolutely surpassed my wildest dreams of how this experience would enrich my daughter. She has taken the basics of education and her love for Judaism and expanded her knowledge to all aspects. She is more experienced in dealing with so many unusual situations which would probably never have come her way. Elaine has grown personally and professionally and I am sure the ISJL experience will propel her future in ways we’ve ever imagined possible. The friendships made in these 2 years will certainly last a lifetime. We are extremely grateful Elaine was given this opportunity, and I am happy to be a “go-to” parent if there is another nervous mom out there—just send her my way and I’ll convince her that her child should not pass up this amazing opportunity! – Sheri Barenblat, San Antonio, Texas
My Fellow: Dan Ring
My Thoughts: When I told friends about our son moving to Mississippi, several of them jokingly asked me if I’d seen the movie Mississippi Burning! I knew he’d be fine…I’d served as a Synagogue Education Director for 10 years, and had met other Ed Directors from all over the south. I knew Southern Hospitality was the real thing! I worried about all of the travel, but I was happy for the travel too. The ISJL offered quite an opportunity for work and travel and personal growth. But I was always glad to hear when Dan made it back to Jackson after one of his long drives. I love hearing about the personalities at the different congregations [he visits]. There are so many people that Dan would like to see again. I hope he gets the chance and I’m glad he got to meet these people through ISJL. Based on his descriptions….I’d like to meet them too!! — Janet Ring, Reisterstown, MD
My Fellow: Amanda Winer
My Thoughts: I never really thought about it until about a year ago, but it was very easy for [my husband] Steve and me to raise and educate our children as Jews. Living on Long Island when they were young we sent them to the Y-JCC preschool, joined one of a half dozen synagogues in our small town, spent holidays with family and friends… exposure to Judaism was easy and fellow Jews were all around us. When we moved to Massachusetts, it was still relatively easy. We looked for a town to live in where there was a vibrant synagogue community, and we easily found Westborough and Congregation B’nai Shalom. From there, our children discovered Wafty, NFTY-NE, NFTY, Eisner Camp, and many other easily assessable opportunities to learn about and experience Judaism.
But when our youngest daughter Amanda began looking for a job in Jewish Education, Steve saw an ad for Jewish education fellow positions at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi. I was shocked. Mississippi? Are there even any Jews to educate in Mississippi? And why would Amanda go to Mississippi to work in the field of Jewish education when there are so many Jewish related opportunities in the Northeast?
It was then that I began to realize that educating and raising Jewish children was not nearly as easy for some parents. I learned about ISJL founder Macy B. Hart’s own stories of his parents driving 160 miles round trip every Sunday morning to bring their children to Sunday School. I realized that for some parents, educating and raising Jewish children was not nearly as easy as it was for us. I realized, as Amanda had already, that she could make much more of a difference providing Jewish education in the south where there was a much greater need. So Amanda signed on, and has since then shared stories like the miracle of assembling 150 Jews for a Chanukah party in Northwest Arkansas, tri-lingual Shabbat morning services in McAllen, TX, and kosher jambalaya in Lafayette, LA. I am proud to have taken part in the formation of Amanda’s Jewish identity and education, and am beyond thrilled that she is standing on that foundation to reach out to over 3,000 Jewish students. — Lori Winer, Westborough, MA
Stay tuned for Part II, when we’ll hear from some moms and dads of the 2013-2015 Education Fellows!
I’m what you would call a reluctant business traveler. While I am the director of the Education Department of the ISJL, with the main office being in Mississippi, I actually live in San Antonio, TX.
Thanks to technology, I mostly telecommute, but once a month I fly into the Jackson office. I HATE flying. I mean I really HATE flying. Although I fly a lot, I am a very anxious flyer and as a result I have developed a very fixed coping routine mixed with superstition, prayer, and just a splash of OCD. I will spare you the details but just know that I recite the Shema A LOT!
What makes matters worse is that most of the people around me seem to be fine with flying. Some of them even look cheerful and like to make all kinds of new friends. It shouldn’t surprise you that I am not fond of plane chatting. I am often in my own world of Shema-ing and yoga breathing, and don’t really feel much like hearing where people are headed or the reason for their travel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rude and I will always answer questions when asked but I have figured out what to politely say that will end the conversation quickly.
Here’s how it usually goes:
Passenger: Is this trip work or fun?
Passenger: What do you do for work?
If I say I work in education, there are immediately more questions….
Passenger: Oh, are you a teacher? What grade do you teach? What subject do you teach?
Then I have to explain that I’m not actually a teacher…..
Me: I actually work in the-non profit world.
Passenger: Oh, how interesting. What’s the name of the non-profit? What does it do? Have I heard of it?
When I bring up the word Jewish, the questions/comments reach a whole new level…
Passenger: Oh! Are you Jewish? I have a Jewish friend named ____________. Do you know him/her?
The conversation/questions can go on and on and can involve my own personal belief system or could just involve some comments about Jewish foods they have tasted. Regardless, I just want to sleep or cope with my flying anxiety, so I have come up with what to say that provides some information but that shuts down the conversation as soon as possible.
This has become my new go-to response?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
This usually sounds uninteresting to most, and I am done with my plane chatting for the flight (phew!). But every once in a while, someone really just wants to chat. Last week on my flight was one of those times. She was a nice middle aged woman who let me know that she was going to visit her son and help him to move into his new apartment. She had an art magazine in her hands and continued to let me know that she was a painter. For her day job she worked for a printing company in Jackson. She was getting ready to retire in the next few months and paint full-time. After she had given her me her back-story, I knew that she was ready to hear from me and that my usual end the conversation technique would be ineffective.
Nice lady: What do you do?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
Nice lady: Oh! That’s exciting. We do a lot of printing for non-profits. What’s the name of your organization?
Me: The ISJL.
Nice lady: Oh my goodness!!! We do all of your printing!
Me: You do!? I’m the one that has y’all printing all of those spiral-bound curriculum books each year. They are lessons for the teachers we work with. I’m soooo sorry that we get them to you so late each year, but you always come through for us.
Nice lady: We just love working for y’all.
Me: I’m so glad to have the chance to say thank you. Those lessons are important to many schools and we couldn’t do our work without you.
Nice lady: I have a Jewish friend named____________. Do you know her?
Even though my conversation that morning ended up being predictable, this one was also special. Sitting next to me was a stranger that I couldn’t do my job without. She took our words, ideas, and experiences and literally put them on the page so that we could share them with roughly 500 teachers throughout our region. It was a nice connection, and a chance for me to say thank you. After we chatted LOTS more, I returned to my role of grumpy business traveler… but with a pretty full heart.
Right now, Rabbi Matt Dreffin and Rabbi Marshal Klaven are in the midst of the Passover Pilgrimage, journeying to communities throughout the South to lead seders and Passover programming.
Here is one of Rabbi Klaven’s first updates from the road: “Question: What do you get when 10 Jews and 50 non-Jews get together? Answer: An unforgettable 1st Seder on the ISJL Passover Pilgrimage. This evening in Natchez reminded us all: to go great distances, we cannot go at it alone; but –as the Bible says– we must go as “a mix multitude!” Thank you, Congregation B’nai Israel and all our wonderful friends there!”
The Passover Pilgrimage continues through April 20, with stops in more than half a dozen Southern states:
Seders along the way take place at congregations (including churches), and additional pastoral visits and events are planned. As ambassadors for this festival of freedom, the rabbis are excited to share their thoughts along the way and post-pilgrimage. In the meantime, we wish them safe travels and will continue sharing periodic updates on the ISJL Facebook page, as well.