My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
A few months ago, we saw a posting for a local environmental event. So we put on some sustainably manufactured clothes, grabbed our Nalgene water bottles, and headed to our neighborhood community garden. Unsure of what to expect, we wound up participating in a two hour drum circle while different people took turns reading off a list of “10,000 ways to save the earth” into a microphone.
Although our hands were sore and our ear drums were tired, we walked away energized and excited. We were going to compost! We were going to re-use old containers! We were going to walk to work!
Unfortunately, like a lot of resolutions, our commitment to compost, to re-use containers, and to walk slowly waned, and soon we were back to old habits. Part of our inability to follow through with our resolutions was due to our neighborhood’s current practices. There’s a lot of Styrofoam used here, a lot of double bagging those pesky plastic bags at supermarkets (our own fault, too, for forgetting to bring re-usable bags to the store). Our small recycling bin is only collected by the city every other week. There’s no outlet for recycling glass, either.
So, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of waste in our surroundings. And, like other cycles, waste begets waste. But when we noticed the adverse effects of this cycle, and how easy it is to get stuck in a rut, we knew we had to begin implementing some innovative changes our wasteful ways.
After accumulating an abundance of glass bottles over a 6-month period, we decided it was high time for a glass bottle painting party. We invited friends to bring their glass non-recyclables, got some acrylic paint, and created some really nice looking bottles. Now, these bottles decorate our homes as well as our desks at the office; they can be used as storage containers, as pitchers for drinks, as vases for flowers, and much more. We’ve re-used in the absence of a recycling outlet.
As a follow up to the painting party, we wanted to host an event that focused more broadly on sustainable practices. Lonnie recently became a Moishe House Without Walls host, which means we have the opportunity to plan and create events for the young Jewish community in Jackson, with a lot of support and guidance from the folks at Moishe House.
Lucky for us, the holiday of Tu Bishvat was a week away. Tu Bishvat, often called the birthday of the trees, is one of four new years mentioned in the Mishnah. We thought it would be cool to connect to the idea of the new year for trees with our drive for sustainability in Jackson. With the help of Moishe House Without Walls, we invited a bunch of folks to our house and asked everyone to share what their resolution for sustainability is. Answers ranged from “use less toilet paper” to “create a hydroponic fish tank.” We filled our house with fruits and nuts, and invited friends to try a new fruit.
We had about 25 people in our tiny home in Jackson, trying new fruits, drinking festive Tu Bishvat wine, and working on their resolutions for sustainability. Becoming sustainable, both on a personal level and on a wider scale, is a process — and a learning opportunity for everyone involved. And on that note, we really are going to make a concrete change, after months of only talking about it.
Our resolution for sustainability: we are going to start composting!
Hopefully this will bring our Jackson community closer to sustainable practices, which will create a culture of sustainability, because progress begets progress. Thanks to MHWOW, we will be able to host many events in which we can chat with folks about a range of issues relevant to young Jews.
Up next for Moishe House without Walls in Jackson, Mississippi: A Purim masquerade ball– featuring masks made exclusively from recycled materials. (And, of course, ongoing composting adventures.)
My family flew to Los Angeles two weeks ago to attend the funeral of my father-in-law, z’’l. We had been with him for a visit in December, and we are grateful for these good and recent memories. He was truly a wonderful man. Throughout this journey to Los Angeles, many emotions flowed through us. We were relieved that he’s no longer suffering, sad that he won’t be here for so many lifecycle events and moments with the grandchildren. I was expecting to feel those emotions. I was unprepared for some of the others that came up while we were there.
My husband grew up in the L.A. area, and his parents and his brother and extended family still live there. We are the ones who don’t – the “family that lives in Mississippi.” At the shiva house, as people chatted after the service, I received an odd comment, from a woman I did not know. The woman said: “I noticed your children seemed to be able to really participate in the service with the Hebrew… and you’re from Mississippi? That’s wonderful.”
In that moment, I think I was in shock, so being the “polite woman from Mississippi” I simply responded by saying thank you and moved on to the next person. However, two weeks later, it’s still bothering me – it’s that itch that’s in the middle of your shoulder blade that you just can’t reach so it just keeps irritating.
I’m sure this woman felt like she was complimenting my children, but the implication that they would be Jewish illiterates because we live in Mississippi is infuriating and ridiculous! Yes, it’s wonderful that my children are from Mississippi and have learned Hebrew, attend religious school, participate in youth group, and so on. But it shouldn’t be shocking, and I imagine there are others who share this woman’s sentiment.
Raising Jewish children anywhere can be a challenge. You have to work at participating in the Jewish community. It’s very easy to sit at home and not get involved. We have been active in our synagogue and involved in Jewish organizations. We go to Shabbat services, religious school, holiday celebrations and programs at the synagogue. We have a Shabbat meal together, and our children are enriched by going to Jewish summer camp. Two of our children have gone on a NFTY-in-Israel program, and our third will go once he turns sixteen.
We enjoy a fulfilling Jewish life here in Jackson, Mississippi. We don’t enjoy it “in spite of where we live”—we enjoy it because we seek it out. We participate. We make the effort. You can live in Los Angeles and do nothing Jewish beyond going to a good deli and eating fresh lox. And you can live in Mississippi and do something Jewish every day. It’s not about where you live—wherever you live, it’s about the choices you make.
The legacy that my husband’s parents gave him, raising him in Los Angeles, and the legacy my parents gave me, raising me in Mississippi, is a shared one: we are committed to being active participants in the Jewish community. It is a legacy that I hope our children take with them – wherever they may choose to live as adults.
And to that I proudly say, “shalom, y’all”— from Jackson, Mississippi.