In advance of Yom Kippur, the entire ISJL staff would like to wish all of our friends and readers a meaningful observance, and a happy and healthy new year. Personally, I would also like to offer the following reflection on my Rosh Hashanah in Greenwood, Mississippi with the family of ISJL board member Gail Goldberg.
“Did you ever think you’d be in Greenwood, Mississippi for Rosh Hashanah, listening to a man named Bubba Kornfeld play shofar?”
This question was posed to me on the way out of services last Monday. I have to admit, that this is not what most people expect. For those of us familiar with high holidays in the Mississippi (or Arkansas) Delta, though, nothing about Greenwood is a surprise, and nothing is better preparation for the holidays than driving down a flat road surrounded by blooming cotton.
This was my fourth Rosh Hashanah at Greenwood’s Ahavath Rayim, a tiny traditional congregation that manages to draw a minyan each year with the help of family and friends. Although she would never take credit for the role, Gail Goldberg is the leader of the congregation. The Goldberg family and their in-laws, Steve and Ellen Hirsch of Nashville, constitute the majority of the assembled worshipers. Steve davens the Hebrew portions of the service and reads Torah. Marilyn Gelman, a local congregant, leads the English portions. Gail’s husband Mike acts as gabai. Gail delivers a talk—modesty keeps her from calling it a sermon, but this year’s was as meaningful an “address” as you could ever hope to hear—while her grandchildren and a few other young boys play on the bima. Morris “Bubba” Kornfeld blows shofar. The service has everything I need: warm atmosphere, traditional style, casual attitude, great food afterward.
I did mention the food, right? After each service, the entire group is invited to Gail and Mike’s “holy garage,” the three-car-wide room that converts to a lovely dining area with the simple addition of a carpet and a table for Kiddush. There, we enjoy stuffed cabbage and brisket (or blintzes and bagels for the dairy meals) and friendly conversation. In four years, I have come to know Gail’s immediate family, her mother-in-law Ilse, and the Hirsch family. Steve and Ellen’s son Michael and his wife, Shanna, have also become regulars in Greenwood for Rosh Hashanah. This year, like years past, it was an absolute privilege to celebrate the holiday with all of them.
As Gail pointed out from the bima, those of us in Greenwood go because of dreams and faith, defying the basic fact of the congregation’s decline. Rosh Hashanah is the high point of the small congregation’s year, a celebration of family that sustains them during the smaller services and text studies held monthly throughout the year. Gail’s dream is simple: to continue with this annual event for as long as possible.
With recent repairs to the building and the support of everyone who has experienced the pleasure of the holiday in Greenwood, I have faith in her dream. May Ahavath Rayim’s congregants and guests have a blessed new year, and may they enjoy Rosh Hashanah in Greenwood for years to come!
The following thoughts come to us from Education Fellow Erin Kahal.
A few weeks ago, another Education Fellow, Sam Kahan, and I were at the end of several back-to-back summer visits that took us on a whirlwind six day trip through Virginia and Arkansas.
We had a blast with each of our congregations, but we were exhausted since this was also the last round of a month of non-stop travel. We were standing in the Atlanta airport when Sam looked at me and asked, “Where are we? What state are we in right now?!”
I looked back at her, unsure, and we both started giggling hysterically. Our laughter continued for several minutes, even as strangers gave us awkward glances. I enjoyed the fact that this moment was a typical event in the life of an ISJL Education Fellow. The embarrassing scene provided me with great relief, but it also reflects my journey toward discovering my own joy working for the ISJL. The fellowship is challenging at times, but I have learned to harness a sense of happiness through laughter.
As soon as I heard of the fellowship, I knew the job was the perfect for me. I did not realize, though, how challenging it would be to jump straight out of school and into the working world. At first, I felt homesick and unsure of my exact role as a part of an amazing staff comprised of outstanding individuals from all over the country. However, as soon as I started going on my visits, I overcame my fears. I discovered just how much I love department brainstorming, leading and writing programs, and interacting with the wonderful people in all of my communities. In turn, my newfound confidence allowed me to discover my own sense of joy in the job.
We take our roles very seriously at the ISJL, but we also laugh together as a way to bond as a team and cope with everyday demands. My supervisor, Education Director Rachel Stern, guided me in this process by helping me to remain positive in the work I was doing. One way that she did that was by encouraging me to create a “Blue Folder” that contains all of my saved emails from communities that reflect my achievements; that way, I have something to cheer me up whenever I needed encouragement. As I began to feel more at ease in my job, I learned that my own happiness has a direct impact on my performance and on my community members. Enthusiasm is contagious, and being around so many different people throughout the South has allowed me to discover the ripple effects of positive thinking.
Earlier this year, Rachel proposed that we create a program dedicated to the joy of teaching, and her thoughts eventually turned into a session for one of the keynotes at our 2012 Education Conference. Afterward, I reformatted the talk as a program that we can take it on the road for summer visits. The lesson provides a serious analysis on joy, but it ends on a comical note, which you can watch below.
Leading this session, I have witnessed firsthand how simple laughter can transform the energy of a room. In Atlanta, it transformed my experience of the airport. Education fellows, like so many people, keep hectic schedules. Airports, roads, and rest stops often blur together, but it helps tremendously to hold fast to our enthusiasm. At times, I may forget my location, but when I stop to laugh and smile, I remember my place: serving the people of our congregations.
As Reb Nahman of Bratslav said: “Mitzvah gedolah lihyot besimchah tamid! (It’s a great mitzvah to be happy always!)”
So, how do you find joy in your daily life?
“a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected”
(The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English)
Over the summer, every ISJL Education Fellow visits each of “our communities” – the 6-7 congregations we each serve, throughout the region. The summer visits are brief, and may take the form of an evening program, or just an hour to meet with the religious school director or synagogue president. Though the meetings are short, they’re often far away – and that means we are in the car quite a bit.
On those long drives, it’s important to take a break now and then. As a history buff, I try to make sure that those breaks include visits to historical sites. On a recent trip, my companions and I (we often travel in groups for summer visits) decided to eat lunch in Selma, Alabama. I didn’t know it then, but the brief stop would turn into my own unexpected, unplanned pilgrimage.
Entering Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I knew the bridge was famous, so we pulled over to take a picture. I remembered that it had something to do with a march during the Civil Rights Movement, but I wasn’t clear on the specifics. Reading the signs, I learned that the bridge was the scene of the Selma to Montgomery march and “Bloody Sunday.” It dawned on me that Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel had all marched over this bridge in their attempt to create a just and free society in America. It was this bridge Heschel spoke of when he described acts of social justice as “praying with our feet.” I thought about it a little bit, but feeling touristy, I just walked over the bridge, took some photos and moved on.
Over lunch I had the idea to investigate the Selma synagogue. I knew it was there, and, after looking it up, realized it was less than a mile from where we were eating.
After a bit of searching, we spied a circular window with a large Jewish star smack dab in the middle. We parked in the grassy driveway and got out to look around. Once again, we took some pictures, walked around, and got back in the car and left.
Mulling it over later, I realized that visiting these two very different locations made up an unofficial, unplanned pilgrimage. Together, the two sites reflect the spirit of humanity, the power of dedicated people to come together and accomplish big things.
Sure, the synagogue is a beautiful old building constructed in 1899. But it symbolizes something bigger: the power of Jewish community to sustain itself and thrive anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for a European Jewish immigrant to arrive and settle in Selma in the 1890s – but I am confident that it must not have been an easy transition. It took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, to build and sustain a synagogue like this, especially in the Deep South, far away from much of the Jewish world.
Likewise, it took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, for those civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1960s to march across the bridge, facing armed Alabama lawmen determined to stop them from creating change. Their efforts helped to develop the society we live in today.
Pilgrimages are supposed to inspire us, to help us become better people and to give us goals to strive for. My unexpected pilgrimage did just that. I hope that, perhaps, in my next two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I can emulate the courage, chutzpah, and dedication of these amazing individuals as I help to maintain and support our Southern Jewish community.