Today’s reflective post comes from Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
The end of summer can be a whirlwind for ISJL Education Fellows, as many of us spend the majority of our time traveling throughout the Southern region, getting to know Southern Jewish communities and preparing for the upcoming year of religious school. It is an incredibly exciting experience, and it has really energized us, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, and still, now – throughout the remaining autumn Jewish holidays. Wonderful as energy is, though, at times reflection is what we crave.
Thus, while in Houston with two other Education Fellows, we decided to take a couple minutes away from the excitement to engage in a little bit of meditation and self-reflection. Now, we could have done this just about anywhere – no specific venue is required to be introspective, nor are there any necessary supplies. But we had heard about a fascinating place called the Rothko Chapel, a multi-faith center for contemplation and prayer, and we decided it might be worth checking out.
We were not disappointed.
The Rothko Chapel is truly one-of-a-kind. As we walked into the lobby, the first thing we did was sign in to the Chapel’s guest book. Looking at earlier visitors, we saw people from all around the country. We proudly added our names, and our home base of Jackson, Mississippi, to this vast and varied list of places, and we headed towards the prayer space.
At its entrance, there were a number of books, humbly resting side by side. Some might not think much of this, but it certainly caused me to stop and think. Next to one another were traditional holy texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and others. They were carefully placed side by side, with none taking precedence over the others. Implicit to me was the idea that none of them was “more correct” or “truer” than the others. This table made me stop in awe, because on it lay eight or nine texts that are, together, the basis for thousands and thousands of years of tradition, all over the world. There they were, quiet and ancient, for all to explore, analyze, study, or question.
What struck me about these books even more was that they were very well-worn. Where the covers might once have been shiny, they were now a little bit duller. Some of the pages were a little yellowed, and maybe even torn a little bit. I thought about this not because it makes the texts any less beautiful. On the contrary, I think it adds a great deal to them. There is something unbelievably tragic about a brand new book, impeccably shiny, being placed on a shelf only to go unused for years and years. These, however, through daily exploration by visitors from around the country and the world, have given new wisdom and growth to countless people. They have earned their scratches.
Next, we went into the chapel itself. There were only a couple of others inside as we entered, but we spread out to a few different corners of the octagonal room. There were benches in the center, mats for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and, most interestingly, fourteen black paintings on the walls. The paintings set the tone for a space that felt incredibly spiritual. I sat there for a while, my mind wandering from the texts in the lobby to how I might best do teshuvah (repentance) over the High Holidays, and eventually, to nothing. I sat there and thought about nothing for the first time in almost forever.
After awhile, the other Fellows and I got up to go. We rose at precisely the same moment, without speaking or gesturing, despite the fact that we had been facing in different directions and did not know exactly where the others were.
Visiting this chapel was an unbelievable experience. Through the texts, I saw quite literally what it looks like when Judaism exists peacefully, side by side, with other world religions. It reminded me of the delicate balancing act we engage in as we attempt to maintain a level of Jewish distinctiveness while simultaneously playing a role in the betterment of the world more generally. As we walked out of the building, I returned to my work for the ISJL, an organization adeptly and simultaneously carrying out both of those missions.
L’shanah tovah, y’all.
At the ISJL, we’re often asked about all things “Southern” and “Jewish” – so it was no surprise that we received several inquiries regarding a recent article posted on JTA, headlined “Jewish newcomers bring optimism, but can they revive small towns in the South?”
Several of our staff members were interviewed for or contributed to the piece, but the question in the headline is still being asked of all of us.
My take? I think newcomers to any small town – the South, or elsewhere – can bring excitement, fresh ideas, and hopefully full participation in the Jewish community. There is certainly hope that with newcomers comes a better chance of long-term survival; this belief even inspired one group to offer Jewish newcomers $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama. We welcome newcomers, we see the optimism new residents can bring, but in the end, can bringing in new folks revive a community in the long term? That remains to be seen.
We are a transient society; people move around the country for any number of reasons: a new job, retirement, to be near family. It is wonderful when newcomers come into any community, bringing new ideas to share and making their mark in the community. It’s often hard to know, at first, if “newcomers” will become permanent members of the community for the long haul, especially in small towns. And if newcomers have children, will those children choose to stay in these small towns, or leave, as so many native-to-small-town-children have done over the years when they became adults?
In our daily work at the ISJL, we honor and work with Jewish communities large and small. If a community has one child in religious school or several hundred, whether they own a historic building or rent worship space in a church, no matter if their weekly Shabbat services draw 10 or 100 people, every Jew counts. No matter where they live. The ISJL helps connect these smaller population centers to the larger Jewish community, as well as to other small Jewish communities who are experiencing similar issues – diminishing population and resources.
Some of our staff are newcomers, but the organization is here to stay.
The truth is that some of these small towns in the South will no longer have a Jewish presence in the next 10 to 20 years. But the point is, however many Jews are in a community and however long they remain there, they deserve rich Jewish lives. So we will continue to provide support and resources to these communities as long as there is any Jewish presence at all – and when the last Jew in any given small Southern town is gone, we will continue to honor the memory of that community through the history collected on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
So the question remains: Can Jewish newcomers revive small towns in the South? In the short term, absolutely; in the long term, we don’t know. But no matter what, we will support the efforts of those old and new, transient or settled.
What do you think?
Today’s post comes from Linnea Hurst, the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department intern this summer.
I am from Portland, Oregon, and had never visited to the South before this summer, so the adjustment to living in Jackson was a big one for me. Yet despite the fact I have only lived here for a month, I already feel at home. This is because I have been initiated into two welcoming and vibrant communities: the ISJL community and the larger community of Jackson.
In recognition of everything I’ve learned since arriving in Mississippi, here are a few of the new things I’ve learned:
1) It is extremely exciting to watch older students teach younger students to read.
Every day I oversee our Read, Lead, Succeed reading program, and recently I have learned to stop nervously circling the room waiting for an older student to goof off or lose focus. Instead, I spend most of my time simply watching in awe as the reading leaders take on the role of teacher and encourage their student to stay focused or tackle new words.
2) Medgar Evers was an advocate for youth involvement during the Civil Rights Movement.
All the ISJL summer interns were lucky enough to attend some of the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers’ assassination here in Jackson. We learned that while other Civil rights leaders were hesitant to include young people in the activism, Evers made a point to encourage involvement of younger activists in local youth councils.
3) There is no one way to approach social justice.
When I’m not working with the reading program, I spend my days researching social justice efforts taken by Jewish communities in the South. I have discovered that inter-faith work, forming women’s advocacy groups and radio broadcasting have all been ways in which Jews in the region have historically tackled social issues in their communities.
4) The drive for equality and justice is something felt by everyone, no matter their faith. In my research I have found that in many Southern communities (including Jackson), Jews have worked alongside the larger community to advocate, organize and create change. Although for Jews this urge to help others may have originated from their Jewish identity, it could be understood and picked up by those who were not Jewish. This is not just an occurrence of the past. I am a living example as I work with the ISJL’s Community Engagement Department to create positive change here in Jackson, even though I am not Jewish.
5) Pickled eggs are pink on the inside, and I am not entirely opposed to their taste.
As you might have guessed, this was a learning experience that took place outside of the ISJL. As I was standing in line at a gas station, I wondered aloud if I should try one of the pickled eggs floating ominously in a large jar. The woman behind me overheard and told me of her love of pickled pig lip. She then suggested that yes, I should try an egg. Before I knew it, I was biting into a pink slippery sphere. The egg tasted strongly of vinegar, but I managed to eat it all. I left the gas station excited to live in a city that is full of people eager to get to know newcomers and proud to teach them about Southern culture.
6) The ISJL’s annual education conference is a unique and inspiring event.
While I could go on and on about Education Director Rachel Stern’s infectious positive attitude or the education fellows’ dedication to honing their rapping skills, the Department of Community Engagement’s panel on Building Inclusive Communities stuck with me the most. The session addressed how congregations’ responses (or lack thereof) to issues like race, poverty, disability or mental illness leave some members of the Jewish community feeling invisible or unwelcome. Unless encouraged to do so, most people do not naturally talk about such difficult and sensitive topics. Yet, to my delight, I heard many conversations not only directly after the panel, but also for days afterwards addressing how conference participants and ISJL staff plan to approach these issues, and their own personal privileges, more mindfully and sensitively in the future.
7) There are more Jewish holidays than just Passover and Hanukkah
Those are the two I heard about growing up, but there are many more, and they all have incredible meaning and values behind them. Malkie (Schwartz) and I are brainstorming how to connect congregations with resources to aid with inclusion and awareness of minority Jews, interfaith families, LGBTQ Jews, and more. We quickly discovered that the easiest way to do this would be to link these social issues to the values behind various Jewish holidays – not just Passover and Hanukkah!
Stay tuned to Southern & Jewish and to our Facebook page for more updates on what the ISJL Community Engagement Department is up to this summer!