In addition to being the Director of Rabbinic Services at the ISJL, I’m a proud member of the Jewish Welfare Board’s (JWB) Rabbinic Council, an organization established in 1917 to support the spiritual needs of Jews in the United States armed services.
I recently received word that three pallets of Jewish prayer books were damaged in military efforts, and are now unusable. The military was in desperate need to find Jewish burial plots in the South that could provide a proper resting place for these words of God and the long-held traditions of our people. This would be a great and rare opportunity for a congregation to be of unique service to our nation, a way – if you will – to say ‘thank you’ for our freedom to worship as we choose.
Regrettably, earlier efforts to secure those plots in large metropolis were a bust. Those in charge of coordinating this holy endeavor never received a response from the large congregations to whom they had reached out and called.
Thus, they called me: “Please, can you be of any help? We don’t understand how these large communities could be so silent in the face of this request.”
Yes, we could help.
Land space, particularly in large communities and congregations where there is the realistic hope of continued growth, is more limited. Reasonably, one can assume that much of that limited space is already claimed. But in many of our smaller southern congregations, where the populations are more likely to be on the decline, there is some land to spare.
Therefore, I made a suggestion: “Allow me to reach out to our smaller southern congregations. I believe they’ll respond more promptly. Not simply because they may have space available, but because they know well the meaning of ‘sacrifice.’ It’s what allows these small congregations to defy the odds and continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish identities and values in their area so richly.”
And respond they did.
Within a day, there were offerings from smaller congregations in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. These were thanksgiving offers to this nation. These offers were also a tribute to all of the American Jews who have valiantly served this nation in uniform since its earliest days. And of course, the response showed respect for the prayer books themselves; as one congregation shared: “It’s only proper that these words should rest here with us, as – for us – they lead the way here!”
The damaged prayer books now have a resting place in the South, and the words within continue to enrich our lives. God bless our communities, God bless our soldiers, and God bless America.
As I get ready for my Southern family’s traditional Thanksgiving celebration, which this year will overlap our celebration of Hanukkah… well, there’s been all this talk of “Thanksgivukkah,” but right now it’s the annual menu that’s on my mind.
Thinking about all the foods we eat, and how this night too is “different from all other nights,” I realized this holiday needs its own four questions:
1) On all other nights, we eat only one carbohydrate. Why on this night do we have sweet potato casserole with a gooey marshmallow topping, mashed potatoes, bread, cornbread dressing, stuffing, and rolls (oh, those many, many delicious dinner rolls)?
2) On all other nights we eat raw, steamed or sautéed vegetables. Why on this night do we serve our green beans in a casserole that loses nutritional value with a can of cream soup and crunchy onion rings on top?
3) On all other nights, we don’t dip our chicken, turkey or meat in gravy. Why on this night do we generously smother everything in gravy?
4) On all other nights, we eat sitting upright. Why on this night do we eat and eat and eat, then eat some pie and recline in front of a football game?
Of course, this year, in addition to the regular old Four Questions of Thanksgiving, we have another one: On all other Thanksgivings, we don’t light a menorah. Why on this night…
Well – that one has a really clear answer, at least.
As for the others, well, the holiday in the United States began as a feast and giving thanks for a good harvest. Today, the holiday has become about families gathering around a table and giving thanks for being together – which isn’t an excuse for the overly-decadent food.
So there may not be a truly satisfying answer to each of the 4 Questions of Thanksgiving, but the overall answer is that we do it to celebrate with our families, enjoying what we have and hopefully also remembering those in need and sharing in the bounty.
And as for all the carbs and calories, well… it’s only once a year, right?
In the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of Jewish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine came to America and made new lives for themselves in the Deep South. Last week, some Alsatian Jews embarked on the same journey (made much more convenient by intercontinental air travel) to learn about Jewish history and heritage in the South.
Traveling up from New Orleans, last Friday this group of 33 Jewish Alsatian tourists found themselves spending a day with ISJL staff in Jackson, Mississippi. We have worked with tour groups in the past, but never in a different language! While many of them did speak English, the group leader translated every presentation into French. Take a look at this short clip I filmed of Dr. Rockoff presenting to the group…
From our office we went on our usual tour of Jackson sites, stopping at Tougaloo College, the COFO Civil Rights Education Center and the Medgar Evers House Museum. These sites mainly focus on the events of the Civil Rights movement, so I did my best to explain how that history has shaped this region. Questions like why so many buildings were empty downtown, why students pay so much for a college education, and inquiries regarding contemporary race relations, covered huge topics that while difficult to explain easily in English, are especially challenging to explain in French, to an audience without a native understanding of American history.
The cultural exchange went both ways, as I got to hear about the French Jewish experience as well. One woman asked me about how Southerners practice Judaism, and if they still identify as Jewish if they aren’t active in a congregation. She explained that while there are many secular Jews in France, many strongly identify as racially Jewish because of their direct connection to the Holocaust. The leader told me later that a few of the visitors were hidden children during the war. I also found it interesting in discussing our ISJL education program when a few of the guests then explained to me that their children never had any formal Jewish schooling; they simply learned Jewish practices and customs in the home.
It was a great learning experience and such a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with this group. We’re happy that they chose to spend their time in our neck of the woods and I hope this post will encourage some of you with fewer oceans to travel across to make plans to join us soon for your own Southern Jewish experience!