As a Jewish professional, I am always looking for ways to connect Judaism to our lives. “Professional” Jews know that our students, congregants, and communities look to us as models for how to live a life filled with meaning and purpose.
One of the first lessons we teach Jewish children is that we are created b’tzelem Elohim – “in God’s image.” For some of us, being created in God’s image is a reminder to be God-like, showing as much kindness and compassion as we can. For others, being created in God’s image is a warning not to tattoo or pierce our bodies. For me, at this stage in my life b’tzelem Elohim is more literal: it means that God gave me my physical body to take care of, nurture, and cherish.
That’s why every day, I think about what I put into my body; every day, I find the time to move; and every day, I seek out things that make me happy. These acts not only keep me well physically, but also they also heighten my spiritual awareness. This has become as much my Jewish practice as the study of text or praying.
I am also just as much a role model for my students and staff by taking care of my body as I would be for my Jewish knowledge. I believe this very deeply: taking care of our physical selves honors a gift given to us by God, and is a very Jewish thing to do. And yet, the Jewish professional field is overwhelmed by unhealthy lifestyles, too little sleep, too little exercise, a state of imbalance and poor health. The irony in this is that research shows undeniably that people are more productive when they eat well, exercise, and get sleep.
The Jewish world closely mirrors the rest of society in the issue of weight and nutrition. And, sad but true - it’s especially bad in the South. I wonder, though, if we as Jewish leaders have an obligation to model healthy living – focusing not just on mind and spirit, but also on body. When we talk about obesity and health, emotions run deep, as this is something many people struggle with and few are comfortable discussing. So how can we, as a Jewish community, help and support each other in this arena?
What does being b’tezelem Elohim mean to you? Do you think Jewish leaders should model a healthy lifestyle?
Sometimes, being a Jewish organization in the Deep South means being perceived as an “outsider”– outside the major metropolitan areas, far from the largest centers of Jewish life. But what we know is that wherever we are, the struggles and triumphs faced by Jewish communities of all sizes are similar. South, North, East, West.
That’s why the ISJL staff was thrilled to get to contribute a think piece to E-Jewish Philanthropy about how we’re addressing Jewish education issues here in the South that are prevalent issue, and how there are no Southern solutions or Northern solutions– just communal, collaborative solutions.
If that’s not enough to catch your attention, what if we tell you that the piece is called “Giving Our Gorilla a Much-Needed Banana“?
We would love for our Southern & Jewish blog readers do join the conversation, too: do you think large and small communities can work together? Though there are cultural differences that make our regions unique and interesting, on issues of Jewish identity and education can our similarities outweigh our geographic differences?
By Education Fellow Elaine Barenblat
I have loved teaching since I was very young, but I did not get my first real experience teaching students with cognitive and physical disabilities until after high school, when I worked as a City Year corp member. From that moment on, there was no looking back. My college education and much of my work experience focused mostly around special education, and I consider it my specialty. So, when I decided to join the ISJL Education Department, I knew I would have fewer opportunities to use my formal training in special education, but I hoped to use my skills to educate other teachers, and to bring an eye for inclusion and modification to my lessons and programs.
My recent trip to Houston’s Beth Yeshurun gave me the chance to use my formal training and to see how special education can work in the world of Jewish supplementary schools. This year, Beth Yeshurun is hosting a group called Kesher, organized and administered by The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, that offers an inclusive Jewish education environment for students with a variety of special needs. They work with congregational religious schools so that children can learn with other Jewish students and have access to resources like playgrounds, computer labs, community rooms and group study opportunities. Ideally, students enrolled in the Kesher program spend as much time as possible with their same-age peers.
As an Education Fellow, I bring new and innovative programs to communities. Usually, I deliver all-school programs or work with large groups rather than individual classes, so that the lessons reach as many students as possible. My visit to Houston was no exception, and Sheryl Eskowitz, the Education Director at Beth Yeshurun, made a point to invite the Kesher students since she knew my background and passion lies with that demographic. I found my first experience with Jews in the special education field to be thrilling and eye-opening—it became more evident to me how much of a need there was for formal Jewish special education. The population is ready and waiting, now all we need are trained and willing teachers.
Kesher’s inclusion model—now embraced by a large and growing number of public schools—is certainly not a new one, but providing basic and meaningful Jewish education to those with disabilities is still sometimes seen as a radical movement. Very few day schools provide classes or resources for those with developmental differences, and most Sunday schools are not able to provide the resources and teachers needed for a part-time venture into such an involved undertaking. It is refreshing, then, to see a group of children, each of whom exhibits different learning abilities, work together as a Sunday school family for a few hours. While at first glance, we might see students with special needs benefiting most obviously from interactions with their same-age peers, we should remember that the Kesher students are not the only ones having a memorable learning experience.
Thanks again to Sheryl Eskowitz, Beth Yeshurun and the Kesher Sunday School classes for letting me participate in such a great program!