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!
Around Mother’s Day last month, we started wondering what the Jewish mothers (and fathers!) thought about their sons and daughter coming to Jackson, Mississippi, to serve as Education Fellows. If they were from the South or from a small town, were they particularly proud? If they were from the North or a big city, were they particularly nervous?
We thought it would be fun for you to hear from our parents about the experience of having a child move to Jackson. We also want to let them know how grateful we are for their support as we enjoy this great adventure. After all, ISJL’s Education Fellows come from all over the country. Some of us grew up in the South and some of us had never even been to Mississippi before taking this job, so we have a diverse range of experiences. Some of our parents were frankly “concerned” when we first announced these plans, while others were thrilled.
Despite concerns, our parents were supportive, and we needed all their help! The first “real job” out of college is a big step, and we are all so grateful to our parents for teaching us how to buy a car and shop for renters’ insurance and other grown-up necessities. We are also so excited and proud that we have been able to share our Southern stories with them—and now we’re enjoying reading about their initial reactions!
Here are what some of the parents of our second year Fellows (2012-2014) have to say, at the end of their sons and daughters’ time with the ISJL. We’ll also share a second piece with the thoughts from the first year Fellows (2013-2015) as they arrive at the midpoint of their fellowship. So now – find out what the parents think…
My Fellow: Elaine Barenblat
My Thoughts: When we first heard that Rachel Stern was pressuring our daughter Elaine to become a Fellow, my only thought was: “Why would I send my 5 foot nothing blue-eyed blond to Mississippi to become a target?”
All through the vetting process, I was very skeptical of this adventure—or misadventure—with her safety as my one and only concern. It wasn’t until we made the drive to Jackson and fell in love with the city that we finally “got it.” Jackson is a glorious city, full of charm and history. The ISJL has created a program that absolutely surpassed my wildest dreams of how this experience would enrich my daughter. She has taken the basics of education and her love for Judaism and expanded her knowledge to all aspects. She is more experienced in dealing with so many unusual situations which would probably never have come her way. Elaine has grown personally and professionally and I am sure the ISJL experience will propel her future in ways we’ve ever imagined possible. The friendships made in these 2 years will certainly last a lifetime. We are extremely grateful Elaine was given this opportunity, and I am happy to be a “go-to” parent if there is another nervous mom out there—just send her my way and I’ll convince her that her child should not pass up this amazing opportunity! – Sheri Barenblat, San Antonio, Texas
My Fellow: Dan Ring
My Thoughts: When I told friends about our son moving to Mississippi, several of them jokingly asked me if I’d seen the movie Mississippi Burning! I knew he’d be fine…I’d served as a Synagogue Education Director for 10 years, and had met other Ed Directors from all over the south. I knew Southern Hospitality was the real thing! I worried about all of the travel, but I was happy for the travel too. The ISJL offered quite an opportunity for work and travel and personal growth. But I was always glad to hear when Dan made it back to Jackson after one of his long drives. I love hearing about the personalities at the different congregations [he visits]. There are so many people that Dan would like to see again. I hope he gets the chance and I’m glad he got to meet these people through ISJL. Based on his descriptions….I’d like to meet them too!! — Janet Ring, Reisterstown, MD
My Fellow: Amanda Winer
My Thoughts: I never really thought about it until about a year ago, but it was very easy for [my husband] Steve and me to raise and educate our children as Jews. Living on Long Island when they were young we sent them to the Y-JCC preschool, joined one of a half dozen synagogues in our small town, spent holidays with family and friends… exposure to Judaism was easy and fellow Jews were all around us. When we moved to Massachusetts, it was still relatively easy. We looked for a town to live in where there was a vibrant synagogue community, and we easily found Westborough and Congregation B’nai Shalom. From there, our children discovered Wafty, NFTY-NE, NFTY, Eisner Camp, and many other easily assessable opportunities to learn about and experience Judaism.
But when our youngest daughter Amanda began looking for a job in Jewish Education, Steve saw an ad for Jewish education fellow positions at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi. I was shocked. Mississippi? Are there even any Jews to educate in Mississippi? And why would Amanda go to Mississippi to work in the field of Jewish education when there are so many Jewish related opportunities in the Northeast?
It was then that I began to realize that educating and raising Jewish children was not nearly as easy for some parents. I learned about ISJL founder Macy B. Hart’s own stories of his parents driving 160 miles round trip every Sunday morning to bring their children to Sunday School. I realized that for some parents, educating and raising Jewish children was not nearly as easy as it was for us. I realized, as Amanda had already, that she could make much more of a difference providing Jewish education in the south where there was a much greater need. So Amanda signed on, and has since then shared stories like the miracle of assembling 150 Jews for a Chanukah party in Northwest Arkansas, tri-lingual Shabbat morning services in McAllen, TX, and kosher jambalaya in Lafayette, LA. I am proud to have taken part in the formation of Amanda’s Jewish identity and education, and am beyond thrilled that she is standing on that foundation to reach out to over 3,000 Jewish students. — Lori Winer, Westborough, MA
Stay tuned for Part II, when we’ll hear from some moms and dads of the 2013-2015 Education Fellows!