DC meets Kentucky, part 5

Oh man. So I always tell people that there are pros and cons of the Shabbatons that we go on to other schools. The cons are that it's harder to find people and harder to stay in touch and build relationships, which are some of the essential components of "Heart to Heart". The pros are the unique and memorable experiences, and the opportunity to meet and share Judaism with people from totally different places. To counter some of the cons, there are technology and other useful tools - like facebook, which could be used for both a) finding people and b) staying in touch and building a relationship. When we were planning out trip to Kentucky 18 months ago, we ran into some of these same issues and solutions, with some great help from the One above. In particular, the story of how I found one girl from Transylvania University was really amazing - and the whole thing ended up working out really well. (It was also one of the clearest instances of the Hand of God that I've seen.) I don't know if I ever shared this, but ever since that Shabbat we've become friends and stayed in touch, occasionally facebook chatting - about life, hockey, Ketucky and of course, about Judaism. (As an avid fan of Prince of Egypt, she LOVED our video!) She's probably the most religious and Jewishly knowledgeable student in Kentucky and I was encouraging her to get involved, perhaps run some Shabbat dinners for the other students, especially the many who had expressed interest when we came. She said she was honored and really appreciated it and would think about it, but that its really hard.

Fast forward to two days ago, when Kener invited me to dinner at Eli's; he also said he was bringing a friend. Turns out this friend was a Jewish kid from Penn who lived in Maryland and Kener had randomly met up with that afternoon and brought along for dinner. Great guy, we had a great time at dinner - and so when I got home that night, I went to friend him on facebook. That's when I saw that one of our mutual friends was that girl from Transylvania/Kentucky!!! Turns out they were from the same city in Maryland and went to the same high school (and Sunday school). So I sent her a message, asking her how camp was (which I saw she was in by stalking her fb wall) and telling her that I met a former classmate of hers in DC. She wrote back a while later that camp was in fact good, but that for the weekend, she was coming to DC!! It was for unfortunate circumstances (her brother is having surgery), but she wanted to know if I wanted to meet up over the weekend! Of course I said yes, and after an exchange of text messages, we're set to meet up this weekend. Maybe I'll even invite her to the Georgetown Chabad, where I plan on going tonight for Shabbat dinner.

The point is that you never know the effects of your actions, and the relationships you build are some of the most important assets that you have. Even "shot-in-the-dark" Shabbatons can make profound impacts and build lasting connections, assuming you have the right intentions and you get some help from Above.

I'll let you know how it goes this weekend :) Shabbat shalom y'all!

p.s. Check out my dvar torah on this week's haftorah (it's from last year, but probably just as relevant)

Kentucky, part 4 – Forgotten Parts

First off, I can't believe I forgot to include this (oh right, other then the fact that it's incredibly embarrassing): When thinking of ways to spread the word and get people to come, and having the illustrious TSR with us, we figured what better technique to utilize than a funny video introducing us! a way people wouldn't forget! I give you - "PENN COMES TO KENTUCKY! JOIN US FOR SHABBAT DINNER!" Back to that Friday night - I really can’t go into full detail regarding all of the night’s experiences (each person probably deserves their own post, but that’d be too much) but there were a few notable ones:

1) Towards the end of dinner, one of the men from the community came over to speak to me. As we started talking, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a bill of money, and slipped it into my breast pocket. “I want you to have this”, he said, as I awkwardly tried to dodge his hand, “to help defray your costs.” As I tried to protest, he insisted, explaining that he really “felt a debt of gratitude to ya’ll for coming all the way down here”. To have a cadre of lively, young and interesting Jewish college students go out and visit them in middle of Jewish American nowhere and share a beautiful Shabbat experience with them was something he couldn’t understand and for which he was so grateful. I tried to explain to him the appeal of this Shabbat for us as well and after speaking for a while, I think we both left appreciating each others appreciation. But wait, I still had a dollar bill in my pocket! I quickly ran into the kitchen and surreptitiously emptied my pocket into an open drawer, freeing myself from the onerous offering. When we came back after Shabbat to pick up our stuff, I checked the drawer and there sat the forlorn $20 bill I had rejected the night before. I happily picked it up and we in fact did use it to defray some of our personal costs.

2) At (what we thought was) the end of the evening, as the adults’ learning corner was winding down and the students were on their way out, we began closing up the room. One of the organizers pointed out that we couldn’t leave the candles lit, and she went over to blow them out. “No, no, it’s okay” we called after her, not wanting her to be mechalel Shabbat, “why don’t we just stay here until they go out on their own?” She agreed, and after bidding everyone goodbyes and ‘Shabbat Shalom’s we settled in to wait for the candles to go out, figuring ‘how bad could it be?’. Bad. We stayed there until close to 2 in the morning, as those candles burned dazzlingly and defiantly. So we used that time to finish davening ma’ariv, recap the evening’s excitements and breathe sighs of joyful relief. That’s when the cop arrived. Yep, the neighborhood security guard was doing his rounds and found a group of college students in some empty hall, sitting around a table of candles. We offered for him to join us and, pleased to get an interlude to his boring duties, he pulled up a chair and joined us.

Now this guy had a great story – he was getting trained in the Marines when he got thrown out for going to the bathroom without his boots. But it was all for the best, he said, since the dismal turnaround in his life led him to find God. And now he was studying to be a priest – while working as a security guard in his spare time to make some money. “Ah, a priest”, we exclaimed, leading to a whole discussion about religious education, Israel, his homosexual brother (for whom he fasted weekly to ‘save him from burning in hell’), and good ol’ Kentucky. After having spoken our fair share, and perhaps having touched on some touchy subjects, he remembered that he had assignments to resume and left us alone, once again watching the Shabbat candles.

3) And finally, C.H. First this guy (who taught at the University) showed up Friday night and brought us a (kosher+mevushal) bottle of wine! Then, he offered to show us around town the next day, and we planed to meet at the Conservative synagogue. (Side note: we decided that in keeping with our mission to connect to the Jews of Lexington, Kentucky, we'd visit the local Conservative synagogue, meet the people, etc. But not all of us felt so comfortable praying/eating there so we decided upon davening, making kiddush and eating lunch in our hotel rooms, then doing the 3.4 mile walk and getting there for the end of davening/luncheon.) At 9AM the next morning we were surprised with a knock on the door - it was C.H.! Inspired by the previous night's learning tidbit about hachnasat orchim, he figured he would walk us to synagogue as well - and told us we had to hurry, or we'd be "late for taking out the Torah". Being in the middle of shacharit, and not wanting him to know that we preferred davening/eating in the hotel, we told him we'd need some time to finish getting ready. So we finished davening, wolfed down a quick kiddush/lunch and went out to get him from his blue corvette, where he was waiting. It ended up being a lovely day - we made it to synagogue in time for moose-off, met some interesting people at kiddush, and got the scenic tour of campus and greater Lexington on the way back. After a good 8 miles of walking with C.H., we bid him farewell for the afternoon, and planned to meet up again for havdala. So after Shabbat ended, the 7 of us and C.H. joined together for a beautiful, musical, and spiritually uplifting havdala ceremony, with some kiddush levana thrown in for fun! While most stories I document happen on Shabbat/Y"T, we were lucky to catch this priceless one on film:

Without a doubt, that Shabbat was surely a memorable one, for us and likely for many others. Hopefully this won't be the last we hear of the Jewish community and our new friends in Lexington, Kentucky but until further updates, this will have to do for now. May we all merit to share the beauties of Shabbat in places and with people She has yet to embrace.

Kentucky, part 3 - the Heart of the Matter

Now for the story of that memorable Shabbat in Lexington, Kentucky. Leaving Dickinson at midnight and behind schedule, we had to make a difficult decision. Calculating the remaining hours of driving and the time before Shabbat, we figured out that we either had time for Keeneland or a good night's sleep, but not both. On the one hand, having a good night's sleep is crucial, so you're awake, on your game, and excited when interacting with people. But c'mon, Keeneland! Besides for this being the greatest (and only) horse races I could have gone to (leaving aside future prospects of returning to UKY), I felt that going to the races would've given us an 'in' with the students there; that could have been our common factor (other than being Jews) and a great conversation starter. But the 7 of us voted and I was outvoted, and against my will we stopped for a good night's sleep in a motel. (In retrospect, it turned out okay not going - but next year I am predicating joining the trip on agreeing to go to Keeneland.) We got to our destination an hour before the time we planned to start and everyone ran off to do errands - get the food ready, sign up another driver, work out the hotel rooms, etc. We opened the cooler with all of the food to find some of the nastiest looking chicken ever - and that was the main food for the dinner. In another 'Shabbat miracle', someone ran to the grocery store and after much searching, they found one lone jar of barbecue sauce with the seal of the kohen gadol OU on it. We drove to building where the event was planned, and quickly started getting things ready - saucing the chicken, making the salad, setting up the candles. In setting up the room for davening, we had decided that we would put up a mechitza - but use only a tablecloth-covered table between the men's and women's sections. As were were bringing over a table to put in the middle, one of the women who was organizing the event with us asked "Is that what I think it is?". Turns out she was a former Orthodox woman from Long Island, but when she moved out to the boondocks/got turned off by some conservative practices of Orthodox Judaism, she kind-of fell off the face of the religious-Jewish world. "Uh, well, we put this up because this is the way that we feel comfortable praying. Not elevating or demoting either gender, merely distinguishing the two and allowing for a space of more personal and comfortable prayer", we answered. Luckily, she actually liked the sound of that. By the time we started, people had been trickling in, mingling, and meeting - and by the time we started there was a big crowd of 14 Kentuckians + 7 Quakers = 21 people! And remember when people said we'd maybe get 5 people to stop by? This was incredible!

We saw/knew that we weren't getting a minyan and so we just started - first we let people know about candle lighting and one of the girls led a group of people in saying the blessings. Then we started davening - okay, so how do you run davening for people who might not know what davening is, and definitely not the one we're used to? We figured Carlebach + explanations was the way to go - if people don't know it, they can at least sing along, or at least get a sense of the feeling of kabbalat shabbat, the meaning, exhilaration, joy, etc. We gave out packets of transliterated and translated kabbalat shabbat, which we had prepared and began going through the sections, with people giving short explanations before different parts. The explanations were brief, just what was going on and some meaning that a specific prayer gave to them. And we sang a lot, slowly and loudly, going into "nay nay nays" after the words had finished. For 'lecha dodi', we did it to the tune of 'am yisrael chai', which I figured was our best shot at them knowing the song. And it was great- I saw/heard people following along; at one point during lecha dodi, I closed my ears, stopped singing, and heard a mass of people singing along behind me. It was really amazing - here we were in the middle of Kentucky with people who might never have had a Shabbat experience before, and definitely not one like this - singing songs of praise to God and greetings to the Shabbat.

After kabbalat Shabbat, we decided to cut straight to dinner - a smart move, as we would've lost these people during ma'ariv, and we would just do it on our own. So we sat down to eat - and what a Shabbat dinner it was! We explained a bit about the content as we went along (shalom aleichem, kiddush, hamotzi) and then we dug into the food. That chicken was probably the best chicken I'd ever had - maybe because I knew how it got there! The 7 of us split up and each person ended up engrossed in conversation with the two or three people around them. It was so nice getting to speak to these people, hearing their stories, what being Jewish was like in a place like Kentucky, what college life was like there, connections to Israel, what the cool things to do around town were, etc. These people had some crazy stories - like how their Christian friends yelled at them for being Jewish, one girl went on Birthright and now wants to live in Israel, one girl tried going to the reform Temple but never felt comfortable there. Dinner lasted for maybe two hours, and we tried a small discussion group on Jewish ethics, which some of the older people (Jewish faculty/community members who came) liked. But the kids (i.e. college students) really just wanted to hang out and talk. We had a feeling that would happen and didn't try and push it too much - it's hard to force too much content on people, especially when this already was their most Jewish experience in a long time. And especially college students, who might very well be more into partying/hanging out than serious religious discussions. But regardless of whether people sat down and read a text, I think it's fair to say that this was a worthwhile, content-filled Jewish experience for all. I mean, it was something, in a place that has nothing, and if it nothing more than to get there Jewish community together, it was worth it. The girl who previously didn't know any other Jewish students in Kentucky, left with a few new friends, one with whom she became pretty close with (I saw facebook pictures of them going shopping together for kosher for passover food). If just for that, I think it was all worth it - do you know what that means for someone stranded Jewishly in the middle of nowhere to be connected with other Jews her age? The new friend, who is slated to be the new 'Hillel president', also brought her along to the Hillel meeting (which consists of around 3 students)! Which also means that I singlehandedly added a quarter of their involved population! And there were more benefits - people said they loved the prayer services and really gained an appreciation for it in the brief taste; a few of the students said they wished they could have something like this more often, and if it was there, they'd for sure go every week. Fine, so there's no one to do this every week and they didn't feel comfortable/want to go to the local Temple, but at least this gave them a desire for more. Once again, we're back at the issue of follow-up - could there be a way to provide something more permanent and long-term for these people? Regardless, it as least planted seeds and either already has or at some point in the future will have had an impact on their lives.

I think this is long enough for now; part 4 to come...

Kentucky, part 2 + Dickinson

Once we had our plans and some contacts, we starting actually preparing to go - renting a van, getting food (how does one get a Shabbat's worth of kosher food in Lexington, KY?), where to sleep, etc. The Hillel adviser told us that the drive would be too long to do all on Friday (assuming we wanted to make it before sundown, which we did) and suggested we stay over somewhere Thursday night. We then had the idea (which was strongly influenced by L.E.W.) to find some other places to stop along the way. So I went online and opened up two windows - one with GoogleMaps and one with Hillel's website. I then traced our prospective travel route and found the zip codes of different cities along the way and entered them into Hillel's "College Search", which returned colleges with some semblance of a Jewish presence within 5 miles of that location. Doing this, I found 6 or 7 colleges of interest along the way - some which had 900 Jews and a Chabad (U. of West Virginia) and some with 35 Jews and not much else (Marshall University). In the end we decided on Dickenson University, for its proximity (2 hours from Penn, meaning we could get there at a reasonable hour) and its sizable Jewish community - 200 Jews and their own Hillel building.
From there, things took their normal route - we found some friends who had mutual friends there, emailed their Hillel and soon we had a Thursday night BBQ planned for Dickinson College.

So that fateful Thursday came around and we finally ended up leaving at ~8:00 PM. From there, we got to Dickinson at 10:00 and made our way over to the Asbell Student Center - their Hillel house. There was an interesting surprise when we got there, as the Chabad rabbi (and some of his kids) from Harrisburg had come in that night as well (for the first time) to run a matza baking event. That definitely made things a little weird, as he didn't know what we were doing there and we weren't sure what he was doing there. But the 5 or 10 students who were there were pretty cool and we hit it off with them After an short-lived attempt by the rabbi to get us to watch this silly video about matza baking, we starting making matzas with the Dickenson students. Which was great, because it was a great activity over which we got to speak, get to know each other a bit, have some fun. (Best part: when Amitai made a failed attempt to hit on the Chabad's rabbi's shidduch-aged daughter.) Meanwhile, Tal went upstairs to work alone on his final paper, only to be joined by the Chabad rabbi, who tried recruiting some people to learn Tanya with him.

(Which brings me to a side point: when we were trying to figure out what to do at Dickinson, we threw around some ideas - mishmar, kumzits, hanging out, jam session... I guess this leads to what was the purpose of going there? Was it to provide them with some Jewish knowledge, some educational content? I don't think so. Would that have been nice? Sure. But I think the main goal was just to engage fellow Jewish students in a positive, Jewish experience, and if some shiur wasn't the best way to do that, we'd forgo a shiur. So we suggested the idea of learning something but quickly nixed that in favor of a simple, chilled BBQ. All of this came to my mind when the option was presented to go learn Tanya upstairs, in the middle of our exciting matza baking. What do I think would have been a better idea? Not to brag, but I'd go for hanging out with us over learning some Tanya - I mean, come on, do regular college kids relate well to obscure and esoteric messages about different layers of the soul, or to eating some wings? So we chose to forgo the content, have only a little guitar playing, and save most of the time for simple bonding, a little Jewish geography, and getting to know each other. And it wasn't all meaningless conversation - we spoke about Jewish life on our respective campuses, going to Israel, being Jewish on a secular college, among other things. I think that this is the simplest and most genuine way to connect to people, and from there, the connection to a more meaningful and deeper relationship with Judaism is but a natural extension. Of course, that's a lot harder when you're not there to continue the relationship but at least the seeds can be planted and the roads built.)

Meanwhile, E.R., the student who pretty much heads their Jewish community, rounded up some more people to come and we started barbecuing outside. That also turned out well, just chilling over some good chicken wings and half-cooked matzas. All in all, we stayed for a good two hours and met over a dozen Jews. They have a pretty impressive little Jewish community there - every Friday night the 10-15 of them cook their own Shabbat meal in Hillel and make their own Shabbat; I felt bad talking about our dining staff who do everything, and I just walk in Friday night and Shabbat is made for me. At the end, we invited them to come visit us at Penn, so we could repay the hospitality and reconnect with them. They seemed willing and they just seemed satisfied with the wonderful time that we shared together. We left, energized for the rest of our journey, armed with a whole bunch of new friends. I think there's just something beautiful about that :)

Bonus: in case you wanted proof that we were there, here you have it:


Oh man - this is a crazy story. Where to start... Well, it started with Amitai, a grad student in physics (he's really smart) winning some essay contest in Jewish thought sponsored by the Jewish studies department of University of Kentucky. The prize included them bringing him in to give a lecture and receive his award. Amitai and I started talking and, after checking some demographics on Hillel's website, thought of planning a Shabbaton to Kentucky, or specifically the University of Kentucky in Lexington. According to Hillel, UK has 200 Jews out of a student population of 20,000, which amounts to 1% of the population. They have a Hillel there but it is not much more than a name - no building, no room, no paid staff and barely any programming; we heard they have maybe two event per year, which amount to a handful of Jews going bowling together or going out for (non-kosher) pizza. So Amitai and I emailed their 'faculty advisers' and asked if, while he was down there anyway, he could run some Jewish programming there, maybe with an experienced friend too. They responded that they'd be more than happy to have us come and even offered to fly me down there too. After a few exchanges, they ended up agreeing to paying for a van and seven of us driving down for Shabbat.

So that was our crazy plan - to drive down to Lexington, Kentucky and make Shabbat. With the plans in place, we started arranging - getting Penn people, the car, food (we had to bring most of the food, as there's not much kosher food in Lexington), and logistics. The big questions was: would anyone come? The advisor at UK's Hillel thought we might 5-10, but wasn't too sure. So we started asking around - mutual friends, group contacts, gchat statuses, whatever. Once when I was talking about this and someone overheard me, they said: "University of Kentucky? I think I know someone who knows someone who goes there who is Jewish!" Sure enough, after some 'mutual friend' searching, I found and contacted her and after receiving an excited message in return, we had found our first Jew in Kentucky.

New story: a few weeks later, I was searching on facebook for 'shabbat dinners' (isn't that what everyone searches for when they're stalking people on facebook?). Why? - Just stam, for no particular reason other than to see what was out there, as I was thinking about how to spread Shabbat dinners at Penn. A simple search returned over 200 hits - groups, events and friends' whose profiles included Shabbat dinners. I randomly clicked on one group on some page and arrived at a group called "Shabbat Dinners" which consisted of 4 members in no specific networks. So I clicked on their names: the first person was some high school senior from somewhere random, the second was a freshman at some college, the third was some guy who happened to have a random mutual friend, and the fourth was a freshman girl whose networks were 'Transylvania University' and 'Lexington, Kentucky'. Lexington Kentucky!?!?! My jaw dropped in total shock and I just began laughing- how the heck did I happen to find someone from Lexington, Kentucky a week before I'm supposed to go there? If it weren't that week, I wouldn't have even noticed that, let alone known where Lexington, Kentucky was. Then I got worried - maybe she's originally from Lexington but now goes to University in, I dunno, Romania? I quickly looked up Transylvania University and was happily surprised to see that it is a small, liberal arts college right next to UK! My next instinct was to see what kind of religious life they have there, whereupon I saw that their website spoke of "its ongoing affiliation with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)" and offered religious organizations such as 'Campus Crusade for Christ', 'Disciples on Campus', 'Transy Episcopal Fellowship' and 'Transylvania Catholic Organization'. By now I couldn't stop myself from cracking up - how in the world did I happen to find this girl who loves Shabbat dinner in the middle of Lexington at some Christian college?! Truly random, and with no logical explanation, this discovery was for me a clear portrayal of the Hand of God.

I decided that if I had gotten this far, I had to do something more, and so I facebook-messaged her. I told her the story of how I found her and how I was coming with some friends to Lexington in two weeks; "Would she want to join us for Shabbat?", I asked her. I also said she could tell other Jews in Lexington, to take some of the pressure off of her. She wrote back soon afterwards: "Hey. Uhhhh haha this is a little weird but its fine. Are you coming here for Keeneland? I guess I'm kinda interested, I'm not a native of Kentucky and I don't know that many Jews here (considering at my school there's only 4 Jews and they don't practice) and I miss it."

Wow. First of all, you're probably asking yourself "What's Keeneland?" For all you uncultured Americans out there, Keeneland is a preparatory race for the Kentucky Derby, and is the finest and highest-ranked thoroughbred racetrack in the country. Turns out, opening day of the spring races and free-admission-for-college-students day was the Friday we were due to arrive. Second of all, to think that there are 5 Jews there and somehow we found the 1 who cares - and she misses Shabbat or Judaism or something! Anyway, I went to her facebook profile (when someone messages you, you can see their page) and I see the following as her 'quote about myself': "If someone gave a me a blank check and a plane ticket for anywhere in the world I would leave everything, go to Israel and never ever come back. Because that is where my heart is, and that's where I belong"

Whoo. Wow. Not one of my Orthodox, Zionist, gungho-on-aliyah friends (nor myself) have a quote anywhere as powerful as that. And she's in Transylvania University?! We were excited, to say the least to spend Shabbat with her, and some other Kentucky Jews. When I told her we were excited, she said "What? Excited for what?" Excited for what?! To meet her, and to spend Shabbat in a new place with new people which would hopefully give us a fresh look on Jewish life and hopefully provide the same for them.

Part two to come. Hopefully there can be many more parts in the future as well...