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.
By 2nd year Education Fellow Rachel Blume.
It’s the height of the fall season. Football is in full swing, Barack Obama was just re-elected as President of the United States, people are starting to make preparations for Thanksgiving, and, as an ISJL Education Fellow, my schedule is filled to the max with fall community visits!
This means early morning airport trips, late night drives, and not much time spent in the comfort of my own home. As a creature of habit, the hectic travel of fall can be stressful to me. In addition to that, it’s the longest stretch of the year between visits home to my family. (Being from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I have it easier than most of my co-fellows on this count). One of the wonderful things about this job, though, is that certain congregations provide that same sense of comfort and community that I get with friends and family, which more than compensates for the time on the road. In particular, Shreveport, Louisiana has become my home away from home.
Just a couple of weekends ago, I was packing my bags to make the short (at least by ISJL standards) 3 and ½ hour drive over to Shreveport. Even though I knew I had a full weekend of leading services and programs, each mile that I drove it felt less and less like a business trip and more like a trip to visit my “other family.” I don’t even need my GPS to find Helaine and Bill Braunig’s home because I now know it so well; sometimes I even get the chance to hang out with their adorable grandson Billy (see above). I don’t have to worry about getting a tour of anything, because I already know where everything is. When I go to Shreveport, the usual anxieties of a work trip melt away. I feel at home.
Rabbis and cantors from Central Synagogue in New York are about to hit the Southern road. Again.
It’s all part of the ISJL Rabbinic Department‘s Rabbis on the Road program. We believe that serving small and isolated Jewish communities is important. For years, we’ve encouraged larger communities and congregations to form partnerships with smaller congregations, in order to make rabbinic and educational services available to more people.
Recently, under the visionary leadership of senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Central Synagogue answered the call.
Over the course of this year, Central Synagogue clergy have traveled South, visiting small Southern Jewish communities. Three of these trips have already transpired, with more to follow.
Feedback from communities has been tremendous. Here’s one example:
“Dear Rabbi Rubinstein – Considering your schedule over the last few days, I cannot say enough how much in debt I am to you for making your visit to Selma happen. The only negative of your coming was it just was not long enough!!! But that is okay, when something is really good, you take what you can get and be happy! Everybody, and I truly mean EVERYBODY, was so happy and impressed with you. They took to heart your words of faith and encouragement, enjoying the high profile stories you passed on. People hung around the Temple ‘til we had to blink the lights to get them to leave, a testimony of how energized you left them. As our attendees left, they couldn’t say enough of how much they enjoyed listening to you… It was a great day for me, Temple Mishkan Israel and historic Selma, Alabama.”
The Rabbis on the Road journeys continue this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman will be visiting with the congregations of Am Shalom (Bowling Green, KY), B’nai Sholom (Bristol, TN) and Emanuel (Stateville, NC). Student Cantor David Mintz will be with the congregations of Temple Sinai (Lake Charles, LA), Temple Shalom (Lafayette, LA) and B’nai Israel (Monroe, LA).
These are transformative experiences for both the visiting clergy and the hosting congregations. We share our unique experiences, but are also brought together by our Jewish identity. Through experiences like Rabbis on the Road, may we continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in the South, and throughout the United States.