By Education Fellow Rachel Blume
“Office was destroyed. Walking to hospital with Mom. Can’t find your brother.”
I received this text message from my father just after 5:00pm on April 27, 2011, after an EF4 tornado ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, my hometown. This storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, killed more than 50 people, and left both physical and emotional scars on countless others.
At the time, I was finishing my last week of graduate school and packing up my apartment in Atlanta, which had been my home for the previous 6 years. I had accepted a position as an ISJL Education Fellow and was preparing to move to Jackson, Mississippi. Now, as my time here comes to a close and I prepare for my next transition, I’m amazed at how quickly two years have come and gone. I also find myself recalling the natural disaster that I will always associate with my move to Jackson.
When I tried to call my dad or text back, nothing would go through. The tornado had taken out all of the cell towers, and it was nearly impossible to get a signal in town. I was unable to contact either my parents or my brother. I felt completely helpless. I was over 200 miles away and couldn’t reach anyone.
When I was finally able to make it home roughly 72 hours later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of what used to be my parent’s law firm, my second home.
The remains of my parents’ old building.They were inside when the tornado hit and survived by sheltering themselves between shelving units in a storage room. Their firm is up and running again in a brand new facility.
Though both the experience of nearly losing my parents and the the destruction that I witnessed in Tuscaloosa were unnerving and even traumatic, the outpouring of support from the greater community to my family was a revelation. Numerous people showed up to aid in the clean-up process, and those that couldn’t physically help sent meals or found other ways to show their concern. I’d never experienced that type of love and support from such a large number of people.
The most important lesson I have taken from those events is how a community can become like family. Prior to this, I had taken a passive role, not only in my Jewish community, but also in the community at large. While an interest in connecting with and supporting Jewish congregations had already led me to take the job with the ISJL, the collective response that I witnessed in the aftermath of the tornado further inspired me to work for the betterment of the communities—Jewish or otherwise—in which I live.
I carried this motivation with me to all of the communities I worked with during my two years as an Education Fellow. I have been lucky enough, not only to contribute to these communities, but also to benefit from them. Seeing the camaraderie and closeness of our communities has encouraged me to continue as an active participant moving forward.
In the next few weeks, my time at the ISJL will end, and I will move into the next phase of my life, attending law school in Houston, Texas. While I’m thankful that my family has not gone through another natural disaster, I know that the lessons I learned from the last one will serve me well through my new transition.
On Tuesday night, I hosted a large Passover seder at my home in Jackson, Mississippi. Out of love for this Jewish dinner party, I may have opened my big mouth—then, inevitability, my door—to a few too many friends.
I realized this seder would be different as I prepared the charoset. Ever since I was old enough to wield a knife, I have been the one to slowly hand chop apples and walnuts for our family seder. It’s cathartic for me to count down the apples, add lemon juice so the apples won’t brown, and stir in the honey with my hands. After about two minutes of chopping, though, I realized my stack of apples was taller than usual; they went straight into the food processor – and this year, convenience trumped tradition, resulting in charoset with more liquid than usual.
Yikes! Why was I compromising my usual charoset consistency? Because I was too excited about sharing Passover, and ended up inviting 30 people for seder. And no, these weren’t just Jews who needed a place to go, I had 13 seder virgins! I chose to invite my non-Jewish friends and neighbors because most of them didn’t grow up in places with a significant Jewish population and had never been invited to help celebrate Passover. In fact, many of my guests don’t know many Jewish people besides, other than myself and other members of the ISJL staff.
We went through the seder with some moments of quiet reflection, and some of laughter and levity. I encouraged guests to read along with the Hebrew transliteration, and my heart swelled when everyone’s voices joined together for “Go Down Moses.” We had a surprisingly successful gefilte fish tasting, sang a song about the afikomen to the tune of “Oklahoma” and answered a lot of questions about matzah.
Was it the most traditional or religious seder? No, not by any means. But I made that clear to my guests and encouraged them to take home the haggadahs to study up for next year. But even with soggier charoset, I’m glad that I was able to provide some of my guests their first Jewish seder experience.
I enjoy having my home filled with friends and food, so it’s understandable why I got so excited about hosting a Passover seder. It’s a tradition that lends itself to bringing people into your house and sharing a meal that’s interactive, educational and delicious. I’m already planning for next year—with a tent outside!—and you are all invited.
By ISJL Education Fellow, Sam Kahan
During the annual ISJL Education Conference, Education Fellows traditionally present some sort of “schtick” during meals. This year the Fellows pondered the question: “if you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?”
As the daughter of an excellent Jewish mother, I know that feeding those you love is both a Jewish value and, at times, a superhuman accomplishment. Having inherited my mother’s drive for preparing and sharing meals, I had to incorporate food into my wished-for superpower.
My passion for feeding others manifests itself in many ways. For one, I love to cook for friends when they stop by my house. It is in my blood, or so my mother tells me. But my desire to share sustenance with others is not limited to friends and family, rather, it extends to the community at large.
A few years ago, a friend and I were involved with an organization that set up a temporary food pantry on the corner of a busy Baltimore intersection during Thanksgiving. There we were: armed with hundreds of thanksgiving meals, donated clothing, blankets and other items essential for surviving a brutally cold winter on the Baltimore streets. As I served a tremendous number of homeless people who stopped by to receive aid, I found myself thinking. I thought of what a mitzvah it was that this group of people took time out of their Thanksgiving, a day reserved for family and friends, to make sure that the larger community was taken care of.
I reflect back on this moment and recognize the teachings of Judaism that not only encourage, but command us to care for those who are hungry. The aspiration to feed friends, family, and community echoes Jewish values and is a Jewish superpower we should all work to develop. Matzah Mama will make her next appearance at Rodef Sholom Temple in Hampton, Virginia, during a Passover program about creating family traditions, be sure to watch out for her!
If you were a Jewish superhero, who would you be?