When I was growing up in Jackon, Mississippi (yes, there are Jews in Mississippi—but not many), the only way to be involved in the Jewish community was to go to services and religious school. So, my family went to services most Friday nights. As a petulant teenager, you can imagine my feelings about going to Friday night services. But, my parents, in their wisdom, took us out for ice cream after services. Even now, I have a craving for a cone after services. So, while I might not have gotten a lot of spiritual fulfillment from attending services as a child, I now know that no matter where I go, I can feel at home because the routine of the order of the service is universal.
I recently returned to my summer camp for a 20-year reunion with 17 other people. Shabbat at camp is like nothing else I have ever experienced. While some of the songs have changed, Shabbat dinner still began with singing the “Sabbath Prayer,” as it did every Friday night for the 20-plus summers I spent at two different camps. The beautiful harmonies took me back in time. This past Friday, one of my friends called and we sang it together via web-camera with our partners and children. We made plans to do it again next week.
If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you probably know that I have two small children. If you haven’t read them, I have two small children—a 3.5 year-old boy and an 8 month-old boy. I feel great responsibility in teaching my children Jewish values like kindness and tzedakah (charity). It seems like much of Judaism is handed down to our children through practice and participation. For example, we have taken our older son to a few different synagogues for “Tot Shabbat”. We sing some of the songs we learned (not always on Shabbat) and he can now sing the blessing over the wine (sort of). Does he understand that he is actually singing a prayer over wine or a song about welcoming the Sabbath bride? Probably not, but in a few years, the routine will become ritual. He already loves taking the candles and kippot out on Friday mornings in preparation for Kiddush when we all get home.
The same can be said for someone coming to Mayyim Hayyim to immerse in the mikveh. Anyone can go through the steps of combing hair, filing nails, immersing three times and saying the blessing(s). But when a person finds peace after healing from divorce or ending shloshim (Jewish period of mourning), or when a woman feels a renewed sense of love and strength in her marriage when observing niddah, the routine becomes ritual.
Leah Hart Tennen, Mikveh Center Director, was the only Jewish person in her high school. In the whole state of Mississippi, there are only two synagogues with full-time rabbis. You can learn more about the Southern Jewish Experience at www.isjl.org.