What’s More Southern & Jewish Than A Cantor on A Motorcycle?


I just completed a two-month Sabbatical from my congregation in New Orleans. I spent most of that time visiting small Southern Jewish congregations, going from town to town on my motorcycle. I visited congregations in Lafayette, Louisiana; Natchez, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Monroe, Louisiana; and Galveston, Texas.

So why did I decide to spend my Sabbatical riding my bike from small Jewish community to small Jewish community?

I think the beginning of this journey began over 15 years ago, at a dinner program sponsored by the Jewish Endowment Foundation, where the featured speaker was the Southern Jewish author Eli Evans. At the conclusion of this program, Mr. Evans was signing his books, and for me, he had inscribed the following; “To Cantor Joel, whose life is now entwined with this story.”

Those words stuck with me.

I was raised in Detroit. The metropolitan area there has a population of around 80,000 Jews. I also lived in New York for seven years, with a Jewish population of almost two million. New Orleans, with a Jewish population of around 10,000, is a “small community,” relatively speaking. But in the Southern Jewish landscape, we’re “bigger” community. “Small” is all a matter of perspective.

In New Orleans, with “only” 10,000 people, consider the Jewish resources that we have: ADL, Avodah, Chabad, Jewish Children’s Regional Service, Jewish Endowment Foundation, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Federation, a Jewish Day School, two JCC sites, Jewish Youth Groups and six active congregations. Just taking into account the Reform congregations, we have five full-time rabbis, two cantors, and a cantorial soloist. We have 82 kids attending the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp this summer.

While on my motorcycle, I really experienced small-town Southern Jewish life. When you visit Selma, Alabama, where the Jewish membership at Mishkan Israel totals less than twenty—“small” takes on new meaning. We’re talking tiny. Then there’s Galveston, Texas, a community that has a full-time Rabbi, but where the religious school has no more than 40 students from K-12. Compared to New York, tiny; compared to Selma, pretty robust.

But in these small towns, there is Jewish life. And in Natchez, Lake Charles, Selma, and even here in New Orleans—there is an informal Southern Jewish “welcoming committee.” Because there are Jewish tourists who visit, and find the synagogue and knock on the door, because they just “didn’t know there were Jews here,” and are excited to find this presence.

All of the Southern Jewish communities I visited were all so kind and gracious. (One phone call from a temple president was about going out for dinner after the Shabbat evening service. The temple president asked me, “Cantor, do you keep kosher?” I said, “No.” “Oh, okay, and Cantor, do you eat meat?” “Yes, I eat meat.” “Oh, you’re just like us.”) Southern hospitality is thriving.

Finding myself warmly welcomed was wonderful, but not surprising. What was most surprising to me was how many non-Jewish folks show up for services at these small Southern synagogues. They are not attending with an agenda to convert the small Jewish population, but simply there because they recognize that this Jewish congregation has had a long presence in their community, and they want to be there to support this Jewish house of prayer. These wonderful people are warmly welcomed, too.

Traveling by motorcycle, of course, adds its own unique aspect to the journey. Riding throughout Mississippi and Louisiana is an adventure. There is something about riding to a destination that seems to invite a sensory experience that is not as prevalent in a car. When you ride a motorcycle, you become so much more aware of your environment. When you stop to fill up for gas, riding a motorcycle opens up more opportunities to talk with other people refueling. People want to know about your motorcycle, and other bikers will come and talk to you. (I also managed to avoid tickets and speed traps, thanks to tips like the one from members of the Lake Charles synagogue about sudden speed limit changes on Route 165).

The ISJL coordinated this trip for me, and that organization has truly established strong relationships with all these congregations, by providing rabbinical support, and for some, an entire education program. When one takes a Sabbatical, there is a goal to learn something during that time. After traveling almost 3,000 miles on my motorcycle visiting these communities, I can tell you that my appreciation for my own community back in New Orleans AND for these smaller communities has deepened. I came to feel a stronger resolve to make our Jewish community the best it can be.

I learned that the inscription Eli Evans wrote out for me years ago is truer than ever: I am, indeed, “entwined in this story.”

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Posted on June 29, 2015

They Just Don’t Get It? Who’s “They”?


Over and over again, I have noticed that when someone says “ugh, they don’t get it” when talking about someone else it often means “I don’t want to explain it” or “If I explain it, you’ll probably still be too (fill in the blank) to understand.” In other words, “You just don’t get it” is an excuse not to partake in uncomfortable dialogue.

So when I heard that Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and other comedians have been staying away from college campuses because college audiences are “too sensitive,” I was disappointed. Sure, no one likes to be criticized, and a comedian can selectively choose their audiences—but by choosing not to perform in front of a challenging audience, comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld are attempting to ensure that they get the final word. Saying “no, I won’t come” ends the conversation.

I think that they don’t get how insulting that is. It belittles those young people on college campuses. It implies that the students are not worthy of dialogue.

Jerry Seinfeld gave an example to demonstrate his rationale for not performing in front of young audiences. It involved a conversation between his wife and his own daughter:

“I’ll give you an example,” Seinfeld said. “My daughter’s 14. My wife says to her, ‘Well, you know, in the next couple years, I think maybe you’re going to want to be hanging around the city more on the weekends, so you can see boys.’ You know what my daughter says? She says, ‘That’s sexist.’ They just want to use these words: ‘That’s racist'; ‘That’s sexist'; ‘That’s prejudiced.’ They don’t know what they’re talking about[1].’”

First of all, from what Mr. Seinfeld has shared here, there’s very little context. We don’t have an idea of where the conversation went after this brief exchange. Perhaps it was the start of a productive conversation about what “sexist” actually means. Perhaps there was a family discussion where Mr. Seinfeld and his wife asked their daughter to elaborate on what she meant when she used the term sexist. But he seems to be implying that his daughter was using the word because she had heard someone else use it; that she doesn’t really “get it.”

Posted on June 25, 2015

On Making A Difference, Together


“I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” – Rabbi A.Y. Kook

I recently moved from the Mississippi Delta to just a little further South– Jackson, Mississippi, to step into my new to my role as Director of Community Engagement at the ISJL. Leaving public education for this new nonprofit role has given me a chance to really think about what it means to “make a difference.”

I’m not a native Southerner: I grew up in Los Angeles, California. I started working in the field of education in 2002 as an assistant teacher in the public school system. Over the course of the last 13 years I have worked diligently to improve the educational experience for students, both as a classroom teacher and as an assistant principal at a public middle school (where I have been for the last three years). My journey has taken me to schools in high income communities, to schools where English is not the primary language, and to schools in the “infamous” Mississippi Delta.

Dave Miller

Dave Miller

In each of these places, I was reminded how important it is not just to bring my own perspective to the table– but to listen. To really listen, and be a partner in making a difference.

As many of you know, here at the ISJL, we are currently in full preparation for our upcoming Education Conference. I figured that the convergence of my new position, the conference, and my wanting to get to know you (the digital community) was a phenomenal opportunity to ask you about what you look for from those members of your community who try to bring people and organizations together. Those of us who run community engagement initiatives, chair social justice committees, head up the contingent committed to “make a difference.”

What do you hope making a difference might look like? What do you want our role to be?

Jews throughout history have a strong legacy of working together to make their collective voice, experience, and traditions echo throughout time and strife. All we have to do is look and listen to the shadows of the past in Egypt, Mainz, Spain, Ukraine, Russia, and Germany. The power of a united community can improve the lives of those directly impacted and act as inspiration for countless others. The epoch of Jews to America, particularly to the South is one such example.

Posted on June 22, 2015

The Steampunk Coffee… Synagogue


Editor’s Note: This is the blog we had scheduled to run today: a lovely piece about any gathering place becoming a sacred space because of the people there. As we read the news from Charleston this morning, we were shocked and saddened. We mourn the tragic loss of life, the violent deaths of men and women who had gathered in their sacred space to learn and pray together. This violation is painful, unjust, and heartbreakingly wrong. We are still posting this piece, along with our prayers for peace, and our hope that all places, and all people, will be safe to gather and share in fellowship.

I didn’t walk into Steampunk Coffee in Natchez, Mississippi, expecting to daven. Really, I was just looking for a cup of coffee and maybe some company … but somehow, that little coffee shop in Natchez became a synagogue, if only for a little while.

Natchez is a Deep South river city — it’s famous for its antebellum houses, its picturesque river views, its annual pilgrimage festival …  and it’s also home to about 12 Jews.

Small as the community is, I can reliably count on running into at least one of Natchez’s Jewish residents whenever I visit Steampunk Coffee. On a recent visit to Natchez, I was explaining this to Megan, my girlfriend (who also happens to be a soon-to-be-ordained-rabbi). We needed a caffeine fix, and I knew there was a chance we might also run into some of the local synagogue’s congregants when we visited the coffeehouse.

Unfortunately, as soon as I opened the door it was apparent we were eight short of a minyan — Megan and I were the only customers at Steampunk, Jewish or otherwise. Resigned to solitude, we sat at the bar and started a conversation with our barista, Robert. Megan caught sight of a guitar propped alongside the makeshift fireplace. Robert explained he kept it for customers’ use, asked if she wanted to play it, and then asked if she knew how. (Personally, I’d probably reverse the order of those questions. Fortunately for all of us, Megan does know how.)

Just as she was beginning to play, the door opened and I finally saw a familiar face: Ann. A significant percentage of the Jews of Natchez were now at Steampunk Coffee.

Megan began to play. The chords echoed throughout the small shop and Ann beamed as she recognized the music from her synagogue in New Orleans. Soon Robert’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked if there were words to the song. Megan began to sing Modeh Ani and I couldn’t help but join in. Pretty soon we were moving on to Elohai N’shama, as we made our way through the morning liturgy.

As far as I know, it was the Natchez community’s first shacharit service in years, and it was beautiful. The spirit that morning more than made up for the gaps in the liturgy, small number of worshippers, and lack of prayer books.

After about 20 minutes, our service came to a close. Ann had to head out for a trip to Colorado. Megan and I had to hit the road to Jackson. Just as quickly as it had begun, our service was over. Reluctantly, Megan put down the guitar, we said goodbye to Robert, and walked out the door.

We spent a good portion of the drive home talking about what had just happened. As much as it was surreal and even a bit absurd, it was also beautiful, and so deeply Jewish. Jews congregate in all sorts of places. In fact the word synagogue literally means gathering place — and isn’t that what coffeehouse means, too?

It’s worth keeping in mind if you ever find yourself looking for Jewish life on the road. By all means stop by the official synagogue. But also don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a small coffee shop and suddenly hear Sim Shalom, or perhaps even a sermon. Grab a cup and join in.

It will undoubtedly be beautiful.

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Posted on June 18, 2015

Singing Her Way South: A “California Hippie” Comes to Mississippi

becca guitar

The summer before my Bat Mitzvah, I was sitting with my family at our home in Oakland, California. I remember looking at my mom and saying, not so seriously, that I’d love to learn how to play guitar. She smiled and walked into her office, returning a few minutes later with a guitar.

I played around on it a little bit, unsure of what to do, but excited to be playing a musical instrument that I loved to listen to so much. I had been singing in my synagogue’s Rock and Roll Shabbat band with my older sister for a few years, and I was amazed by the guitarist and his skills. I wanted to be a Jewish rock star! Sure enough, the first gig I ever played with a guitar in my hand was at my Bat Mitzvah party: I led Havdallah.

Over the following years, I found opportunities to perform. I stayed with my synagogue’s band, expanding my repertoire to include song parodies performed during Purim. I brought my guitar to Camp Ramah in California and led campfire song sessions. I performed with a few friends at my 8th grade graduation. I joined the Jazz Ensemble in my high school. During my junior year, I started writing music because a friend dared me to write a song called “Shoot Me in the Face.” I recorded it, and it went on my first CD!

Songwriting became my outlet. Regardless of what kind of mood I was in, my guitar became my therapist, and my lyrics recorded the words of my diary. I wrote songs about my home in Oakland, songs about Jerusalem, songs about going to studying abroad and living in Jordan. During my studies in the Middle East, I wrote songs in both Arabic and Hebrew to fulfill Academic assignments. (Note: You’ll notice that my voice in those three songs sounds super different. To understand why, here’s some insight.) So of course, when I was graduating from college and found out that I got the job at the ISJL, and would be moving to Mississippi to become an Education Fellow… I had to write something.

I picked up my guitar, and wrote a song called “The Road to Jackson.”

I look forward to incorporating my love of music into my work as an ISJL Education Fellow, and sharing more music–Jewish and not–with all of you in the South and beyond.

The Road to Jackson

I am a California hippie
on the road to Mississippi
there isn’t too much traffic
only sky
I am a California baby
in a Mississippi daydream
my window’s down
on highway 55
radio blasting
til I’m in Jackson
the road to Jackson

I am a California story
seeking Mississippi glory
I’m different though my flag’s
red white and blue
I am a California dreamer
on a Mississippi steamer
I’ll roll on down the river
with my Jews

So I’ll just cruise
radio blasting
til I’m in Jackson
the road to Jackson

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Posted on June 16, 2015

Graduation 2015: A [Jewish] Family Affair

graduation (shutterstock)

This graduation season, my family is celebrating not one, not two, but three graduations.

Our oldest, Alana, graduated from Indiana University. Our middle child, Jacob, graduated from high school. And our youngest, Eric, completed his middle school career.

alanaOver the past few weeks, I have had many moving “graduation moments.” I listened to beautiful symphonic music as thousands of graduates grandly processed into the Indiana University football stadium. I listened to “Pomp and Circumstance” as 316 high school seniors marched two by two into their graduation ceremony. (And although there was no official middle school graduation for Eric – I have proof of his report card: he’s an official high school freshman!)

At the two graduation ceremonies, I listened to two outstanding commencement addresses: one by Sage Steele, Indiana alum, female sportscaster and co-host of ESPN’s NBA Countdown; the other by Marshall Ramsay, a Mississippi artist whose editorial cartoons are syndicated nationally. Both shared inspiring personal stories of facing adversity and challenges, and staying focused on achievements and priorities.

Jacob, the high school grad

Jacob, the high school grad

As a mom, I kvelled throughout commencement, so proud of each my children’s achievements, of their efforts and successes… but then I shifted from glowing about all of the graduations to also wondering: as my children move from these commencements and “commence” the next steps in their lives – are they truly prepared to go out and make their way in the world?

Or, more simply in “mom speak”: Have I done a good job getting them ready to be out there, on their own?

My kids can do their laundry, they know how to balance their checking account, and all three of them can cook the basics. They are ready to be good citizens. But how well have we prepared them, Jewishly? When they are on their own, no longer going because my husband and I are taking them – will they seek out the local synagogue? Attend high holiday services? Participate in their Jewish communities?

Posted on June 10, 2015

Fellow Farewell: Some Say Goodbye, I Say Hello!

Fellow Family

In December of 2012, I was six months away from graduating college… and I needed what every graduate is looking for: a job.

I spent my downtime surfing job openings with a furrowed brow, waiting to see something that I was both interested in and qualified to do. Of course, I wasn’t completely sure what I wanted to do, but I knew two things:

First, I wanted to work in the Jewish world.

Second, I wanted to go back to the South (I was a displaced Southerner in college up in Boston).

Alachua teaching in Houston, TX

Alachua teaching in Houston.

My plan was to look through every southern state on jewishjobs.com. When I saw Mississippi, I thought, “Hey, I haven’t looked in this state yet. Why not?” I clicked, and my journey began.

When I first saw the listing for the Education Fellowship, I thought it was a joke. I did not believe that a place like the ISJL existed, in Mississippi or anywhere else. I was so moved and inspired by the work I read about, and decided that it was ISJL or bust. I applied the very next day.

Needless to say, the ISJL actually did exist. And I really did get the job, which met both of my requirements by giving me a meaningful Jewish career and a Southern address. Two years later I can say without hesitation that my experience here has been everything I had hoped for and more.

It’s difficult for me to express all that I’ve learned or choose a favorite memory of my time teaching, so I’ll leave you with a top 5 list of things I learned as a Fellow:

  1. Long drives get easier the more you do them. As a Fellow, I hit the road to go to communities all over our 13-state territory, multiple times a month. Seven hours? Eight hours? Psh. Child’s play.
  2. Recent college grads from all over the country can become a family. I love my cohort, AKA my fellow Fellows. They are so much more than my coworkers, and I am so proud of the work we did together. I know we’ll be staying in touch even as our next steps take us far away from each other.
  3. Posted on June 8, 2015

The Soul You Have Given Me (And The Spirits, Too)…

Artwork by Nishima Kaplan. Used here with permission of the artist.

I grew up and live now in New Orleans. When people think of religion in New Orleans, they might think of the large Catholic community, or Christianity in general and big gothic-style churches; or maybe of voodoo, or even of the psychics and tarot card readers waiting in the French Quarter. One thing is certain — religion and spirituality is in the air. As a spiritual Jewish woman, working as education director at my synagogue, religion and spirituality focused conversations feel like home to me, and recently I had yet another reminder of how teaching, learning, religion and spirituality are all interconnected.

One of the Jewish daily morning prayers includes the line: “Elohai neshama shenatata be t’horah he. Ata b’ratah, ata y’tzartah, ata n’fachtah be,” meaning: “My God, the soul You have given me is pure. You created it, You formed it, and You breathed it into me.” Jewish people do not believe in the Christian concept of original sin; we believe that every soul is born pure, and this prayer is a daily reminder of that belief.

Last week a young man in the process of converting to Judaism asked me a great question: “If Jews believe that every soul is born pure, do Jews also believe that it is possible to keep a soul totally pure?”

I gave him the “easy” answer which is that we are born with pure souls, and then given free will – and then also a guidebook filled with commandments, because we are not naturally capable of remaining pure. We need guidance to know how to behave, and how to repent when we transgress. We then moved on to other subjects, but ever since then, his question has been still in the back of my mind as I kept feeling like something was missing from my answer.

I discussed this question with a couple of my rabbi friends and yes, I absolutely had left something out! Something that has to do with spirits — not those floating around in a voodoo story, but those inside ourselves.

We are born with a pure soul, AND given free will, AND given the Torah as a guidebook—and on top of that, we have within each of us Yetzer haTov (good inclination) as well as Yetzer haRa (evil inclination). And the thing is, though we think of them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – we need both inclinations, both sides of our own spirit. We need them both, along with free will, in order to have the human experience!

Posted on June 3, 2015

Fellow Farewell: Lex Found the Torah He Was Looking For in The South

Seven wonderful students in Auburn, Alabama show off their visual representations of the seven days of creation.

We 21st century Jews like mentioning Hillel the Elder a lot. The man is one of few individuals on the planet who rivals folks like Martin Luther King and Yogi Berra for the title of “Most Quotable.” We discuss his famed on-one-foot recitation of what we now call the Golden Rule, and we deeply and rigorously analyze his famous three questions (If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?). But one of his quotes – the very first one in Pirkei Avot (Teachings of the Sages) for that matter – often goes unrecognized:

 “Be like a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them closer to the Torah” (Mishnah Avot, 1:12).

When I was in college, I realized that this quote in many ways embodied what I wanted to achieve with my life. Professionally, I realized that, to be most happy, I would need to be spending my days from 9-5 tackling that last part: bringing people closer to the Torah and its teachings.

For two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I have been privileged to do just that.

I have worked with congregations across the South, individuals across all age boundaries, and communities across a wide denominational spectrum. While each phone call has looked different and every community visit has taken a different form, what united them all was that text, the five books that have set the tone for the Jewish People for a few thousand years.

While I considered myself a religious Jew even before I took this job, I do not think it would be true to say that the Jewish calendar truly served as my foundation. I was a weekly Shabbat service attendee, and I observed holidays, but the ebb and flow of the Jewish year was not something I had fully internalized. By taking on this Fellowship, I took that next step on my Jewish journey.

People ask what caused me to apply for and accept this job down South, when I could have looked into other Jewish organizations closer to where I grew up (the Midwest) or where I went to college (the East Coast). There were a number of factors, but the primary one really was the opportunity to engage deeply and daily with the Torah. Who knew I’d find so many Torah-filled moments in Mississippi? But that’s what the Fellowship promised, and that’s what I experienced. I will always cherish the memories of engaging in Judaism alongside eager learners – like the seven wonderful students in Auburn, Alabama, featured in the image with this post, showing off their beautiful visual representations of the seven days of creation.

I came into this job as a 22-year-old recent graduate. Within the first couple of months on the job, I was asked to craft div’rei Torah, lead services in multiple denominations, and prepare engaging programming teaching students about these five ancient books that have endured for so long and which I truly believe have the potential to improve each and every one of us. More than simply reading the Pentateuch, I travelled through it with each passing week. More than anything else, that is what I take away from this incredible two years. Where I once read the Torah, I now experience it. It might feel like a small shift, but for me that change has been truly monumental. I couldn’t be more pleased that it happened, and I am beyond excited for the future Fellows who will soon be experiencing it themselves.

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Posted on June 1, 2015

My Jewish Camp Group’s 27-Year-Reunion (Or, “How My Husband Finally ‘Got’ My Jewish Camp Obsession”)

In Israel in 1988

Growing up in Texas, I started attending Greene Family Camp in 1980. I was one of those camp kids: Greene was my home, my community, the place where I found what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t the only one, either — my Greene friends were also all Jewish kids who counted the days throughout the school year until they could be back home at camp.

In the summer of 1988, I went to Israel for the first time. I went with my camp group. It was the summer before my junior year in high school, so by the time we went to Israel, my camp crew were already a tight bunch (but of course, anyone new was quickly welcomed into the fold). It was the adventure of a lifetime — certainly, of my life up to that point. Being 16 and getting to travel overseas for six weeks is an unbelievable privilege and experience. Each day of the trip was filled with memories and marvels. All of us fell deeply in love with our Jewish homeland and with the sacred community we created. We headed home changed forever.

The years passed and life presented us with many new  adventures: marriages, children, careers. But somehow our minds always found a space to reflect on our Israel trip and on each other. Some of us have stayed in close touch and others have bumped into each other in all kinds of places. My favorite is running into people as we are now dropping off our own kids at camp, wanting our children to capture the camp magic that we so cherished. But still, we were scattered, and had not come together as a group in more than two decades.

And then one of us sent an email last year saying hey, let’s all get together.

It was such a strange time to decide to have a reunion. Our trip had been 27 years earlier — no significance to the number. Three years shy of an even 30. It made so sense at all. Who has a 27-year-reunion?

Well, turns out that we do.

After the suggestion had been made, the thought of waiting for an even year or a year with a Jewish meaning or something seemed too far away. We wanted to be together now. And just like that, the reunion was in motion. We decided on Vegas as our meeting point, because we were all spread out anyway, and why not go to Vegas?

I decided to bring my husband along, despite the fact that he’s a non-camp person. He asked all kinds of questions leading up to the weekend about the people who would be there, and for the most part I didn’t know the answers. We’d been in sporadic touch, enjoyed the occasional run-ins, but mostly weren’t up on each other’s day-to-day lives.

27 years later - reunited in Las Vegas!

27 years later – reunited in Las Vegas!

“So… we’re headed on a trip for you to see people you haven’t spent any real time with in 27 years?” My husband asked.

Yup, I confirmed. That’s exactly what we are doing.

The Vegas weekend arrived. One by one or two by two, the former Greene campers and Israel travelers arrived. And one by one we fell back into sync with each other. There was so much to talk about, so much looking each other up and down to see how we had changed from kids to adults, and so much joy. It was easy. It was fun. It was us.

The weekend came to a close and we vowed to make it happen again soon and to get more people there. We had to do our best to continue to access what we had tapped into, way back in that summer of ’88.

On the plane ride home my husband shared that he “got it.” To watch us all and to see that we were still connected after all this time, was all he needed to see. Camp is magic. Israel is magic. Being a part of the Jewish community is magic. Make it happen for your own kids and for any Jewish kids you know.

They just might have their own special 27-year reunion.

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Posted on May 28, 2015