I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. It’s a pleasant shock that nearly twelve months have passed since I joined the Jewish communal world; before I came to JWA, I maintained a safe distance from full-time employment with a Jewish organization.
I left my position as executive director of a summer writing camp last spring to figure out my next steps. Like many women my age (I am looking directly into the jaws of turning 50) I knew that the time had come to make a deliberate change. My kids were getting older, I needed more colleagues, more intellectual grist, blah blah blah.
Last month, I had the good fortune of reflecting on the changes of this past year, as I prepared to teach my first workshops with my JWA skirt on. I went to Jackson, Mississippi for the annual education conference of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). As a guest presenter, I taught about the importance of primary source-based learning, Jews and the music of the civil rights movement, and what inspiring Jewish women like Bella Abzug and Queen Esther can teach us about costumes and identity.
Moments like this are when I know I made the right shift in my career. I am learning a whole new lexicon. A new prism for viewing the world. A history I knew existed, but didn’t really know how to access. A framework for living the next decades of my life. An understanding that feminism is not monochromatic. And, as a result, a passion for the subject matter I get to shepherd(ess) every day.
Which brings me, again, to the ISJL. I listened to music from the civil rights era pretty much nonstop for a few weeks to get me into the mindset for teaching the topic. I learned many new details about Freedom Summer. I read and re-read Heather Booth’s letter to her brother, in which she writes about her “fear and exhaustion” but also the “songs that help to dissipate the fear.” The more I learn about Freedom Summer (I got an early look at the extraordinary new Stanley Nelson documentary which premiered June 24 on PBS), the more I am humbled by the bravery of all the volunteers.
I am also profoundly inspired by the Jewish civil rights workers who comprised an estimated 50% of those college-age volunteers that summer. They went to heal fractured communities, to encourage the disenfranchised to vote, to bring a modicum of dignity to those whose basic democratic freedoms had been denied for over a hundred years, and to try and build a better world for the next generation through the creation of Freedom Schools.
Is it okay to say I had fun preparing for my first conference, even when the topics were tough? I had fun because I discovered new ways to think about my own history and identity and how to translate these discoveries for others. I have a new modus operandi, which I am proud to have and even prouder to impart—I kinda lectured friends at dinner about the important Jewish role models who preceded us, and not only were my friends encouraging, they were thrilled to learn the stories that were new to them.
And I had a great time teaching at the ISJL conference; the educators were smart, eager to learn new materials, and committed to sustaining Jewish life in their home towns. As a northeastern Jewess, I was moved to learn about the many small communities in the South where one Jewish educator nurtures and nourishes the children growing up there, and how, like Bella and Esther, these educators have to wear a few identities to navigate their different orbits.
My time in Jackson also had an unexpected “shining moment.” I met Pam Confer, who was at the hotel to plan for Freedom Summer activities later in the week. I asked her if she would come and sing “This Little Light of Mine” during my presentation on civil rights and music. I had planned on playing a recording of Betty Fickes’ version of the song, but the thrill of having a local artist sing was too tempting to pass up; her beautiful voice filled the room and showed us all how the power of music can bring people together. Everyone was smiling and clapping; the mood in the room was electric.
Thank you, ISJL, for introducing me to Southern Jewish life, and giving me the chance to experience shining a new light. And as we approach the 4th of July holiday, may we continue working toward liberty for all!
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Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.
These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.
How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”
In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.
To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.
How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way? While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.
As part of Jewish Outreach Institute’s ongoing partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I traveled to Mississippi this past week to serve as faculty at the ISJL’s education conference. I was reminded, again, of how many individuals in these Southern communities might not be Jewish—but are undoubtedly contributing to the Jewish future.
Simply by committing to raise Jewish children, they are contributing to our future; but their involvement goes above and beyond that. Southern congregations recognize this, voting with their feet and extending full synagogue membership to non-Jewish partners. These unsung heroes have joined the boards of synagogues, sometimes a thankless task, and have even become board presidents in some places. They are religious school teachers, and some have even become the directors of their town’s religious schools.
These partners-of-Jews have cast their lot with the Jewish people. The synagogue has become their spiritual home. We welcome them. We applaud them. And we thank so many in the Southern parts of these United States for leading the way, providing an example for the rest of us to follow.
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I smile. The man stares back at me and I look away, embarrassed. I feel my ears growing hot and I know my face is turning red, too. I am from here. I should know better.
DO NOT SMILE AT PEOPLE ON THE SUBWAY!
Before I moved to Jackson, I lived in New York City for four years of college. I was a pro at navigating the subway, walking quickly, avoiding obstacles on the sidewalk, and crossing the street irrespective of the traffic signal. I did not let people cut me in line and was very capable of intercepting those who tried. I mastered the art of hailing a cab and absolutely did not tolerate people who tried to steal my taxi by standing up-street from me.
In short, I was an excellent New Yorker.
When I moved to Jackson a year ago, I immediately started worrying that I was accidentally rude to people. I just was not used to making small talk with strangers, and oftentimes I didn’t realize strangers to speaking to me because, well, who talks to strangers? I had to learn to call people “sir” and “ma’am.” Where I come from (Massachusetts, then New York), women especially are very offended when you call them “ma’am.” It makes them feel old, and seems rude. But in the South, it is a much appreciated sign of respect. I quickly learned to love these habits. I think it is adorable when the students I work with call me “Miss Allison” and it is so sweet to see people holding doors open for one another.
I recently returned to NYC to visit my college friends. I landed at La Guardia airport, hopped over to the Upper West Side to visit campus, and then caught a train to Tribeca to meet up with my friends after work. That’s when things started to go wrong. I accidentally bumped into someone in the rush to get on the express train, so I said excuse me and let him go through the door first. He just looked at me and sort of smirked. How rude!
I was fortunate enough to find a seat and, like a true New Yorker, plugged in my headphones. Looking around at the other passengers, I smiled each time I made eye contact with someone. Once again, I must reiterate, this is the WRONG THING TO DO on the New York subway. People stared back or looked away or rolled their eyes. I could almost hear them thinking “where the heck is she from?”
This is not to say that New Yorkers are mean, or that Southerners are all quaint, sweet people. Most New Yorkers often offer subway seats to people who need them, and some Southerners drive like inconsiderate maniacs. Individually, I think we are more alike than we realize. Dan Ring discussed various theories of the difference between North and South, City and Small Town, in his blog post a few weeks ago, so I will direct your attention to that post for more details. What I will say here is that I think my ideal world is a combination of the two.
Without offending anyone, I would like to say that in my experience, people in the South are definitely overtly friendlier, but perhaps also a little less hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one. Meanwhile, Northerners (specifically, New Yorkers!) might not be as gregarious to strangers, but are also a little more hurried—which can be a wonderful quality, or a frustrating one.
And what’s funny is, I always identified with the pace and attitude of New Yorkers… but after only a year in the South, when I went back up to the big city, I felt like a country mouse. I had begun displaying some outward signs of Southernness… and I’m okay with that. I love New York, I love the South, and having lived in both places I am now hoping to embody the best of both worlds.
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