By Ellen C. Alexander
The other morning I was getting ready for work and I heard the words, “The Jew in the Box” on the Today Show. My husband, Shawn, and I froze. What could this possibly mean? Matt Lauer came on to explain the art exhibit in Berlin.
Shawn was outraged. I was not sure how I felt.
Another life time ago, I was not Jewish. Another life time ago, I thought everything Jewish was Fiddler on the Roof or Yentl. Another lifetime ago, I didn’t know the answers to Jewish questions.
Another lifetime ago, I became a Jew by Choice and have spent my life working with and for my people.
My first professional Jewish job was working for my hometown synagogue, Beth Israel Congregation as the temple administrator. I learned the Jewish calendar, yarzheits, the Jewish year (I am still one of the congregants who know what year it is during High Holy Days), which names are spelled ei rather than ie . . . I am still a wealth of knowledge as it pertains to my congregation, especially about who is related to whom!
One part of my job was answering the phone; often times it was a congregant with a question about services or wanting to make an appointment. I still miss the daily opportunities to visit with some of our senior members. But, on occasion, the questions were from others asking, “Do Jews. . .”
- Think about Jesus
- Know Jesus
- Sacrifice animals (By the way, the Episcopal Church across the street has an annual goat roast – that was always my favorite response.)
- Make Matzoh out of Christian children
- Celebrate Christmas or have Christmas trees
- All want to move to Israel – why or why not
- Eat strange food
- Read the “real” Bible
- Have Cedar plates (like the tree)
- Really swing chickens over their heads (Passed that one on to the rabbi – surprised by the answer)
- Know where the blood goes in the drains after the sacrifices
Most questions never bothered me and I would answer with zeal and pride, but sometimes the questions would scare or shock me. Could people really not know how awesome, smart, fun, talented, loving and caring a people we are? What is wrong with people? I thought it was because I live in Mississippi. Clearly, I was wrong.
So, was I then “The Jew in the Box” for three years?
For more than three years now I have served as Jacobs Camp’s Development Director. (It’s okay to be jealous because, yes, I spend my summers at camp!) Every summer I watch hundreds of Jewish children from across the Deep South return home. They gleefully bound out of cars on opening day and head to their cabins to pick the bunk next to their best buddy. They sing, and sometimes scream, Hebrew at the top of their lungs at song session. They pray with spirit and love in their hearts. They climb the Tower. They learn to make pita over a camp fire. They fall in and out of love again and again. They find answers about what being Jewish means to them. They find strength in friendships gained, and pride in who they are – and carry both (and so much more) with them through another year of life in a not-so-Jewish South.
Once, a camper with whom I’ve formed a special connection gave me a big hug and said, “I LOVE CAMP!” I squeezed him back and questioned, “Why?” His response was clear, “Everybody here his like me!”
Our campers do not answer questions about what it means to be Jewish – they do not have to defend themselves or their beliefs. Instead, they interact with positive Jewish role models of all ages and backgrounds, and live in a wholly – and holy – Jewish community. While they are here at Camp, they are not “The Jew in a Box”. Rather, they are free to roam on these sacred grounds. And that is THE absolute best thing about Jacobs Camp.
A lifetime ago, I might have thought “The Jew in Box” exhibit was interesting or catchy. A lifetime ago, I might not have understood my husband’s rage. But, now, in this lifetime, I do.