As an ISJL Education Fellow, I hit the road a lot and spend time in communities that are new to me—and many of them might be new to you, too! So I’ll sometimes shine the Southern & Jewish spotlight on one of my new communities… starting today with Midland/Odessa, Texas.
I recently took a trip to Midland/Odessa, Texas. For anyone who hasn’t heard of these twin-cities and the surrounding area, it’s worth a peek at a map. The city of Midland was founded in 1881 as a midway point between El Paso and Dallas on the Pacific Railway. Traditionally, white collar workers lived in Midland, while blue collar workers lived in Odessa. Twenty-three miles separate the cities from one another, but it is clear today that the cities have a symbiotic relationship.
This relationship exists clearly in the business function, the thriving oil industry, but also in other affairs, such as Jewish life. (Speaking of which, there is a full history of the Jewish experience in Midland/Odessa available through the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities!)
When many people think of a combined metro area, some famous ones come to mind: Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul… Most of these metros are less than 15 miles apart. And between the centers of them are suburbs and businesses that serve both cities. Midland and Odessa, however, are 23 miles apart, downtown to downtown, and between the two cities lies almost nothing besides the local “cash crop”: oil fields. The cities only agreed to a combined statistical designation recently, as it allowed for larger companies to come and serve the now combined “Petroplex.”
Though the synagogue building is in Odessa, the membership population is split between the cities of Midland and Odessa.
I spent the weekend hanging out in both Midland and Odessa. Erev Shabbat services on Friday night were at the synagogue in Odessa. I was also hosted overnight in Odessa. A community lunch the next day was held in Midland. Havdalah was at a community member’s home in Midland. I went on a tour of the “Petroplex” with a community member, exploring both Midland and Odessa (including George W. Bush’s childhood home). Religious school on Sunday was in Midland. Last but not least, I was taken to the airport on Sunday afternoon, located smack dab between Midland and Odessa, to spend a little time at the oil fields.
In no place is the symbiotic relationship between Midland and Odessa more obvious than in the Jewish life. There are separate school districts for Midland and Odessa. There are separate Walmarts and other businesses of the like for the two cities. But there is only one synagogue – Temple Beth El, and it draws people from both Midland and Odessa, to observe Jewish traditions, and also to celebrate a longstanding Jewish presence in the Permian Basin.
The Jewish community, small but dedicated, consists of approximately 65 families. There are 8 students in the religious school, all enthusiastic and eager young Jewish children. I had a wonderful time teaching students about the Jewish obligation to social justice and tikkun olam.
You may have noticed that lately at your local gas pump prices have gone down. Some places in the country have even seen prices well below $2. Midland/Odessa is the hub of this gas gala that has led to plummeting petrol prices nationwide. Jews were initially attracted to the Permian Basin in the early 1900s for its oil industry… and while this post isn’t intended to be a plug for Jews to move to Midland/Odessa, hey, if you like the oil industry, this may be the place for you. The Jewish community there really is lovely.
Speaking of lovely Jewish communities you may not have visited… I look forward to sharing the stories of some of my upcoming visits here, there, and everywhere in the Jewish South— with all of you!
I’ll admit, sometimes I browse Buzzfeed. In particular, since I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky, I often look at bucket lists for inspiration.
I recently opened a “Bucket List for Girls” post, which posed the question: “What do you want to do before you die?” On this Buzzfeed list, one of the to-do-before-you-die items was “volunteer in a foreign country.” Accompanying this statement was an image that appears to be what the list-makers imagine an unspecific African country might look like: black women dressed in bright, patterned clothing, lugging buckets of water on their heads. Among the black women is one white girl, dressed in safari-style camo wear, holding a similar bucket atop her head, with a look of great accomplishment.
I had a visceral reaction to this image. Shaking my head, I wondered – what is she doing? Why is she there? Where is she? Is she actually helping, or just volunteering for her own sake? That is the risk of “voluntourism.”
What is “voluntourism?” It’s pretty much what it sounds like: vacation travel, with volunteer opportunities awaiting at the travel destination. Search the web and you’ll find dozens of organizations, nonprofits and travel businesses alike, deeply involved in organizing volunteering vacations.This is a recent trend among my generation. A quick Google search for “Humanitarians of Tinder” will pull up a site devoted to Tinder [a matchmaking/dating site] images, of mostly white people posing with mostly black children.
This makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, it’s now cool to travel and volunteer to any unidentified country that needs us to save them. Photographs of us participating in these activities will even attract potential mates- after all, they show that we’re good people, the sort of people who devoted our whole winter break to needy children in Guatemala!
On one level, I find it exciting and inspiring that caring about others and trying to make a difference are qualities that have become “cool.” If this is the direction society is moving, I’m all for it. But I want to challenge this culture a bit. I wrote on this topic before, how images can stereotype people and erase cultural, historic, and geographic complexities. While looking through the Tinder images, I felt a great pit at the bottom of my stomach. These photos exploit others by defining them ultimately as “poor, helpless individuals, in need of saving.” What of their strengths?
The Talmud teaches in Brachot 19B: “Come and learn: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes even a biblical prohibition.”
Where is the human dignity in this trend of being a voluntourist?
I’m not trying to discount this idea altogether, but I think the missing piece with voluntourism is making space for dignity of both sides. So here are some tips that can challenge this phenomenon, since as we know from our friends at Buzzfeed, making suggestions into a list is helpful!
1) Learn about the history, culture and current political standing of country you’re interested in before you go.
2) Study the root causes of issues you’re interested in.
3) Speak with people on the ground before you volunteer- what are they doing, and how can you help them?
4) Take a strengths-based approach- focus on the strengths of the community you want to serve and think about how you can bring things back home that they can teach you.
5) Take some time to learn about issues in your own community, and find out what you can do to serve those closer to home.
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I recently completed a one-year Kahn Fellowship for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. My aim during the fellowship was to specifically work on engaging the young queer Jewish community. In return, my own personal growth would be nurtured through an additional immersive experience. My colleague Margalit suggested something called TENT.
One of TENT’s week-long intensive programs, “Tent:The South,” would be take participants from all over the country on a road trip, from New Orleans to Memphis through Mississippi, learning about Jewish history and contemporary culture in these regions.
I had never thought about Jews in the South. It was so far removed from everything I knew about the history of the South – which was delineated along racial lines that excluded Jewishness. I was excited to go on this trip. Who were these Jews in the South? Perhaps even more interesting, who are they now?
We started out in New Orleans, a city rich with history and supporting three synagogues. Even the Orthodox synagogue in town, Anshe Sfard, is working toward inclusivity and seeks LGBT involvement. This was astonishing to me, but also exciting. From there, we traveled up through Mississippi and into the Delta, all the way up to Memphis. We stopped in many towns and small cities, and met with local Jewish communities, continuously learning about our Jewish history in the South.
I had many emotional and informative experiences on this trip. Perhaps most personal to my understanding of my own identity was really digging into what the South “is” and “isn’t” and what it really means to me as someone who was raised in a border state.
Growing up in Maryland, whenever I spoke with Northerners I was told I was from the South, and whenever I spoke with Southerners, I was told I was from the North. I tried to claim my border-statehood, but that wasn’t good enough for people – they needed to “other” me to the other side of the tracks, or in this case, the other side of the Mason-Dixon line. I left Maryland at 14 to go to a private school in Pennsylvania, and I’ve never identified as a Marylander since.
It was on this trip, this Southern Jewish trip that I got to go on as a result of my work with the LGBTQ Jews in Los Angeles, that I learned to own the Marylander in me. And in a way, more of my Jewishness too.
Growing up, I saw myself as an “other” compared to the Jews I knew, because of my queer identity. But now I really see the cultural narrative of Jewishness as one of “otherness;” and I see my Jewishness as part of my personal narrative. Many people say they are Jew-ISH; I used to say I wasn’t practicing – I was just good at it. Now I don’t know what to say. I suppose I am “exploring my Jewishness.”
Finally, now I see: not feeling like I’m from the South or from the North, not feeling like my home state has a place in this country’s delineation, is really part of my greater narrative. I am a person in-between, or on the line, an “other” from the norm like all Jews and from the Jewish “other.” Never here nor there. I live on the border between the LGBTTQQIA2S (and growing) alphabet. I live on the border between secular and religious (and changing). And now I am finally owning that I grew up on the border between North and South. I am from a border state, and like the place from which I hail– I, too, am a perpetual border state.
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