Confession: I’m still kind of a Yom Kippur rookie.
Yom Kippur has always been a mystery to me. I am from a household of two Jewish parents, but we were not an observant family. The most we did for the High Holidays was having my grandparents over for dinner. I knew Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, but I did not understand that there was an entire Jewish calendar, and my parents never even approached the subject of Yom Kippur.
Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I started to learn more about Judaism when I was in college. I sought out the Jewish community and met great friends and also learned a lot about being Jewish. Now, I am living in Jackson, Mississippi, working for a Jewish organization, figuring out my own Jewish observance and traditions—and still trying to figure out Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur gets a bad rap. We go from indulging in delicious food on Rosh Hashanah to fasting on Yom Kippur—kind of a downer. We go from celebrating to apologizing, from “Happy New Year” to “here’s everything we did wrong last year.” So this year, I wanted to try to figure out what Yom Kippur really means, but mostly, what it really means to me.
So I took a survey. I went around the office at the ISJL asking my fellow Education and Community Engagement Fellows to explain the point of Yom Kippur. The best answer I got was that it marks a period of transition. Like the secular New Year, people make resolutions and promises about how they will do better in the coming year. However, Yom Kippur is not only about looking forward to a bright future; it is also about reflecting on your past.
We spend 10 days in flux and get to think about big questions like:
- “What could I have done better this past year?”
- “Am I where I want to be in life?”
- “How have I changed during this past year?”
It is a time to check in with yourself, to not only make sure that you are doing what makes you happy, but also that you are doing good in the world.
- When was your last random act of kindness?
- When was the last time you volunteered?
- How are you going to give back in the coming year?
I find the best way to grow as a person is by giving back to the communities that have helped me along my own path. Before taking on this new perspective, I had a hard time understanding a holiday where we were supposed to think about all of the bad things we’ve done over the year and feel sorry about them. Now, I am excited to think about Yom Kippur as a time for personal reflection. I am going to sit down and make some goals for the next year, but also reflect on all that I learned, accomplished, and struggled with in 5774.
As of now, I’ve started to think about Yom Kippur like a Yoga class. At the beginning of each class, you set your intention, and I want to go through 5775 intentionally. I will think about what has changed me in the past year, and how that has helped me grow. I will think about how I can contribute to my community on both local and global scales. I will use these reflections to make a plan for how I would like to continue to grow in the future. Maybe this will become my tradition, or maybe my relationship with Yom Kippur will continue to evolve—either way, I’m already starting to understand it a bit better.
I took a look at my cell phone clock, which read 7:05 AM. I was incredibly sleepy, but not because I had just woken up. No, this was because I had not even gone to sleep in the first place.
I’m not in college anymore, so I didn’t need to pull an all-nighter to study for a test—this was absolutely, completely voluntary. I was at Limmud Atlanta + Southeast, taking place at Ramah Darom, a gorgeous summer camp. And if I were to go to sleep, that would mean sacrificing a few hours of an unbelievably wonderful Jewish experience.
Limmud Atlanta is hard to describe without seeing it up close and personal, but here’s my best attempt: take a fun Southern camping trip, mix it with a gloriously-overwhelming amount of Jewish learning, and sprinkle a 72-hour-long jam session on top. Stir it all together. Baddabing baddaboom—that’s my short and sweet approximation of Limmud Atlanta.
Here were some of the most memorable, totally-worth-sacrificing sleep experiences I had over the course of the conference.
- Tying together the concept of Tzedakah and episodes of Orange is the New Black
- Making percussion noises to best imitate what the 6th day of creation would sound like, in a session whose title asked me to “Get my Soul Vibration On”
- Learning how to play a board game entitled Settlers of Canaan – all about the Holy Temple in Jerusalem
Limmud Atlanta was educational. It was fun. It was, for close to 72 hours, thoroughly, awesomely ridiculous, in the best and most Jewish of ways.
Most importantly, it reminded of something I’ve long held to be true: Jewish conferences are, without a doubt, one of the best tools towards deepening Jewish identity, both personal and communal. Limmud Atlanta helped me remember that there is no substitute for deeply immersing in Jewish life for an extended period of time—even just a few days.
But some of you might be wondering…okay, so Limmud Atlanta sounds amazing, but what about all of the Jewish conferences out there that aren’t so dynamic? My response might sound a bit unorthodox: it is my heartfelt belief that attending even a sub-par Jewish conference is a substantially better allocation of Jewish time and resources than the vast majority of briefer Jewish engagement experiences.
This might seem strange at first, but hear me out. When at a conference—even one that does not achieve its goals particularly effectively—you enter into a mental framework. For two or three consecutive days, you immerse yourself in a particular subject matter. At a political science conference, attendees expand mental energy, for a couple days on the topic of political science. Same for a conference about feminism, or the Middle East, or anything else. At a Jewish conference, everyone there spends at least a couple days of their lives focused specifically on Judaism: On Jewish community, Jewish learning, Jewish history, Jewish culture, and of course, on Jewish food.
Now, I am very lucky to work for a Jewish organization. I spend at least 8.5 hours a day connecting to Judaism in some form. But many people struggle to allocate substantial time to Jewish engagement. There’s work, there are family commitments, perhaps some time for recreation here and there—important elements of our day-to-day existence that make any sort of intensive Jewish engagement difficult from one day to the next.
But by attending a Jewish conference, that paradigm breaks. It might normally take two full months to accrue 48 hours of “engagement” time in the Jewish community—and that’s for an actively involved Jew spending 5-6 hours a week in some sort of Jewish context. At a 72-hour Jewish conference, even after subtracting 8-hours a night for sleep (if, unlike me, you choose to indulge in some shut-eye!), you can reach that same 48-hour threshold in just three days. Even if the programming isn’t perfect, the experience is powerful. It’s transformative. Occasionally, it can be life-changing.
So, I would ask each of you reading this, please look for a Jewish conference happening near you. Don’t go just to make me happy (though I assure you, I will be, especially if I see you there)! Go because, odds are, it will help you evolve and grow as you undertake your own Jewish journey.
(And seriously, don’t you want to learn how to get your soul vibration on???)
Yesterday, the ISJL hosted students from Operation Understanding, an organization whose mission is to develop a group of young African American and Jewish leaders knowledgeable about each other’s histories and cultures to effectively lead the communities of Philadelphia, PA and Washington, D.C. to a greater understanding of diversity and acceptance.
I thought I would share with our readers here a little of what I shared with the students in our office.
Having taught high school history for a number of years, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a presentation for teenagers on the relationship between Southern Jews and African Americans. This is not an easy talk to give to any age group, because while we like the stories of Jews fighting for civil rights, the historical truth is that those were primarily Northern Jews; most Southern Jews were not actively involved in fighting against the white hierarchy of the South.
Jews in states like Mississippi lived in a climate of fear and intimidation. Southern Jews were acutely aware that any challenge to white supremacy would result in serious social and economic consequences. Synagogue bombings, threats of economic boycott, and violence directed against civil rights workers convinced a lot of Southern Jews to remain relatively silent.
African American activists faced the same challenges, but to a much higher degree. James Chaney – one of three civil rights workers murdered during Freedom Summer by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi – struggled to find support for civil rights among his local community. They were afraid of falling prey to what ultimately happened to Chaney. Chaney knew the risk and accepted it, paying dearly for his bravery. Following his death, his mother Fannie made sure that James’ younger brother Ben would follow his brother’s footsteps. I can’t imagine the kind of courage that would allow a mother to risk such a sacrifice, but she did, and Ben is still an active advocate of civil rights today.
Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a Jewish activist who came down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi trying to register black voters, elected to leave the danger almost as soon as he arrived. He did not make the decision lightly or at some small act of intimidation, however: he was senselessly beaten with a tire iron in board daylight by white supremacists. A small group representing Hattiesburg’s Jewish community urged him to get out of town, fearful their synagogue would get burned or their members injured or killed. Lelyveld responded: “Don’t worry, I can’t wait to leave.”
These stories illustrate of a larger lesson: when any one of us fights for a social justice cause, we often embark on that journey with the best of intentions and without anticipating all of the dangers, difficulties and tragedies along the way. When that path threatens our safety or the safety of others, we begin to question how far we should go. Despite enduring great risk and suffering great injury, Lelyveld was able to return to the North and never face his aggressors again. Jews within the Hattiesburg community had to live among them with the memory of his beating urging them against anything other than compliance.
Even still, some very brave Southern Jews did stand up for civil rights in all sorts of ways. Many prominent Southern rabbis called for an end to bombings of African American churches and school segregation. And, despite the threat of boycotts against businesses owned by their husbands and families, many Jewish women worked against the segregationist system through organizations like the Women’s Emergency Committee. The organization was formed to combat the governor’s closing of Little Rock High schools. One Jewish woman, Marilyn Siegel, raised money for the WEC while dying from cancer.
Today, learning and working together, we can use these stories as an opportunity to ask ourselves larger questions about what we would do in similar circumstances. The issue of personal sacrifice for the sake of the common good is at the crux of a democracy. Each of us must inevitably weigh just how much we are willing to sacrifice for others every day in our own lives.
Here are some of the reflections and insights from some of these amazing students:
- “I think too many people my age assume someone else is going to take care of things and so they don’t do anything but it doesn’t mean we don’t still care.”
- “In my community, the biggest problem is young black males being incarcerated, but I don’t know how to help because the problem seems so big.”
- “A bunch of us walked out to protest budget cuts to our public schools, but not everyone because they were scared of being suspended. I think we let fear get in the way of standing up for things we care about.”
- “I like the fact that my community is so diverse. I think it makes everyone stronger somehow. People tend to look out for one another and that makes me proud to live there.”
What are your observations about diversity in your community? How do historical narratives shape your own understanding? I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.