Fellow Farewell: Four Young Jews Reflect on Two Years in Mississippi

These Education Fellows will never forget their time in the Deep South

Hello. We’re the 2015-2017 ISJL Education Fellows: Ali, Becca, Elias, and Shira. Over the past two years, we have grown personally and professionally; we have challenged one another and been challenged ourselves; we have taught and we have learned; and most importantly, we have laughed and had fun. It is difficult to sum up what our experience as ISJL Education Fellows has meant to us, but we gave it a shot. Thank you to our communities, the ISJL staff, and the residents of Jackson for being part of our journey.

Think back to May 2015: What were your expectations for the Education Fellowship when you took the job?

Shira: In May of 2015, it finally hit me that I had accepted a job in Jackson, MS. Until then, it had seemed like a nice party trick for the Jewish girl from New York to say she was moving to Mississippi. Suddenly, with only a month left, this “trick” became very real and I began to grow anxious. How would I handle the culture shock? How would I serve my communities?

Ali: I honestly cannot remember. It seems like a lifetime ago, I am sure I had some expectations but any ideas I had about this fellowship have been replaced by the actual experience.

Elias: Before finding this fellowship, I did not know what I wanted to do after graduation. I was looking for an adventure, something exciting from which I could also learn and grow. The ISJL presented me with that opportunity and I jumped at the notion of being a traveling Jewish Educator. I thought I understood just how large the ISJL’s 13 state region was but truly, I had no idea. I couldn’t comprehend how hard it would be to drive sixteen hours round trip for under 48 hours of work. And I did not expect to fall in love with Jackson.

Becca: I was expecting to have a two year adventure. I had not really thought about what that meant, but I knew that I would get to know a part of the country about which I had previously known almost nothing in an intimate way. I thought that Jackson was a way more politically and socially conservative place than it actually is, and I did not realize how intense of a roller coaster the next two years would be.

What have you learned?

Ali: The most interesting work never goes exactly as planned.

Elias: When you need technology to work, the ghost in the machine will find a way to cause you stress. If you prepare far enough in advance, you will be successful, even if your tech fails you.

Becca:  I have gained a better understanding of how the Jewish world actually works. I have seen different ways in which large and small congregations tackle current challenges facing the Jewish community. I have also experienced the universality to how these issues impact our congregations. I have seen the power of congregations networking and finally realizing that their challenges are often not as unique as you think.

Shira:  I have learned how to work with a diverse group of people. I have taken my schmoozing and small talk abilities to the next level, and have seen all of the different ways that people can contribute to their synagogues. On a more personal level, I have learned how to live on my own and have become more comfortable with being alone after all of the long drives in the car.

What is life in Jackson, Mississippi, really like?  What surprised you most about your time here, what activities did you participate in…?

Elias: After a two year hiatus from tennis in college, I was able to get back into playing competitively. While I loved getting back on the courts, nothing beats playing on church league basketball and softball teams. I had never once experienced group prayer before or after a game. Adding a religious component to a sports game brought out the best in everyone. Although I will find new leagues in my future home, nothing will compare to the camaraderie during church league sports.

Becca: Jackson is a small city, which means it’s easy to get involved. I have found some success in the local music scene, and I have gotten some really cool opportunities to play shows all over town and develop a little following. I even got to do the soundtrack for an indie movie that’s currently on the movie festival circuit. A few dozen people sing along to some of my original songs at shows, and it’s a surreal feeling. I’m going to miss this place a lot as I attempt to establish myself musically in my next city.

Shira: Everyone in Jackson has been so friendly and welcoming. Whether I know them or not, people always want to take the time to chat. When I moved to Jackson, I started attending classes at the YMCA. The instructors were not only willing to teach me Step Fusion or Spin, but they made a point of getting to know me and always greeted me with a smile. The same goes for my doctors, who always remembered me and greeted me warmly (especially the nurse at Jackson Healthcare for Women who hugs every patient upon arrival), and the women at Browbar, who always made it feel like I was catching up with old friends.

Ali: Life in Jackson is just like life anywhere. You make friends, go to work, and eat food. I think I was expecting it to be different than life somewhere else. But other than its lack of public transportation, it turned out to be a pretty nice place to live. Jackson is also home to the most amazing produce you have ever experienced— many of us have participated in a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture share) with Two Dog Farms, and their vegetables never disappoint!

What is your favorite memory from community visits?

Becca: I was on a visit in Texas last year when I received an email informing me that I had 48 hours to write an email that would be sent to 20,000 people. I borrowed my host family’s computer and wrote about some of the relationships I had formed with community members while on the road. The piece was called “Lessons from a Southern Belle with a Crowbar,” and you can read it here.

Shira: One of the best parts of the fellowship is that our community members want to show off their cities to us. While on work visits, I have visited multiple art museums, attended a car show and Sara Evans concert all in one afternoon, and spent a day relaxing at the beach on South Padre Island. My favorite part of traveling to our communities is getting to know the students, teachers, and host families, and hearing their stories.

Ali: I once spent 12 hours creating the greatest Purim carnival ever in Columbus, Georgia. We completely transformed the room to look like a circus tent. It was amazing, the education director wanted every student to forget they were in a synagogue, and we succeeded!

Elias: Over the past two years I have been on 33 road trips to visit ISJL education partners. On each and every one of these road trips I have brought my fishing rod and tackle box. Some lakes brought me better luck than others; the Galveston Bayou was better than the rest. While catching fish during my down time was a blast, nothing will ever beat teaching the story of Jonah while bass fishing in Greenwood, Mississippi.

What was your greatest creation at the ISJL?

Shira: My greatest creation while at the ISJL involves food…duh! I wrote a program entitled Cupcake Commentaries in which students decorate cakes or cupcakes based on a biblical text. This program has even been adapted by other Fellows for teacher trainings.

Ali: I made a few programs that took me months to create; time-consuming programs are my favorite. I am probably most proud of my Shabbat-friendly Torah story programs, each program is two hours and teaches a different Torah portion that can be done without breaking the laws of Shabbat. I also like the programs I wrote with long titles such as Campfire Hot Chocolate Tot Shabbat with a DJ and Star Wars Clue Dinner Theater Program.

Elias: Before coming to the ISJL, I was part of an educational drum circle group called Shul of Rock. When I arrived in Jackson I was immediately presented with an opportunity to create a service based on Shul of Rock. Over the past two years I have developed multiple services and programs all incorporating percussion, under the title of “Druminyan.”

Becca: I wrote multiple song parodies that I am really proud of. The Born to Run parody I wrote for the 2015 Education Conference was pretty funny. Hopefully, the Sukkot parody I recorded will get turned into a video and y’all will be able to see it.

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” – William Faulkner

What does this quote mean to you?

Elias: As a transplant, I have had a unique experience in Mississippi. I’ve come to believe that Mississippi has one foot in the past and one in the future. While deeply proud of their southern roots, home grown innovators push for equality in the hopes of bettering their home state. It takes courage to break from the status quo and think progressively. If we all fought for what is right like Mississippians, I have no doubt that we would see positive change in our world.

Becca: More times than I can count, I have been asked if I was surprised to learn that Mississippians wear shoes and have running water; friends outside the region have asked even harsher questions about politics and culture. But most people with negative perceptions of Mississippi have never been here, let alone lived here. After living here for two years, I have learned how to live in the nuance and paradoxes that are the state of Mississippi.

Ali: I do not understand Mississippi any more now than I did before, but I visited Faulkner’s house in Oxford; it was pretty cool!

Shira: As a New Yorker, one of the biggest adjustments in moving to Mississippi was being surrounded by people with different viewpoints, which I had never tried to understand. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned while living in the South, is how to have conversations with people with opposing viewpoints. Not with the goal of changing someone else’s opinion but in order to understand why they hold that belief. These conversations have given me a greater perspective on Mississippi, but more importantly, the whole world.

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