For my family, like many Jewish families, holidays play an important role in our life. Holidays are the times when we all get together. There are endless, crazy traditions. Holidays meant coming home, and being with my family.
I grew up in Florida, and went to college in Florida. When my parents moved from Florida to Texas, I suddenly had a to plan on a plane ride instead of a two-hour drive to be with my family for the holidays. Then I graduated from college and started a real job, forcing me to face the reality of not spending every holiday with my family. Being “home for the holidays” was no longer a given.
I certainly am not alone. Every recent college graduate balances making it home for celebrations with our families to what our “grown up life” and holiday celebrations will look like. Luckily, with my first out-of-college job, I literally am not alone.
When I moved to Jackson to start work for the ISJL, I knew that I was joining a new family. My Education Fellow cohort has family dinners together. We look out for each other. We bring each other pints of ice cream with a Shabbat candle for birthdays, squeal over the sweet story of a fellow Fellow’s engagement, and make sure that everyone has a family with whom to spend the holidays. We celebrate together. And yes, we have even and taken family portraits at JC Penney together.
This year in particular, I have been truly blessed in the holiday-celebration regard. One of our board members invited anyone who was in town to spend all or part of the High Holy days with her family in Greenwood, Mississippi. Even though I wasn’t able to spend Yom Kippur with my family, another family opened its arms to welcome me in. I fasted, watched football, and broke fast with M&Ms and Diet Coke—just as I would have done with my family of origin.
As Education Fellows, this happens to us all year round. We each have six or seven communities that we visit and, with the gift of home hospitality, we are lucky to be welcomed into many families throughout our two years. We light the candles at Shabbat dinners in these families’ homes, and hear about how everybody’s week has been. They allow us to truly be part of the family and the greater community; in addition to celebrating many Jewish holidays, I have also cheered at soccer games (even though I don’t entirely remember the rules), attended local craft and historical festivals, and participated in a charity fundraiser.
Other Fellows have enjoyed family movie nights, gone on afternoon hikes, and visited kids’ art shows; there’s no end to the possibilities!
Not only do our hosts welcome us into their families for the weekend, but we also share our lives with them. We tell stories about the shenanigans and adventures of group summer visits. Especially as second year Fellows, we want to contact our hosts or education directors when exciting things develop for graduate school or plans for Life After The Fellowship.
I still love getting to be with my family. I also love how much more “family” I have now. When I first started at the ISJL in June 2013, I added 8 Fellows to my family. Over the last 18 months, that family has grown exponentially with every summer, fall, and spring visit I make. Not every recent college graduate gets so warmly embraced by so many families, who make us feel at home even when we’re far from home. I look forward to continuing growing my Southern Jewish family this year, and staying in touch as the world takes us in all different directions.
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In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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I’m what you would call a reluctant business traveler. While I am the director of the Education Department of the ISJL, with the main office being in Mississippi, I actually live in San Antonio, TX.
Thanks to technology, I mostly telecommute, but once a month I fly into the Jackson office. I HATE flying. I mean I really HATE flying. Although I fly a lot, I am a very anxious flyer and as a result I have developed a very fixed coping routine mixed with superstition, prayer, and just a splash of OCD. I will spare you the details but just know that I recite the Shema A LOT!
What makes matters worse is that most of the people around me seem to be fine with flying. Some of them even look cheerful and like to make all kinds of new friends. It shouldn’t surprise you that I am not fond of plane chatting. I am often in my own world of Shema-ing and yoga breathing, and don’t really feel much like hearing where people are headed or the reason for their travel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not rude and I will always answer questions when asked but I have figured out what to politely say that will end the conversation quickly.
Here’s how it usually goes:
Passenger: Is this trip work or fun?
Passenger: What do you do for work?
If I say I work in education, there are immediately more questions….
Passenger: Oh, are you a teacher? What grade do you teach? What subject do you teach?
Then I have to explain that I’m not actually a teacher…..
Me: I actually work in the-non profit world.
Passenger: Oh, how interesting. What’s the name of the non-profit? What does it do? Have I heard of it?
When I bring up the word Jewish, the questions/comments reach a whole new level…
Passenger: Oh! Are you Jewish? I have a Jewish friend named ____________. Do you know him/her?
The conversation/questions can go on and on and can involve my own personal belief system or could just involve some comments about Jewish foods they have tasted. Regardless, I just want to sleep or cope with my flying anxiety, so I have come up with what to say that provides some information but that shuts down the conversation as soon as possible.
This has become my new go-to response?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
This usually sounds uninteresting to most, and I am done with my plane chatting for the flight (phew!). But every once in a while, someone really just wants to chat. Last week on my flight was one of those times. She was a nice middle aged woman who let me know that she was going to visit her son and help him to move into his new apartment. She had an art magazine in her hands and continued to let me know that she was a painter. For her day job she worked for a printing company in Jackson. She was getting ready to retire in the next few months and paint full-time. After she had given her me her back-story, I knew that she was ready to hear from me and that my usual end the conversation technique would be ineffective.
Nice lady: What do you do?
Me: I work for a non-profit providing educational training and developing curriculum and programs.
Nice lady: Oh! That’s exciting. We do a lot of printing for non-profits. What’s the name of your organization?
Me: The ISJL.
Nice lady: Oh my goodness!!! We do all of your printing!
Me: You do!? I’m the one that has y’all printing all of those spiral-bound curriculum books each year. They are lessons for the teachers we work with. I’m soooo sorry that we get them to you so late each year, but you always come through for us.
Nice lady: We just love working for y’all.
Me: I’m so glad to have the chance to say thank you. Those lessons are important to many schools and we couldn’t do our work without you.
Nice lady: I have a Jewish friend named____________. Do you know her?
Even though my conversation that morning ended up being predictable, this one was also special. Sitting next to me was a stranger that I couldn’t do my job without. She took our words, ideas, and experiences and literally put them on the page so that we could share them with roughly 500 teachers throughout our region. It was a nice connection, and a chance for me to say thank you. After we chatted LOTS more, I returned to my role of grumpy business traveler… but with a pretty full heart.