During a time when many feel so disconnected, Rabbi Jeff Glickman and Mindy Glickman of Temple Beth Hillel in South Windsor, CT, decided to take on a radical idea: Join hundreds of Reform synagogues in the USA. They even decided to buy an RV and travel across the country to meet with congregational leaders and members (outside, employing strict social distancing procedures) to not only support and highlight smaller Reform communities, but to also show how truly connected we still are.
We spoke with Mindy and Rabbi Jeff to learn more about their tour, what inspires them as leaders and givers, and what they learned on their trip so far.
How did Tour to the Wonderful originate?
Jeff: During this past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown me that things far away can really affect us locally, and I wondered: How can I use that idea to benefit others? NPR always asks their listeners to be members, so I called the NPR station in Tuscaloosa, AL, and asked to be a member there, even though I live in Connecticut. When they asked why I’d do that, I said, “What you're doing is so important. I don't want to just make a donation; I want to be a part of your team.” And I realized that's a big deal.
Synagogues are often the same way, which is why we decided to get an RV and take this trip. We're looking to join a lot of synagogues for one year in response to the pandemic. Inspired by our motto “Give Locally Everywhere”, we created an initiative we call GleE. We’re going to visit leaders and congregants of these synagogues to tell them, “What you're doing for Judaism is so important, and it affects us all so much. I want to be a member and a part of your family.”
What values inspired this project?
Jeff: Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Consultation on Conscience more than a dozen times.. I constantly give sermons about it because it’s so important and it’s inspired so much of my life and career, from when Mindy and I founded a home for pregnant teens in Missouri in the 80s to the time Mindy and I helped establish a school in Haiti after the earthquake. We were even invited to visit the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh so we could learn and teach others about the crisis these Muslims were facing. I've attended the
Tzedakah is often compared to charity, but it’s not. Charity has to do with one’s heart; it’s intended to give a good, warm feeling. Tzedakah, on the other hand, has to do with justice and being a responsible citizen. It’s great if giving tzedakah gives you a good feeling, but ultimately, it’s not a choice for Jews; it’s a moral requirement. Further, tzedakah isn’t just good for the recipient, it’s just as beneficial for the donor.
Where did the name Tour to the Wonderful come from?
Mindy: When Jeff and I married in 2007, we used Jewish National Fund cards for our invitations, and we wrote on them, “Life has taken a turn to the wonderful. Join us at our wedding.” That’s been our theme: Taking a turn to the wonderful. We even started a company specializing in books and games, Turn to the Wonderful, LLC, based on that. So when we were trying to come up with a name for our tour, we said, “We're doing a trip, let's call it a ‘Tour to the Wonderful.’”
During the tour, we produced a weekly Tour to the Wonderful podcast and encouraged people to participate virtually by joining us in Tour to the Wonderful's Facebook group. Each day at 5:00 PM EST, we continued the daily 5 minute broadcast "5@" which started when people became homebound due to COVID-19. That was especially fun for our viewers and virtual participants, because they never knew where we were going to be each day.
What have these visits been like? What are your safety measures?
Mindy: Before we left, we visited a pulmonologist friend who told us about everything he witnessed treating COVID-19 patients for days on end, so he gave us a bag filled with N95 masks. He said that what we're doing puts us at risk, so he wanted us to be extra careful.
Jeff: And we are. We met with people outdoors, and all of us wore masks and stood at least six feet apart. We wanted – as safely as possible – to connect with people, many of whom haven’t had a chance to authentically connect in-person with others in months.
Mindy: For instance, we visited a very close friend of mine, a cantor of a synagogue I belonged to when I lived in Queens. Song has always been in his soul, but when he came outside to see us, there was no song. He's older and just retired, so he’s been sitting inside since March.
As we sat and talked outside, I started to hear him humming to himself. By the end of our meeting, this very traditional cantor was standing up and raising his hands and singing “Hinei Mah Tov” like he’s Tevya from “Fiddler on the Roof”! It was like seeing a flower blossom.
RJ: That’s so beautiful!
Mindy: We also visited Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, AL. We weren’t as knowledgeable of this congregation’s leadership, so when Cantor Neil Schwartz, the leader of this community, came outside to see us, I realized I studied under him in an online class! Four congregants also joined us in the courtyard outside their beautiful, historic building.
As we explained that we wanted to join their congregation, some of them expressed confusion: Why would somebody join a synagogue and then not engage and fully participate? It doesn't make sense. But one of the congregants – as did Cantor Schwartz – understood our goal: that supporting a community from far away can be a good thing, and you can get a lot out of it.
Jeff: Many people may not know about these small congregations, but if they did, they might realize that they resonate with their values, that their membership dollars will really go far if they bridge that distance and could even lead to more people knocking at their doors. Or, let’s say someone isn’t affiliated with a congregation because they think they can’t afford membership dues. They might instead be inclined to give $300 to a small congregation they could engage with online. That would be amazing.