Coming Full Circle: Jewish Professional Life Starts Early

Who knew as a religious school student, I was preparing to teach my teachers?

My name is Harrison Bleiberg, and I am one of the new ISJL Education Fellows, but in a way, I was part of the Institute for Southern Jewish Life even before I submitted my job application.

Prior to applying to work as an Education Fellow, I had worked with the ISJL curriculum as a teaching assistant at my temple’s religious school in Birmingham, Alabama.  I was also a long-time subscriber to the ISJL’s “Taste of Torah” email list. So I was somewhat familiar with the ISJL in those obvious ways, but my connection goes back even further: Turns out I  had been preparing to work for this Southern Jewish organization since the first grade.

Several times in my Jewish professional career, I have had “full circle moments” — moments when something from my past seemed to directly meet me where I was in the present. Like when I need to use a skill that I learned earlier at camp, or where I would get to work with one of my early mentors in a professional setting. The first “full circle” moment came during my initial job application to the ISJL. When asked to provide references, I gave the name of one of my supervisors from my days as a counselor at URJ Greene Family Camp. Little did I know, one of my potential bosses was not only acquainted with my former supervisor, but she had also been a counselor to my supervisor’s mother!

During the fly-in interview process, I was provided with names of former Education Fellows, many of whom had been my counselors or teachers at Kutz and Greene camps. I recognized many faces and names in the introductory slideshows.

I enjoyed learning about how the ISJL operated and meeting all the wonderful staff of the ISJL, and hoped with all my heart that I would have the opportunity to work with the ISJL in the future.

(Spoiler alert: I did.)

Another full-circle moment came when I met the rest of my cohort on the first day of work. I was already acquainted with two of my co-workers from our fly-in interview, but I also came to realize that two of my other coworkers I had known for several years and had attended URJ Camps with me before.

In getting to know Jackson, I have already in a few short weeks strengthened my bonds with my co-workers, rekindled friendships with old camp friends, and visited sites in Jackson that I had visited as a youth group participant several years prior. As I familiarized myself with the duties of an Education Fellow, I found myself utilizing skills that I had learned as a camper and a staff member: Program writing, teamwork, leadership, and event planning were skills that I had developed over many summers in the grounds of a handful of camps and youth group programs, and the various synagogues that I traveled to during my time as a Temple Youth Group President. Whenever I use a game I learned at Bay Area Mitzvah Corps, or write a program inspired by an activity I did during my Olim Fellowship, I am brought back to the “full circle” of my Jewish experience.

However, my most jarring full-circle moment came during some down time during one of my first days at the ISJL office. During my lunch break, I decided to look up pictures from one of the old ISJL Education Fellow visits to my hometown synagogue in Birmingham. While flipping through pictures of my old congregation on my work computer, I was faced with a picture of me in all my baby-faced, socially awkward early high school glory (that’s me with the red bass guitar in the photo for this blog). To my horror, I realized that the ISJL has had a picture of me on their server since 2010!

Right now, the ISJL is preparing for our annual Education Conference. Looking over the attendance list, I recognize several names from many different points in my life. Everyone from my first-grade camp counselor to my Greene Family Camp faculty friends are somewhere on that list. In a few short weeks, I will see people who remember helping me tie my shoes during my first grade session at camp, and people who remember helping me supervise a cabin full of 6th graders during a 7:30 am Torah study program. As a new Fellow, I feel honored to be counted among my personal Jewish role models, and I can only hope that I am one day part of someone else’s full-circle moment.

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