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!
Jews across the world are preparing to sit down with their families and read the Haggadah this Passover. Although this is annual experience, it is never exactly the same as the year previous. In fact, for those attending a Seder at someone else’s home, there is no telling what the reading of the Haggadah will mean to their hosts, and they likely won’t know until the Seder begins. Reading the Haggadah can, after all, mean decoding the Hebrew words, or speeding through the text and getting right to the meal, or long discussions that allow us to better comprehend the story, or discussions around how the texts apply to our lives and current events.
But whatever the interpretation, at its core Passover is a holiday that revolves around a story (the Exodus), a book (the Haggadah), and a concept (freedom).
For many Jews, literacy is a priority. Many congregations across the South champion the cause of literacy in their community. We shake our heads in disappointment and sadness when we talk about children who don’t have someone to read with them regularly. But, when we talk about literacy, we are talking about a few dimensions: decoding, fluency, comprehension and application. Decoding refers to associating sounds with letters and blending them to create words. Fluency refers to the pace of reading and the ability of a reader to read a word without forgetting the words that came immediately before it. Comprehension is the level at which a reader understands the meaning of the words. Stronger readers will also apply what they read to their life’s knowledge and experience. They will determine whether it is consistent with what they know and have experienced in the past or whether it speaks to something new.
When we read with children, we might know how advanced their reading abilities are. However, particularly with struggling readers, it isn’t always clear. In fact, there are times when as adults who have been reading for a while, we wonder whether our time reading with children is productive, whether we made them feel badly because they couldn’t read as well as we had hoped they would. But, we can learn a few tips that help ensure that both the child and the adult have a positive reading experience. There is a lot of information out there but the proven tips are usually gleaned from research by individuals with the specific expertise of teaching reading. This is just one resource with reading tips, and you can certainly find some more by searching the internet for “research based reading tips or interventions.”
I wish all who will read the Haggadah this Passover, a meaning-filled Seder. I would also like to wish us all renewed energy as we continue to battle illiteracy in our world and particularly in our communities. After all, the ability to read brings not only stories and books to life – but also brings readers a very real freedom.