Over the last few months, I had the pleasure of working to put together a Southern Jewish Heritage tour for a group of Prozdor high school students from the Boston area. Using our resources and contacts in the region, we were able to create an itinerary through Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham that introduced these students not only to the South, but also to the role that Jewish communities played in this region’s history, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. Below is a story written by one of the trip participants, re-posted from Prozdor Heads South, a blog that the students collaboratively maintained during their trip.
Yesterday we visited Auburn, Alabama, and Beth Shalom – the only temple in east Alabama. We were greeted by Mike Friedman, who immediately offered us food, and lots of it. He then began to speak to us about the history of the temple, his life, and the Auburn Jewish community.
Mike repeatedly mentioned that his story was also the synagogue’s story. He is originally from New York, but throughout his life, he and his wife moved around a lot, eventually ending up in Alabama.
My favorite part of the visit was hearing about his leadership skills. The Auburn Jewish community consists of about 35 families. He was the one that got the synagogue started, but more importantly, he was the one who kept it going. He is not a “certified” rabbi, but he explained that in the sense of teaching a community, he is a rabbi.
Beth Shalom is a Reform temple, which runs services weekly. The fact that he has kept the synagogue going for years is inspirational. They hold high holiday services, Passover Seders, Purim parties, and much more.
This experience left me with a new sense of profound appreciation for the Jewish community I am surrounded by in Needham. I find that often it is easy to take advantage of the fact that we all have close knit and supportive Jewish communities back in Boston. Mike had the courage to get one going and recruit others to keep the sense of community alive.
Just before leaving, he said, and I quote, “Someone has got to lead.”
This resonated strongly with me. I often feel this way about different aspects of my life, especially USY. My chapter started out small, but we have grown into a strong and great chapter with great leaders. There is still room to grow, but the fact that we have come so far is amazing.
Personally, this was the highlight of my trip and I am grateful that Prozdor has given me this opportunity.
We are so glad that this group was able to receive true Southern hospitality from a variety of hosts along the way, and we hope they will value their experiences here for years to come. If your group is interested in creating a similar trip, you can find more information on the ISJL website.
Devoid of a Southern accent, people often ask me where I’m from. They are surprised that I’m from Connecticut. The next question is usually to ask how I got here.
I tell them I got to Mississippi on a lucky opportunity. In 2006, I was a junior at Brandeis University, looking for a unique summer internship. I was interested in museums, so when I came upon the listing for an internship at a Jewish museum in Mississippi, I was sold. The only things I had ever learned about Mississippi (or the South in general, really) were that events from the Civil War and Civil Rights movement took place there, and that it was hot. But Jews in the South? That was a story I knew nothing about, so I applied – and, long story short, had one of the most transformative summers of my life. So much so that after graduation, much to my mother’s chagrin, I made the permanent move to Mississippi to work full time for the umbrella organization of that Jewish museum – the ISJL.
I now have the pleasure of welcoming new interns and Education Fellows to Jackson each summer. The mission of the ISJL is so compelling that we recruit students and recent graduates from all over the country. Over the summer, adventurous folks – most of whom are “not from around here” – travel all over the region, learning about cultural traditions, working with community partners, and often breaking down stereotypes they may have had about the South. There’s also usually occasions for ice cream, county fairs, and blues festivals.
This week, the Museum, History, and Community Engagement Departments are posting our new summer intern listings for 2013. If you or someone you know has an adventurous spirit and is interested in getting hands-on experience on a wide range of projects in an alternative part of the country, I highly encourage you to check out our site with more information about the internships.
By Education Fellow Benjamin Chaidell
The weekend after Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to speak about my experience as an Education Fellow at my home synagogue in New York City, the Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale.
It is always inspiring to return to where I was bar mitzvah’ed and where, as a baby, I took my very first steps amid the dancing on Simchat Torah. This, though, was extra special. It was a chance to share just what I am doing in the South with the folks who always ask my parents what I am up to. It was a time to explain to born and bred New Yorkers that there are not only Jews in the South but also vibrant Jewish communities. Finally, it was an opportunity to show this loving community that has supported me throughout my life how their investment in me has paid off, that I’ve grown into someone who can share their vision of Judaism with others.
The reaction could not have been better. People were intrigued by the work we do and by the opportunities that I have been given, which made me appreciate this fellowship all the more.
With help from my coworkers at the ISJL, I crafted a dvar Torah on the week’s Torah portion of Vayetzei. I focused on the line that Jacob exclaims after his dream of a stairway to heaven: “Surely the LORD is present in this place, and I did not know it!” (Genesis 28:16).
From this jumping off point, I described how I have discovered Jewish communities and God in the places that I least expected and how those discoveries have transformed my views of other people and of the divine.
I talked about three kinds of places: physical places, cultural/idea spaces, and spontaneous/ improvisational places, and how God has surprised me in each of them.
Among the numerous locations I’ve visited, a few stand out. I experienced a moment of joy next to a huge shofar sculpture outside the Congregation Ahavas Chesed in Mobile, Alabama, and enjoyed heartwarming Rosh Hashannah meals in a garage in Greenwood, Mississippi, where over 25 family and friends gather with the nine remaining Jews of Greenwood to celebrate the holiday.
Beyond the pshat (literal interpretation) of a physical place, I’ve realized that we can find God in cultural spaces and “idea places” that I once thought had nothing to do with religion. I’m now an accomplished paper bag puppeteer, having performed a Purim play with my coworkers for small children in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I’ve also found that “When the Saints Come Marching In” can infuse new energy into Adon Olam.
Finally there is the very place of the unexpected: spontaneous, go-with-the-flow, improvisational space. What I’ve learned most from this job in Jewish education is that it is OK for life not to go according to plan. Man plans, God laughs; the best thing to do is to embrace those surprises as God-given gifts.
I think back to the intimate impromptu hevruta text study I had with a man named Alfred in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Alfred was the only one that showed up for my program, and we were both locked out of the Temple. So we went to a nearby congregant’s bakery. at the bakery, two folks from Mississippi introduced themselves when they saw my kippah. Their son had converted to Judaism and they were looking for a kosher turkey for their Thanksgiving meal in Hot Springs. Alfred knew where to find one! Because we took our setbacks in stride, we were at the right place to help someone else maintain his own practice.
Judaism is all about being present and open to the unexpected. Surprises spice up life, reminding us to live in the moment, to learn and to explore and to wonder at the beauty of the world we live in.
“Surely the LORD is present in this place”…and maybe we do know it.