My sister, Chanie, and my new brother-in-law, Joel, got married this month. I’m very fortunate to have incredible co-workers who are happy to see pictures of the very special occasion and hear all about the event itself—and of course, I’m also happy to share one of the beautiful pictures here, because that’s what proud sisters do!
But I also want to share with you a thought I had before the wedding—a thought that extended from marriage to the larger community, and also seemed particularly appropriate at this time on the Jewish calendar.
I had the honor of sharing a reading under the chuppah. As I looked at books of readings for weddings, poems, websites with readings and other sources, I came across this reading. I didn’t end up reading it to the happy couple under the chuppah, but it spoke to me.
“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
This line is meant to describe the giving and receiving that takes place between partners. In many ways, however, it articulates my feelings about service. There is so much judgment associated with receiving help. Too often, even well -intentioned givers, engaged in the generous act of offering help, make judgments about the people receiving our assistance.
We may find ourselves judging others for “allowing” themselves to get into this situation. We might feel saddened by their vulnerability, their need—or willingness—to rely on others. We may even use those in need to make us feel better about ourselves: hey, at least we are not in their position.
Judgments of these kinds really impede on our ability to give lovingly and completely. Giving with judgment is still giving, and it is better than not giving at all. When someone is hungry, food is essential. Food without judgment is like getting icing on the cake.
But that is not the type of giving and receiving that a couple strives for in a marriage. Nor should it be the giving we strive for as we serve our communities. Rather, community offers us a lot sometimes, without us asking for it. And by receiving the joy given to us by our communities, we can truly give to people who rely on the greater community for things like food, shelter, and so on, without judging them or their situation.
While I have given thought to the relationship between those who conduct and those who receive the benefits of service (a problematic construct), thinking about it in the context of a marriage—particularly the marriage of two people who truly give to each other and the world with all their hearts—gives me a unique appreciation for the special bond that unites us as people who are constantly giving and receiving.
During this time in the Jewish calendar when Jews ask for a lot—forgiveness, health, a sweet new year–let us also ask for the ability to gracefully receive all we are given this year as well as the ability to give gracefully, without negative judgment of those who receive our help.
Last week was my first adventure on the road as an Education Fellow. I went to Montgomery and Auburn, Alabama, and then continued on to Columbus, Georgia. My road trip buddy for this adventure was Lex Rofes, a second year Education Fellow. We met a lot of new people and had some great experiences. But the best part of our four-day excursion happened at the end—and involved the military.
Early Sunday morning, Lex and I joined some dedicated volunteers from Temple Israel in their weekly pilgrimage to provide the soldiers at Fort Benning with a morning service followed by a food-filled oneg. “Oneg” literally means delight, and usually involves tasty treats and socializing. These soldiers have come to enjoy this delight—and so there were around 600 soldiers who came to enjoy the services and oneg on the Sunday Lex and I were there.
We were invited to participate in services, lay-led by Neil Block, a congregant of Temple Israel who is extremely passionate about this operation. Neil was in the U.S. Navy, and he has made it his responsibility to ensure that the soldiers of Fort Benning have access to Judaism. To him, it does not matter that the majority of the soldiers in attendance are not Jewish. The Jewish soldiers appreciate this weekly gift, but so too do the other men and women in uniform.
Lex observed that this might well be the largest Sunday morning Jewish service in the country. The soldiers come for some quiet time to reflect and of course, for the oneg. Local businesses donate cookies, cakes, bagels, and cream cheese for the weekly oneg. Even with over 600 soldiers in attendance, there was enough for everyone to have a sweet and a bagel. The soldiers were all extremely polite and efficient. In no time at all, everyone was fed and we were out of food!
(I also learned that soldiers in basic training are on a high-protein-low carb diet, so this oneg was a special treat.)
The congregants we volunteered with echoed the sentiment that it did not matter if the soldiers in attendance were Jewish or not; what matters is a positive Jewish presence, and just giving back to the soldiers who serve our country. The 600 soldiers who showed up included people from all faiths. Some ask Neil and the volunteers about Judaism after the service, but most want to hear news from the outside world; they appreciate the sense of connection and community.
Many of the families at Temple Israel have ties to the military, and they are thereby dedicated to serving those who serve our country. It was an amazing experience for me and I cannot wait to go again the next time I am in Columbus. It’s a uniquely Southern and Jewish tribute to our troops, quietly carried out each week with food and fellowship, and I was proud to be a part of it.
The ISJL is closed December 25. So, you must be wondering… what does the staff of a Southern Jewish office do for Christmas?
You might be surprised.
With staff members from a variety of backgrounds, Jewish, Christian, multiple faiths within a family, people who chose Judaism, native Southerners, transplanted Southerners, and so on… Well, when we posed the question “What are you doing December 25?” to our staff, we figured we would get an interesting assortment of answers.
And so we did.
Here are some of them – enjoy!
“Chinese food and movies are always enjoyed in my family, but never more than on Christmas. Months in advance we keep our eyes open for previews of what movies will be out during the holidays.”
- Missy Goldstein, Education Fellow
“Like many Jewish children, I had always wanted a Christmas tree. When my husband Chris admitted that he had always had an artificial tree, I insisted that we go to the farm to chop down a real one! Just like in the movies! We also made that menorah out of plumbing pipe together. After our big Hannukah party in town, Chris and I spend Christmas Eve in Batesville, MS with this family. I did have a shocking moment my first Christmas in North Mississippi. After opening all the presents and sharing a family meal, I managed to convince his family to practice the ‘Jewish tradition’ of going to the movies on Christmas. Much to my surprise, the theater was packed, and not full of Jewish people! I had honestly believed it was only a Jewish thing.” - Rachel Myers, Museum / Special Projects Coordinator
“In my first job out of college, I worked for a glass studio in New Orleans. My boss liked that I was Jewish because I would keep the shop open until late on Christmas Eve. He then commanded me to go to the casino with him. So now, I go get an awesome meal (either sushi or Chinese food) and then hit up the closest casino. Vicksburg, anyone?” - Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Assistant Director of Education
“My Jewish family isn’t Southern, and my Southern family isn’t Jewish – I’m the crossover artist. Growing up, my family and I volunteered at a soup kitchen, then observed the ‘Chinese & A Movie’ ritual. Now, my fiance Danny and I have developed our own tradition: We have a Chanukah celebration at home (or this year, with my family in Michigan – thanks, Thanksgivukkah!); do some volunteering; then, on Dec. 23 we drive to Mobile, Alabama, for my grandfather’s birthday, and continue on to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for Christmas with Danny’s parents. It’s a multi-city, multi-stop celebration.” - Beth Kander, Communications & Development Coordinator
“Every year, my family’s tradition has been to Milwaukee’s P.F. Chang’s and to a movie with a few other Jewish family friends. Rituals of our observance include ordering the famous “Great Wall of Chocolate” and arguing intensely over the quality of the movie after it’s over (last year, Silver Linings Playbook was especially controversial)!” - Lex Rofes, Education Fellow
So… how do YOU spend December 25? Tell us in the comments below!