Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review

This has been a whirlwind year, full of moves and career changes, new skills and old interests.  Last year, Marc and I rang in the new year in Birmingham (yes, Birmingham, Alabama), having just moved there in December.  By March, I was looking for ways out; by April, I had been accepted to graduate school at George Washington University; and by June, I had moved to Washington, DC, where I fell in love with museums all over again.  It's been a strange, but wonderful year.

(December 2013-June 2014 with a brief return in August)
Birmingham Skyline from Railroad Park
I was so excited to move to Birmingham.  Yes, you read that right.  I - lover of all things Abraham Lincoln, who has ranted on multiple occasions about Confederate flag memorabilia, and loved living in Philadelphia - was optimistic about moving to the deep south.  I said goodbye to my winter coat (though, luckily, I held onto it), bragged about the warm weather I enjoyed to my friends up north and laughed at the southerners around me who bundled up for 50 degree weather in January.  I got involved in the Jewish community, which was tight-knit in a way that I have only seen in the south.  I joined the Jewish young adult social group, became a board member of the Birmingham chapter of Hadassah, took a part-time job at the JCC, and became a substitute teacher at the Jewish Day School.  Perhaps most impressively, I finally learned how to cook.  I had plenty of time, since I was never able to find full-time employment, so I baked and cooked, and sent Marc to work with all my leftover concoctions.  I even blogged all my recipes!  I am most proud of my bagel recipe, which took me months to perfect.

If Birmingham was so great, why was I already looking to leave by March?  It was a number of things, really, not all of them Birmingham's fault, though much of it was.  
  • It is not a walkable city and I had to drive almost everywhere, despite living downtown.  Marc was able to walk to work and we could walk to Railroad Park (pictured above), but for errands, for my job, or anything else, I had to drive and I hate driving.
  • Birmingham inhabitants love their city, but questioned us constantly about why we would have chosen to move there.  It is not a region to which people move without previous ties to the area, so we received a lot of strange looks when people learned that we did not have any relatives nearby or family history there.  People were still very welcoming, don't get me wrong, but these kinds of questions made it seem like Birmingham had nothing of value to offer outsiders.
  • The job market for me was terrible.  My job at the JCC was a part-time front desk position, where I greeted members, answered the phone, and took payments for swimming lessons on the 5-9:00 AM shift.  Talk about being underemployed!
  • My unhappy job situation prompted me to really sit down and think about the career that I want.  Over the past four years, I have continued to cycle back to two potential careers: museum exhibition development and Jewish education.  For years, I have researched (with varying levels of seriousness) museum studies and Jewish studies programs.  I came back to Jewish Studies this year, hoping to further my education far away from Birmingham.  While looking for Jewish Studies degree programs on the east coast, I came across a brand new Masters degree: Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts (EE/JCA) at GW, which combines museum education and Jewish Studies into one two-year program.  I found it in late March.  I had missed the application deadline, but thankfully, they were taking late applications and by Passover in April, I was in and planning a move to Washington, DC!
Solo Summer in Washington, DC
(June-July 2014)
In the middle of June, I left Marc in Birmingham to start my first summer semester of graduate school at GW.  It was the first time in my life that I have ever lived completely by myself, an experience I could have done without.  Aside from the loneliness of missing Marc, I had a very active summer.  I met 19 new people - 6 of them in the EE/JCA program and 13 in the Museum Education Program (MEP) - and spent more hours at museums than I can count.
Top Row: U.S. Holocaust Museum, Building Museum, Air & Space, Frederick Douglass House
Bottom Row: Smithsonian Castle, National Zoo
I had classes about museums all day on weekdays, but managed to do non-class, non-museum related things as well.  I enjoyed a Bruckner symphony at the Kennedy Center, trivia on Wednesday nights with friends from Philadelphia, and Friday night jazz concerts at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden.

Independence Day
(Fourth of July Weekend)
I did get to see Marc for the 4th of July weekend.  We met for the weekend in Charlottesville, VA, where we spent even more time at museums.  On the 4th of July, we saw 72 people become naturalized citizens of the United States at Monticello.  We also visited the homes of James Madison and James Monroe, went hiking in Shenandoah National Park, and saw the Montpelier Train Depot, which is an amazing little self-guided museum restored to the time of segregation.
Clockwise from the Left: Shenandoah, Monticello, Montpelier Train Depot

Fall Term
The best part of fall term was that Marc got a job in Virginia and we were able to move to Maryland together, instead of continuing our long-distance marriage.  Goodbye forever, Alabama!  In DC, we have thrown a few house parties, played some weeknight trivia, and witnessed the Nationals' no-hitter in the last game of the regular season (though sadly, they didn't go very far in the playoffs).

We briefly flirted with joining a Modern Orthodox shul down the street from us, which has a rabbi and a maharat (which is basically a female rabbi without all the religious authority they would have if they were men), a waist-high mechitza down the middle of the room, and a very welcoming community, but ultimately decided after spending Rosh Hashanah there that Modern Orthodoxy is not for us.  We spent Yom Kippur at the Conservative synagogue across the street and are still trying out synagogues in the area for the right fit.  Also, for Rosh Hashanah, I got to try out a new apple-stuffed challah recipe and it was delicious!

My class on contemporary Jewish life in America was by far the best.  It was academically engaging and intellectually challenging and allowed for a mix of personal experience and professional detachment when analyzing the various topics.  Outside of class, we got to see multiple Jewish plays and speakers, including a very interesting interpretation of Yentl at Theatre J and a great performance of Fiddler on the Roof at the Arena Stage.

Museum Audiences was also a great class with flexible assignments that gave me the opportunity to apply our readings to the audiences that I am specifically interested in engaging: Jewish adults and non-Jewish audiences in Jewish settings.

Teaching 5th Graders at the National Gallery of Art
Finally, there was the Museum Education Seminar course and corresponding internship at JPDS in DC.  The seminar itself, which met once a week on Fridays so that we could learn education theory and discuss our internships with each other, was a thorn in my side, but the internship was wonderful!  The teachers I worked with and shadowed were fantastic and I already miss my kids.  For my final project, I took my fifth graders to the National Gallery of Art to learn about Exodus in art, Moses, and leadership.

That is basically my 2014 in a nutshell.  In 2015, I hope for more of the same great experiences.  I will try to be better about blogging them when they happen.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quote of the Week: I wish I was Jewish

This semester for my field placement at JPDS, I am finally being forced to learn Hebrew in a real way. The third, fourth, and fifth graders know more Hebrew than I do, which makes it hard for me to help them with their Hebrew translations for Judaic Studies, but there are two new students to the school this year who have no Hebrew background, so I have volunteered to tutor them in the aleph-bet.

As an aside, I should mention that, while this is a Jewish Day School, it is also a community day school and they have a number of non-Jewish students enrolled (whether because it is better than their public school options, within walking distance of their homes, or any other reason that a parent would enroll their child in a private school). These two students - a boy and a girl - are not Jewish, so the Hebrew is new and hard for them, but they are so focused on learning it. Time for me to channel their drive, dust off my Rosetta Stone, and give Hebrew another try myself!

During our first lesson today, we reviewed the difference between בּ (a "b" sound) and ב (a "v" sound) and between ד (a "d" sound) and ר (an "r" sound), coupled with different vowels to make different sounds, like "da-beh" or "reh-va."  Aside from the Hebrew, I also wound up teaching them about what it means to be Jewish.  They were both shocked that I am not from Israel, have no family in Israel, and am not fluent in Hebrew.  "But I thought you were Jewish!" the boy said with obvious confusion.  We had a quick discussion about what it means to be Jewish, but the duality of Judaism as a people and a religion was a question that took me over a year to understand and three years later, I am still not good at articulating an answer.  If the history of the Jewish people has taught us anything, it is that there is no easy answer to that question.

Later on in Judaic Studies, while my female student struggled determinedly to translate parsha Vayeitzei - eyes flicking back and forth between the text and her vocabulary sheet to find סֻלָּם and scribble "ladder" above the Hebrew, circling the prefix and suffix on the word וְרֹאשׁוֹ in order to find the root meaning "head" in the middle of the word - she said in frustration, "I wish I was Jewish!  T
hen I would already know Hebrew."  If only being Jewish came Hebrew proficiency that could be downloaded into your brain!  Lacking that, we will have to stumble through the language together.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pew: A Portrait of Millennial Jewish Americans

For my Contemporary Jewish Life class this week, we are reading and discussing the Pew Survery: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, published in October 2013, as well as five responses to the data, which were all new to me, despite the vast amount of reading I did on the subject when it was first published last year.  Those articles, if you care to read them, can be found here (I reference this one specifically in my response below), here, here, here, and here, though there are many other great analyses of the survey out there as well.  This class has forced me, after a year of trying, to put some of my own thoughts about the study into words.  Those thoughts are below.

Pew Survey: A Portrait of Jewish Americans
Much has been written - both Jewish and secular - about the disengagement of the Millennial generation in almost every context.  For Jewish purposes, this dovetails nicely with the ever-present concern of Jewish survival into the next generation.  Whether it is our growing rates of intermarriage and secularization, decreasing support for Israel, or plummeting synagogue membership, we are a cause for concern about the Jewish future.  Solutions to the Millennial problem have been varied.

Every generation since Abraham and Sarah has worried that it would be the last.  In a sense, the numbers in the Pew survey can only serve to reinforce a fear that has never needed help gaining ground.  Alarmists look at the numbers and predict the end of Judaism within the next two decades (or some equally short span of time).  On the other hand, optimists see increasing pride in Jewish identity as a sign of the end of anti-Semitism in America.  Others claim that the survey was flawed and, therefore, can be of little use.  While the data can be interpreted in many conflicting ways, there can still be value in quantifying the obstacles we face on the road ahead, so that we can use our resources as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In response to continuity concerns following the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the Jewish Federation pushed for better Jewish education, creating programs like Birthright and pushing Jewish summer camps (see Tobin, Loving Us to Death).  As a result, the vast majority of my friends were were raised Jewish have wonderful memories of their trips to Israel (I do too!) and a working knowledge of Birkat Hamazon.  These experiences have clearly left an impression, but, except in very rare cases, those organized Jewish opportunities disappear once we reach adulthood and we are left with the difficult task of continuing our Jewish education and maintaining a Jewish life all on our own.  It is my guess that if a study addressed the age at which Jews disengage with Judaism, it would show a significant drop in engagement around age 22, when we leave college and truly enter adulthood.

If it is becoming easier for Jewish Millennials to assimilate into American society, it should be equally easy, if not more so, to feel welcomed in our own communities.  I think that a push for experiential education aimed at Millennials and no-pressure opportunities to learn about Jewish ritual observance (like Chabad offers, but without the Rebbe) would go a long way toward keeping us in the fold.  Where they exist, efforts to engage young Jewish adults seem to be incredibly successful.  Washington DC has Sixth & I, Philadelphia has The Collaborative (and others), and Birmingham, Alabama has You Belong in Birmingham.  Each of these organizations brings together young adults for social and philanthropic events, sometimes in a specifically Jewish context, but usually not.  The successes of these programs should attest to the desire of Jewish Millennials to engage Jewishly.

To a certain extent, I have to agree with Tobin's analysis that outreach to Jews who are on the edges of Judaism (and their non-Jewish spouses) is a waste of our time, in the sense that it does little to engage individuals before they reach the outskirts of our communities.  Perhaps, similar to the 1990s push for Jewish education, experiential educational opportunities for Jewish adults who are post-college and pre-parenthood would create a comfort with and knowledge of Judaism to maintain that Jewish identity into the next generation or, at least, into the next stage of life for Jewish Millennials.