Sharing Jewish Journeys: A Simple & Sweet Shavuot Program

Temple Beth Torah-Saturday 5-3-14

Two years ago at the ISJL Education Conference, there was a wonderful program about diversity and inclusion in our Jewish communities. The program featured a panel of individuals able to share their stories, and offer suggestions for building more inclusive congregations and communities.

Inspired by this panel, we thought about the ways in which we could celebrate the diversity within our congregation.  At Temple Beth Torah in Humble, Texas, we have members from a number of diverse backgrounds.  We wanted people to know more about each other and including their backgrounds and their journey to Judaism.

Shavuot is a celebration marking the giving and receiving of the Torah. On this holiday, we are reminded that it is “as if all of us were standing at Sinai.” What better time to make sure that “all of us” are recognized in our communities today? For our congregation, Shavuot provided our community with an opportunity to reflect on the diverse paths that each of us went, and continue to go on, as we contemplate what it means to accept the Torah today. We launched a program called “Jewish Journeys.”

Sharing personal Jewish Journey stories proved powerful for everyone. This program was organized by our congregation’s Social Action Leadership Team (SALT) which is responsible for engaging congregants in meaningful service that positively impacts our Humble community. In addition to thinking about the broader Humble community, we thought it was important to strengthen our Temple community by celebrating the many Jewish journeys in our congregation.

With the Rabbi’s help we invited three people to speak at our first Jewish Journeys event: One speaker was the child of Holocaust survivors; one speaker had converted to Judaism within the last few years; another speaker was raised by a parent who became increasingly more involved in Jewish observance, and she (the speaker) also lived in Israel for a period of time as a young adult.

We asked each person to talk for about 5-7 minutes about their background, their Jewish identity and what was important to them about Judaism.  We put similar questions on each table for everyone to discuss if they wanted to share their own stories.  We left that decision up to each table. The program was very successful, and all the members enjoyed getting to know each other a bit better. We got such a good response that we invited 3 more congregants to speak about their Jewish Journeys during the break between services on Yom Kippur!

We believe that encouraging conversation among congregants about the nuances of their particular Jewish journey, as well as their personal identity and any insights they are willing to share, strengthens our community. When we know about someone else’s journey, we are able to value and honor their journey. We can also connect people who may have similar experiences and appreciate the ways in which we are all different.

The book “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” includes a discussion guide with questions that can start a similar discussion in your congregation. Shavuot is the perfect time to begin a program like this, which requires little set-up, budget, or “extras!” Of course, launching it on Shavuot also means the perfect excuse to have some blintzes or other treats on hand to enjoy while sharing stories. Here’s a fabulous list of 16 amazing blintz recipes to get you inspired.

May your shared journeys build stronger communities, and happy Shavuot!

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Posted on May 22, 2015

Shavuot & Social Justice


As we are approach the end of the Counting of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, I’m reflecting back on an important conversation that took place at my Passover seder. I was fortunate to spend Passover this year in Israel, and I attended a seder in Jerusalem. The one thing I wasn’t expecting at this seder was a mention of the state in which I currently reside — Mississippi.

This year, the Jewish world once again turned their eyes to Mississippi and the South, due to the 50th anniversaries of monumental events like the 1964 Freedom Summer Project, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 Selma Bridge crossing, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Bend the Arc released a Passover supplement commemorating 50 years since the Selma bridge crossing, and one of the leaders at my seder brought this supplement to discuss.

The group was excited to talk about the rich history of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement. As they spoke of all the Jews who served in the movement over the years, and posed broader questions of what in Judaism compels us to get involved in these struggles for justice, I found myself thinking back upon the 50th-anniversary commemorations in Selma, Alabama this past March. My roommate and I made the trip to Selma, where we heard President Obama speak, and joined an estimated 70,000 pilgrims on the voyage across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Rabbi Jeremy Simons wrote about his experience that day; and at that Passover table, my mind returned to that march.

One moment that stuck in my mind from that day happened at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Selma, before the march itself. Professor Susannah Heschel spoke to a crowd gathered at the synagogue, challenging us to re-frame our narrative of the moment. She said the gathering is not about what Jews have contributed to the movement; rather, we should ask ourselves what the movement gave to the Jewish people.

It’s not just the opportunity it gave us to take a stand and march alongside our neighbors. At a time when the words of the Torah were looked down upon, and even read in an anti-Semitic manner, the civil rights movement uplifted the voices of the Hebrew prophets, and looked to the Old Testament as a manual for change and justice. In that sense, the movement offered Jews reconciliation and breathed strength into our central text.

Posted on May 20, 2015

Missy’s Farewell: Timehopping Through Two Southern & Jewish Years!

This is the first in a series of four farewell posts from the ISJL’s 2013-2015 Education Fellows, who will all begin their new adventures this June. Missy brings the first farewell – with plenty of pictures!

The ISJL office gets a lot of visitors. When our guests are brought around the office to meet and learn about each department, we each have the opportunity to introduce ourselves. This is how I introduce myself:


 My name is Missy Goldstein. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida. I attended the University of Florida (Go Gators!), where I received degrees in Jewish Studies and in Family, Youth, and Community Sciences. I’m an outgoing second-year Fellow, and when I finish my Fellowship I’ll be pursuing graduate degrees in Jewish Education and Nonprofit Management from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion.

I would not be the person I am today had I not had the incredible opportunity to spend two years traveling across the South as Education Fellow with the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

That introduction rolls off my tongue, but it’s hard to believe how quickly these past two years have flown, and that there was a time I didn’t know about the ISJL.

I remember the very first time I heard about the ISJL. Jeff Kaplan, the program director at my campus Hillel, told me about this great organization where his friend was working. “This would be perfect for you,” he told me. But I was a sophomore then, hardly prepared to start thinking about life after graduation, so I carefully stored the information in the back of my mind.

In the spring of my junior year, I was interning for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (formerly NATE, the National Association of Temple Educators). After a conversation about the work I hope to do, one of my co-workers suggested I speak with this woman named Rachel Stern. Turns out, she works for that great organization that Jeff had told me about. It wasn’t until I met Rachel the following Thanksgiving, as a job-hunting senior, and learned more about the ISJL, that I realized how right Jeff had been two years earlier. I would be perfect for this job, and it would be perfect for me.

I got the job. And now, in just two weeks, my tenure in Jackson will be up.

Given the sheer number of amazing memories I’m taking with me, for my farewell post here, I’m not going to try to summarize them all. As far as nostalgia goes, I’m the #TBT and Timehop queen – so I’m going to say “pictures are worth a thousand words,” and share some of my favorites. Here are a few gems from the past two years.

Missy farewell2

Art projects across the South brought beauty to Jewish classrooms.

Missy farewell

Covering a lot of territory!


Missy farewell4

Missy farewell3

I’m in the purple – in the middle of my team for the past two years!


Thanks to everyone who helped make my past two Southern & Jewish years so incredible!


Posted on May 19, 2015

A Southern Jewish Woman’s Story from 1879 Asks Questions Still Lingering Today


I recently came across a short story titled Miss Magdalena Peanuts, published in the Atlantic Monthly in September, 1879. It was written by Phoebe Yates Pember, a Southern Jewish woman who lived during the Great Awakening, a time of intense Christian proselytization.

Miss Magdalena Peanuts is about Mrs. Pinotte, a sick woman who is close to dying and is trying to make guardianship arrangements for her teenage daughter, Miss Magdalena (or Maggie). The narrator, Mizz Lizzie, chronicles the visits of various church leaders who seem to have a stake in Mrs. Pinotte’s decision. Their motivation is clear: each potential caretaker wants Maggie to claim their faith as her own.

Mrs. Pinotte is visited by the Presbyterian, Baptist and Episcopal ministers. All of these clerics are disturbed by Mrs. Pinotte’s ultimate selection of Mr. Rosen, the Jewish pharmacist, as Maggie’s guardian—and also Ms.  Pinotte’s choice to be cared for by the Catholic sisters in her final days.

Miss Magdalena Peanuts is a work of fiction, but this story clearly makes a statement about the place of Jews in a predominately Christian context. It makes the Jewish character, Mr. Rosen, a visible member of his community—and more than that, as an individual as suitable as anyone else in the community to be Maggie’s guardian. In this story, the author seems to question the allegiances people have to religious institutions, and to cast doubt on the suspicion many Protestants had of the Jews and Catholics at that time.

In fact, Ms. Yates Pember makes us question the motives of all involved… but also whether motives even matter, so long as the outcome in the end is the desired one. Mizz Lizzie shares a conversation between her sister and a visitor. When the visitor shares her concerns with Mizz Lizzie’s sister, her sister remarks:

“What object could they have?” And then, “Well suppose they do; I am sure I have no objection. They will take excellent care of her, and that is, after all, the most important duty (pg. 295).”

Ms. Yates-Pember clearly used storytelling to get a message across to her readers, and this piece is an example of how storytelling, and writing, can be a platform through which we can raise awareness about social issues, human realities, and the need for change. Sometimes, through fiction, we can vitally explore realities and issues faced by many.

Stories challenge our understanding of the human experience and there is particular value to designating time to listening to stories that we may not hear on a regular basis. Storytelling can highlight the need for action and change. Though written more than a century ago, this story’s themes resonate with me as I consider the implications of religious affiliation in the Bible Belt today. The question that has stuck with me since I read the story is whether the issues raised by this story can present a challenge to Jewish communities as well. When we talk about increasing synagogue affiliation, what is our motivation? Additionally, how would we describe the ideal relationships among people of different faiths in our community? How do they perceive us, how do we perceive them — and as long as we treat each other well, how much do motives matter?

This story is more than 100 years old, but these questions still linger.

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Posted on May 14, 2015

Those Who Can, Teach


It’s been a nostalgic week for me. Although I defended my dissertation in June of last year and officially earned my doctorate then, the annual doctoral convocation at New York University falls in May. So I had to wait a year to finally get “hooded,” and jut this week left my desk in Mississippi to travel back up North for graduation.

It feels good to be back in the city. Walking around my beloved New York, especially the area that constitutes NYU’s campus, I found myself missing my days of being a graduate student. I especially missed my closest faculty advisers. All three of my dissertation committee members were leaders in their field; all of them pushed me hard to excel while remaining supportive and kind along the way. They continue to be a part of my life and serve as an inspiration for me as I advance my career half a country away, documenting the history of the Jewish South.

I have long wondered how I can thank my teachers for all that they gave to me… but it wasn’t until this trip back up to New York that I figured out the best way to honor them: by following their lead and serving as an adviser to other intellectually curious souls.

While in the city, I met with Francesca DeRosa. She is a junior at NYU, an impressive and enthusiastic history student – and this summer, she will be an ISJL History Intern. She will head down to Mississippi in less than a month, where she will be joined by two other great interns: Jason Nadboy of Brown University, and Hannah Good, a recent graduate of George Washington University.

Francesca and I met at Boise Tea house for a proper English tea. (Having lived in England for a year while studying at Oxford, I know what makes a good scone! The ones served at Boise Tea house were very good – not too sweet, lots of butter, and a nice light dusting of crunchy sugar bits on the top.) Over tea, we talked about the Southern summer ahead. While talking to Francesca, answering her questions and telling her more about the Jewish South, I realized that my time of being an advisee was finally over. That’s a hard thing to swallow after a twelve year stint as a student in higher education. But now, it’s time for me to be the advisor.

Posted on May 12, 2015

The Mikveh: Bringing Purity (Even To Tazria-Metzora Sermons)

Courtesy Mayyim Hayyim

This time of year, we read a very infamous Torah portion: Parashat Tazria-Metzora, a double Torah portion, which is widely considered to be the ickiest section of Torah.

Tazria describes, in great detail, the procedure for dealing with the skin disease tzara’at, a scaly red and white rash. Metzorah then segues into a discussion about what to do to purify oneself after certain bodily emissions.

Guys, it’s gross.

So imagine my enthusiasm when I realized that this was the Torah portion about which I was required to speak on my recent visit to a synagogue in Blacksburg, Virginia.

There is one section of this portion I find particularly meaningful, and that is the section about mikveh. A mikveh is a Jewish ritual bath, which people use for a variety of reasons. In ancient times, High Priests were required to immerse in a mikveh before performing certain tasks at the Temple; women traditionally immersed after giving birth and at the end of their cycle; converts to Judaism must immerse as the final step in their conversion. Immersion in the mikveh marks a transition from a state of impurity to purity, or, as I prefer to say, “un-readiness to readiness” for interactions with God.

I learned all about the traditional basis for mikveh as well as its modern iterations as a summer intern at Mayyim Hayyim, a community mikveh and education center in Newton, Massachusetts. In fact, that internship led me to my Education Fellowship position at the ISJL. Let me walk you through the Jewish geography: the ISJL’s President and founder is Macy B. Hart. Macy’s eldest daughter is Leah Hart Tennen. In 2012 Leah, was the Mikveh Center Director at Mayyim Hayyim, where I was a summer intern.

Small Jewish world!

I loved interning at Mayyim Hayyim. First of all, I learned all about the physical structure of the mikveh. A mikveh must be a permanent structure fed by natural rainwater. There are all kinds of complicated systems to make sure this water is both natural and clean. At Mayyim Hayyim there are two mikva’ot, which are connected to outdoor wells which collect rainwater. There are all sorts of complicated rules about how much water, what percentage must be natural, how it can and cannot be cleaned. I loved learning the legal discourse around these details!

Posted on May 4, 2015

Georgia: A Southern Jewish Tail

Me with Georgia the kitten in 2000

I’m a cat person. I currently have a sweet cat named Ella, who moved down to Mississippi with me last year. (Thank goodness for pheromone collars, or she might still be in New York!) She has adjusted well to being a Southern cat… and recently, I was reminded how small the world can be, thanks to another Southern kitty.

When I was in college, my roommate and I rescued a lost kitten and named her Georgia. (Funny side note: For much of the year, we thought she was a George. When she went into heat during the spring, we switched the name.) As graduation approached, we needed to make sure our cat would have a good home—we were each going to new places, I was heading to France, and the cat’s future was uncertain. Luckily, my thesis advisor and his wife did me a huge favor and adopted Georgia.

I went to France, and later Michigan, and New York, and Mississippi. I got my new cat, Ella. And then this spring I got an email from my undergraduate thesis advisor’s wife.

Turns out, this lovely woman Googled my name just to see what had become of me, and was thrilled to find out that I am the historian for the ISJL. She is Jewish, she and her husband now live in the South (they relocated to North Carolina), so they knew organization for which I work quite well– and, of course, they brought their cat down South with them.

Georgia in North Carolina now!

Georgia in North Carolina now!

It also turns out that, just like me, little rescue kitten Georgia wound up in the South, too. Imagine my surprise, learning that Georgia is still alive and well! I graduated from college in 2001, and with so much time gone by, I was a little shocked but thrilled to know that Georgia continues to thrive. Who knew, when we parted ways in the Northeast, that we would both find our way down to the South for the next chapters of our lives? I also realized it had been far too long since I had spoken to the wonderful people who took her in for me.

It was fun to reconnect with that part of my past, and I plan on visiting Georgia and her two-footed companions the next time I am in the Tar Heel state. All too often, when we move away, the close friendships fade due to distance. When we get to reconnect, with people, pets, and places—it’s pretty special. I’ve had a lot of amazing people come into my life, and I am sure you have as well. This Southern and Jewish “tail” is also a reminder to us all to pick up the phone, send an email to that special someone, and always to honor and value those relationships.

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Posted on April 30, 2015

The Mezuzah & The Magnolia

photoThe door to my apartment is pretty distinct: It just might be the only one in this city that welcomes visitors by displaying a cheerful magnolia flower, and a modest little bronze mezuzah.

About a year ago, my husband got a new job, and we moved from Jackson, Mississippi, to Chicago. It was a big transition. Excited as we were to embrace the new city and new opportunities, and to connect with friends and family up North, we were also sentimental about leaving our lives, friends, and family in the South.

There’s something very Southern about feeling proudly tied to a particular place, and about wanting to hold on to deep connections, and about wanting to share and display the art and flavors of your culture. There’s also something really Jewish about doing those exact same things. We tell our stories and introduce our identities in a number of ways, and quite often, small symbols with big meaning help convey who we are, where we come from, and what matters to us.

As individuals and as a people (whether the “people” in question are Southerners, Jews, Southern Jews, or others!), our lives are intricately layered and inter-connected stories. Each chapter is informed and infused by the previous chapters. We are not just the citizens of the time and place in which we currently reside; we are the culmination of everywhere else we have been.

The magnolia and the mezuzah at the door are symbols of Southern and Jewish pride, and they’re a preview of what you’ll find inside the apartment. Our home in Chicago is full of Southern touches — the vintage map of Mississippi, the “one-Mississippi-two-Mississippi”- second-counting wall clock, artwork by our talented friends from the South; it is full of Jewish artifacts — the tzedakah box, the Kiddush cup, the beautiful candlesticks made from the tree that formed our chuppah; and there are even a few special pieces that blend the two, like our Shalom Y’all coffee table book and  our beautiful ketubah, a gift from my ISJL co-workers, designed by an artist friend who moved recently from Mississippi to Texas.

Posted on April 27, 2015

How Do You Pray?

Prayer and spirituality matter to Ann Zivitz Kientz.

Prayer and spirituality matter to Ann Zivitz Kientz.

As a Jewish woman living in the South, who proudly identifies as a spiritual person, I am often engaged in “God-talk.”

My friends feel comfortable telling me about their thoughts, feelings, and spiritual experiences. They also always encourage me to share mine, and this leads to a lot of wonderfully enriching conversations. Of course, living in New Orleans, while I do have a wonderful Jewish community – the majority of my friends are not Jewish. But in these God-talks, we have much more in common than one would imagine from the outside looking in, despite the differences in our religions.

The other day, my devoutly Christian hairdresser shared a story with me about selling her house. She told me that she prayed for two weeks straight, and it sold. Despite my comfort with spiritually focused conversations, I internally bristled at this statement. Praying to God for something like a home sale? Is that, well… prayer-worthy? Despite all my frequent conversations with friends of other faiths, in my Jewishly-shaped perception of prayer, daily-life-requests or personal-situation prayers are not exactly front and center.

But then, I quickly thought to myself: When your son was on the road in the rain at night, driving a 15’ moving van from Tennessee to Texas, didn’t you pray for his safety? When he finally arrived at 2:00am safe and sound, didn’t you thank God for this, and all of your blessings before you slept? That’s a daily-life, personal-situation prayer, too. Who am I to judge what another prays for or attributes thanks to God for, anyway?

I don’t know how this wireless communication with God, which we call “prayer,” actually works. I do know that when there is nothing else that I can “do,” it brings me comfort to connect with God through prayer. Jews do pray for the healing of others through our Mi Shebeirach prayer. We do ask God to bless us with peace, and we pose many other requests through our prayers. I do know that those around me who are filled with gratitude for their blessings seem happier with their lives.

Posted on April 23, 2015

Beyond “Cute” & “Sweet”: Truly Respecting Our Elders

The author's grandmother in 1947

Geri (the author’s grandmother) in 1947

I recently watched this great animated clip from StoryCorps. The woman featured in the clip, Kay Wang, immediately reminded me of my maternal grandmother.Similar to Kay Wang, my grandmother, Geraldine “Geri” Eisenstadt, was incredibly strong-willed and outspoken. She wasn’t afraid to tell you what she thought, and certainly did not censor herself when calling someone out for doing something wrong. Similar to Kay’s granddaughter, I often giggled in response to bold remarks made by my grandma. Her lack of fear about what others thought of her both inspired and intimidated me.

Unlike Kay’s granddaughter, I did not have the chance to sit down for an oral history interview with my grandmother before she passed away. Although the last time I saw my grandmother, I filled my phone’s memory with videos of her stories, I regret not asking more. It’s been about a year since she passed away.

I remember telling her about my recent hire at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. I was used to people immediately responding to the news with comments like “there are Jews in the South?!” or, “why would you want to go there?” Instead, my grandma lit up and said, “What an incredible opportunity. Did you know we had family in the South?”

I didn’t know we had family in the South. But then again, I never asked.

This got me thinking about the way we generally treat elderly members of our communities. My grandma was fiercely independent- she lived alone until she was 94. Yet when strangers met her, they would often note how “cute” or “sweet” she was. I can assure you, she was neither cute, nor sweet, and would not have appreciated either description.

She was a feminist before her time. She worked as an accountant in a clothing factory before women generally held jobs of that nature. She told me stories of her boss hitting on her, over and over again, and demeaning her abilities due to her gender. One day she found a huge mistake in the books and publicly called him out on it. He didn’t bother her again. I didn’t hear this story, or many others like it, until I graduated college. Up until at point, I didn’t really have any interest in learning about her life-her hardships, accomplishments, regrets, and dreams. Not because I didn’t care about her, but because I sort of just thought of her as a loving, maternal presence in my life—as, simply, my grandmother.

Posted on April 20, 2015