You may not picture central Mississippi as central to Jewish life. But every summer, one of the most dynamic Jewish conferences anywhere takes place in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every June, Jewish educators from throughout the South, and great presenters from around the country, gather together for three days of learning, networking, celebration and inspiration at the ISJL’s teacher training institute, AKA “the education conference.” While Jackson may not be known by most as a Jewish metropolis, and most folks wouldn’t guess that this Southern town is the location for one of the leading Jewish education conferences in the country, the simple truth is that if you come to Jackson in June, you’ll know it’s true.
That conference begins this Sunday, and as always, I couldn’t be more excited. Volunteer teachers, along with full-time educators, rabbis, and Jewish professionals from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and all over the region will sit beside one another, sharing challenges, sharing best practices, and of course, sharing meals. (Hey, you can’t have a Jewish event without food!)
I’m certain this year’s conference will lead to wonderful connections, great stories and plenty of what I like to call “goosebump moments.” For now, our team is working hard to take care of every single last-minute detail so when participants arrive Sunday, everything is in place. We’re watering the seeds and can’t wait for this blossom to once again bloom into beautiful life, nurtured in the warmth of a Mississippi summer.
This month I made a big move. After a year spent in Jerusalem, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi to serve as the first ISJL Community Engagement Fellow. It’s a two year commitment, and a big adventure. The timing of my move also coincides with the anniversary of a pretty momentous event in Mississippi’s history: this year marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
In reading more about the courageous volunteers that traveled to Mississippi that summer, I am struck by the similarities I’ve felt traveling to Mississippi this year. I grew up in Arizona, and moved to Portland for college. A week ago, I drove from Arizona to Mississippi. It was the first time I set foot on Southern soil. I knew relatively little about the history of the South, and even less about the culture. I am grappling to understand the complexities of race and class relations and issues in Jackson. As a young, white, middle-class Jewish woman, I felt strange taking a community engagement position in a community that was not my own. Throughout my life, I’ve felt a passion to address inequalities in my own communities. I kept asking myself “why move to Mississippi to continue this work?”
I fear that in community engagement work, good intentions can easily be misconstrued as a foreigner entering a community, and helping, because he or she knows what’s best for that community. I know that I don’t know what’s best for people I will be in contact with in the future, and want to be vocal about that. I’m not coming to save the day, privilege in tow. I’m here to become part of a team, to listen, and to learn.
Fifty years ago, over 1,000 Northern volunteers traveled to Mississippi. The majority of them were young and white (and a significant amount were Jewish). There are a lot of difficult, and amazing, things wrapped up in this fact- a large amount of young, white Northerners coming to the South to help register and empower African Americans. People coming to serve a community that was not theirs. Even with the best intentions, I fear that in such a situation sometimes we have expectations and assumptions regarding the people we are serving. Sometimes the world that we want to help doesn’t greet us the way we expect. When we do work that we are passionate about, it’s amazing to be validated by those whom we help. But sometimes it isn’t easy to give that validation, and the hardest part is asking why.
I am in no way trying to lessen the incredible thing that these brave young men and women did. Quite the contrary, the memory of these volunteers inspires me moving forward with my job. I am humbled by the Jewish history and heritage of service.
As a stranger coming to this place, I am reminded of the mitzvah to love the stranger, to welcome the stranger into our midst. I don’t want to do that—not in this instance. I am the stranger, right now, but I don’t want the community I live and work in to be a strange one. I don’t want to view the work that young men and women did 50 years ago as welcoming the stranger into their world. My goal is to serve this community as an insider, to find commonalities, to love it as my own.
I want to give gratitude to the volunteers that traveled South 50 years ago. When serving, I think it’s important to reflect upon what we bring with us, the good and the not so good. I am grateful that their memory pushes me to do so.
Happy (Almost) Father’s Day!
Here is our second installment of “But What Do Your Parents Think?” This time, we’re sharing the thoughts from parents of 2013-2015 Education Fellows, who are at the halfway point in their fellowship. Once again, their responses ranged from funny to sweet, nervous to old-hat.
The overwhelming commonality is, of course, that our parents are extremely proud of us. They are all thrilled to have given us a foundational Jewish education and are even more excited to see us helping the next generation gain that knowledge too.
My Fellow: Missy Goldstein
My Thoughts: I want to share my thoughts on the incredible experience my daughter Missy has had as a first year Fellow. Missy was very excited about being chosen as a Fellow and has embraced her opportunity as I knew she would. She has made many new friends and created many wonderful experiences for the communities she has visited. I know she’s excited to continue on this journey and help to break-in the new Fellows that are arriving soon. I’m very proud of her and what she does. –Maury Goldstein, Jacksonville, FL
My Fellow: Allison Poirier
My Thoughts: We were excited about Allison’s move to Jackson for two reasons. First, we share a sense of adventure with Allison and were thrilled that she was exploring the opportunity in that spirit. We were also pleased about her opportunity to experience Jewish life in a way that we assumed would be different from that of her childhood Congregation of Temple Beth David in Massachusetts or at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. We are especially impressed by the stories Allison recounts about her host families in the cities she visits. In particular, their hospitality puts our minds at ease about her travels. We also are taken with the creativity of the fellows to develop programs that both engage and educate. The more memorable ones include Mensch Madness, Star Wars Shabbaton and “Hello Shabbos My Old Friend.” Having visited Allison in Jackson, we are very impressed with how quickly she has forged relationships at ISJL and her local congregation, Beth Israel. –John Poirier, Medfield, MA
My Fellow: Lex Rofes
My Thoughts: I love hearing the stories about my son’s encounters with folks who are not used to seeing someone with a kippah. And, it has been a good feeling to know that most of those encounters have been out of curiosity and people seeking to understand rather than to ridicule. Hearing of one woman commenting that she liked his “Yamaha” put a smile on my face. I do get some odd looks when I respond to those asking about where Lex is working and what he is doing. Many seem to think that the idea of Jews in the South is an oxymoron. This has allowed me an opportunity to help familiarize folks with the idea that the Northeast does not hold a monopoly on American Judaism. Lex has sent me some wonderful synagogue cookbooks from his various congregations. And, that has helped me to see how the more we differ, the more we are the same. No matter where you are, the most prevalent recipe in a Jewish cookbook is for KUGEL! – Ruth Lebed, Chicago, IL
Thanks, dads and moms!