Every week, I am blessed to work with students all across the South as each prepares for his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah: from Arkansas to South Carolina, from Kentucky to Mississippi… thanks to the modern miracle known as Skype (and other online forums)!
Recently, during a Skype session with a student in Florida, my student noticed something. He pointed out the unique mark above one letter in his Torah portion. It was a trope (cantillation) mark, which had two dots like a colon and a straight vertical line next to it – like so:
“I know it’s not a vowel…” He said. And then: “It looks like an emoticon. It can’t be! Can it, Rabbi?”
For a brief moment, I thought about dismissing this notion, considering it just a crafty tactic of distraction in this particular student’s endless game of procrastination. But then, another thought came to me, and I said: “What?! You mean to tell me that you’ve never heard that Jews created the emoticon, hundreds of years before the advent of the computer?! I mean, think about it. What’s the purpose of emoticons?”
He answered, “To let us know the feelings behind what someone wrote.”
“Precisely, my dear Watson!* And the same could be said of these trope marks, written down in the year 1000 C.E by the Masoretes. They added these marks to God’s words in order for us to know not only how to read Torah, but also how to express the Torah, adding feeling and emphasis to the words.”
In that moment I became the father from My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding. Somehow, I found a rational way to explain how everything can be traced back to Judaism, of note here are emoticons. Yes, indeed, there is a direct line from Torah to our tweets, so that we can be ever mindful that – when it comes to words – what is important isn’t just what we say, but how we say it.
*Pseudonym used to protect student privacy, of course
A new congregation in Savannah, Georgia was looking forward to celebrating the high holidays together for the first time, but they needed something pretty important: a Torah.
They contacted our museum to arrange a loan. I had shipped items from our collection before, but I was curious if any special precautions needed to be taken with a sacred artifact like a Torah. Was there any specific ritual? Did it need to receive the Traveler’s Prayer before shipping?
Like most people of my generation, when a question like this arises, I first turn to Google. I typed “shipping a Torah” in the search bar. Nothing. I then consulted with my co-worker, who also happens to be a rabbi, and together we determined with the proper packing the Torah would be safe in the hands of shipping professionals, gentle handling required, but no prayers necessary. So I took the Torah measurements and called FedEx, to find a proper box and get this special delivery underway.
“How about a golf bag box?” The service representative asked. I admitted to him I wasn’t exactly sure how tall or wide a golf bag was but after he gave me the dimensions it seemed to be the best solution to this unusual problem.
I strapped on my Jewish educator cap and walked into the local FedEx with a 41” long Torah in my arms. I carefully squeezed through the doorway and immediately got the attention of the staff and customers in the room.
“How can I help you?” a tall man with a slight Southern accent asked.
I told him I needed a golf bag box, packing materials and a lot of shipping insurance.
“What is it exactly you are trying to ship?”
This could have gone two ways. The first would have been simple enough – I could have just said, it’s a museum artifact. But remember, I had my educator cap on, so I began to explain what a Torah: that it was a scroll containing the five books of Moses, carefully handwritten by a scribe on sheets of parchment sewn together. I told him it was a sacred object that is read from each week in Jewish congregations and contains the story and laws of the Jewish people.
“So … is it okay if I touch it?” he asked.
I smiled and replied “Yes, people have been touching Torahs for thousands of years”
He went beyond his normal service duties and helped me carefully wrap and pack the Torah securely into the box. We decided to list the Torah under Fine Arts and insured the package using its declared value. I thanked him immensely for his help.
The Torah made its way to Savannah, arriving safely within the next two days to the delight of the community – and now, I can officially add “Torah Shipping” to my resume. So if you by chance have found this post by Googling “shipping a Torah”, please send me an e-mail and I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned!
Questions about shipping golf clubs? You may be best to try someone else.
Skype. Gchat. iPhone.
These are some of my primary tools in my modern Jewish education career.
Utilizing technology is important for pretty much all Jewish educators these days, but when you’re serving an entire region, they become more than enriching add-ons. They become absolute necessities.
I work as a virtual supervisor (not a term that was thrown around much back when I was in grad school at HUC!). That means that while I’m based in San Antonio Texas, the other ten people in my department are based out of the ISJL office in Jackson, Mississippi. When I first took on this role, I admit that I worried: what if my staff didn’t get what they needed from me. Mentorship is so important, and I want to always be a good supervisor to my staff.
But then I recalled my previous professional settings where I had supervisors who were sitting just inches away, and yet remained completely unavailable to me. I began realizing that meaningful connection isn’t just about physical presence, though that is important (and I do fly to Jackson quite frequently). It’s about mental presence. It’s about tuning in, and being responsive, and being accessible. Reachable, even if that means leaning pretty heavily on technology. Most of all, it’s about communication. And so that’s what I’ve committed to: being an always-mentally-present supervisor even when I wasn’t always physically present.
The way I work with my staff mirrors the way we work with our Southern communities, often quite far-flung, and ensure their positive Jewish experiences. My unconventional supervision succeeds because it fits with this model. My staff is constantly on the road, serving nearly 80 congregational schools. We guide hundreds of teachers and reach thousands of students, from afar – but again, thanks to email and messaging and video conferences, we are always in touch.
Each community we serve receives a weekly email from their fellow. We distribute a monthly e-newsletter from the department. We are on daily calls, webinars and Skype sessions with our communities. Most importantly, we see them three times a year, and we make every moment count. When we aren’t teaching or leading a program, we are celebrating Shabbat with families at their dinner tables, we attend birthday parties for the children of the congregation, and we schmooze in the homes of our host families.
We have the privilege of becoming part of the community – and technology helps make it possible. Particularly in a region like the South, where there are more small Jewish communities than large ones, and often many miles separating these communities, anything that helps strengthen connections and communication between people is truly a blessing.
Hmm. Anyone know a good bracha for kicking off my next Skype session?
People worry that this age of technology is creating distance between people. For us, it allows our impact and contact to be greater. How do you use technology to connect to others? We would love to hear your stories and comments.