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Along with the rest of the world, particularly, the interconnected collective family known as “the Jewish community,” our hearts broke when we heard that the 8-year-old boy known as Superman Sam had died.
Our prayers are with his family.
Our anger at cancer is shared with all.
And some of the concrete actions we can take, even from down here in the Deep South, will be personal and direct.
Two rabbis connected to the ISJL – Rabbi Matt Dreffin, our current Assistant Director of Education, and Rabbi Debra Kassoff, our first-ever itinerant rabbi, will be participating in 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave.
As the 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave fundraising website describes, Rabbis Phyllis Sommer and Rebecca Schorr had a crazy idea: what if 36 Reform rabbis would shave their heads to bring attention to the fact that only 4% of United States federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers as well as raise $180,000 for this essential research? Two weeks after this conversation, Phyllis and her husband, Michael, learned that their son, Sam, had relapsed with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) and that there are no other treatment options for him. And just this past Shabbat, as my Rabbis Without Borders colleague told us, Sam left this world.
36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. That’s who we are. Thirty-six slightly-meshugene, but very devoted rabbis who are yearning to do something. We can’t save Sammy; perhaps, though, we can save others like him. And spare other parents like Phyllis and Michael from the pain of telling their child that there is nothing that the doctors can do to save his life.
Rabbi Kassoff has already shared an initial post on her participation; both Rabbi Dreffin and Rabbi Kassoff’s journey to raise awareness, raise money for children’s cancer research, and share hope by shaving their heads will be chronicled here. We applaud all of the #36Rabbis taking this on, and encourage you to support them.
L’shalom – to peace, and to the end of childhood cancer and all cancers. Amen.
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What do you do when you have a mission to promote Southern Jewish history, but you have no physical place in which to do it?
Well, I think it’s a good idea to make friends… with benefits!
Specifically, friends with access to a beautiful art gallery, who want to team up and host a photograph exhibit about an important historical event that happens to have an interesting Jewish connection.
As I previously mentioned on this blog, Scottsboro Boys: Outside the Circle of Humanity is a powerful exhibit curated by the Morgan County Archives. The ISJL helped bring this exhibition to Jackson though a collaborative partnership with the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University.
These types of collaborative connections are the standard for Jewish programming in the this region. Small populations and limited resources inspire communities to look outside the box for new “friends with benefits,” creating partnerships to make programs possible. Whether it’s a new congregation using a church space for services, or an academic institution sponsoring a Jewish scholar, outreach is a strong and important tool for our communities.
And the results can be pretty fabulous. In my case, we were able to plan three unique events that attracted diverse audiences from across the city. I’m partial to the party that we managed to throw on the last day of Hanukkah in conjunction with a lecture on Jewish lawyers and activists involved with the Scottsboro case. I have yet to check the official university records but I’m pretty sure it was the first Hanukkah party ever thrown at Jackson State. Even though the latkes were a little mushy (had to prep them the night before!), we were able to pull of a successful cultural exchange that may not have happened if we were within a traditionally “Jewish” space.
Have you ever partnered with a non-Jewish entity to create a shared space where Jewish programs can be enjoyed by all? We’d love to hear about it!
This post continues our December series on the life and work of AIDS activist Chuck Selber.
Chuck was, as his mom Flo Selber puts it, “ahead of his time.”
In Shreveport, Louisiana, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the Selber family had a clothing store for men, women and children. Chuck was in charge of the fashion show and included black citizens as models. This was one of many times when Chuck stood up to discriminatory norms.
In 1988, he wrote a letter to his family: “In the event that I, Charles Paul Selber, predecease my father and my mother, I would appreciate that upon both my parents’ death…. [my nieces and nephews] shall be asked to donate volunteer time to a human rights organization other than a Jewish one on a regular basis.”
He was never one who cared only for “his own” group. Chuck was an AIDS activist and a human rights advocate and he often tried to engage others in this holy work too.
Chuck did attribute his deep commitment to human rights to his Jewish upbringing. He was, as he explained, taught to never forget the Holocaust, and to never let it happen again. “I took that Judaic instruction very seriously, and I have based my entire consciousness on it,” he wrote. In addition to regularly attending religious school, Chuck was First Vice-President of the Southern Federation of Temple Youth, SOFTY (now NFTY-Southern), a regional Reform Jewish teen network, and took his role very seriously. He served alongside Macy Hart, founder and President of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life.
Chuck was a writer, and like many writers, he wrote with the goal of bringing about social change. Chuck clearly believed in the power of writing. According to his mother Flo, he was always at his typewriter—feverishly writing. In 1990, he wrote to Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, requesting that he consider certain medical expenses to be approved as itemized deductions. In a collection of his writing, a pile of responses to letters he wrote to people in positions of power demonstrates his commitment to bringing about systemic change.
Chuck used his writing skills, his experience as a director, and his work in the entertainment and film fileds to advocate on behalf of people living with AIDS. He wrote a play, “In Defense of the Committee,” based on the premise that if policy makers were affected by AIDS, the treatment of AIDS would be a greater priority. In the first scene of his play we learn about “the committee” that went around infecting the sons and daughters of politicians with the AIDS virus. The message is clear: when we feel that we are being treating unjustly, we take greater responsibility for bringing about change.
Complacency, he seems to say, is the outcome of having little, if any, connection with the issue. He distinguishes people with AIDS from people who retired and infers that people who have retired receive more generous benefits because every congressman knows that they will be in the position of a retiree one day. It’s inescapable when it’s personal.
Do you have ideas about how to raise awareness among people who are not directly impacted by an issue? What are your ideas?
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