Singing It Everyday
Snapshot: It’s 11 PM on a Thursday at a bar in scenic Stowe, Vermont. There are dozens of people singing a niggun, a wordless melody. They have been singing this same tune for nearly an hour as they clasp shoulders, pound tables and dance. Their joy is palpable and their song is whole hearted.
How did I, how did we, Wexner Graduate and Field Fellows, end up here?
Let’s backtrack. A few days earlier, I arrived at my second Wexner Graduate Fellowship Summer Institute. The theme was Power: Privilege, Status and Influence in North America, a topic ever-resonant and particularly prescient given recent events. I wondered how this theme would play out among a few minyanim of Jews at a hotel in rural Vermont. How would we address the mission-critical issue of power that both impacts and transcends the Jewish community? Would we enter into dialogue with honesty and humility? Could we translate good intentions into productive discomfort and righteous action?
My fears were quickly ameliorated. For the next four days, we spoke truth to our power. We did not table the conversation of privilege — we invited it to join us at the dining room table, the conference table and the coffee table. We explored status and influence through dynamic lectures, interactive learning sessions and peer-led skill-shares. We discussed race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and peoplehood — we examined how they interlock and intersect. As we waded in streams and strolled on trails we shared our concerns, reflections and dreams.
Summer Institute is not only a retreat. It recharges, reorients and restores energy so that we can go back to our studies, jobs and communities with fresh perspective. We are fortunate to have four annual pilgrimages that allow us to pause, right before the Jewish High Holidays, to take an internal accounting, a cheshbon hanefesh. In the company of fellow travelers we take a moment to appreciate our gifts, probe our blind spots and investigate our sphere of influence.
A story is told in the Mishna of Rabbi Nehunya Ben haKana, who used to pray upon entering and leaving the Beit Midrash (house of study). When asked about his prayer, Rabbi Nehunya said, “When I enter I pray that no offense shall occur on my account and when I leave I give thanks for my portion (Mishna Brachot 4:2).”
Like Rabbi Nehunya approaching the Beit Midrash, I came to Stowe mindful of the gravity of our task and left overflowing with gratitude.
At the institute, I had the privilege to show up as my full self and be seen, heard and valued in a (Jewishly) diverse setting. I witnessed the power of our community. I was in awe of the way Fellows gamely stepped into positions of authority, stepped back to give others space, engaged questions of injustice and oppression, owned their expertise, named their vulnerabilities and graciously asked to learn more about areas outside of their frames of reference. It was empowering.
Each institute is a cross-cultural experience within our own culture. Our collective ability to affect change cannot be overstated, and it is on us to live up to our potential, to leverage our strengths. The question is how we take the next step, how we deepen our knowledge of tradition and simultaneously engage communities outside of our own? When we step beyond the gates of our sacred space, how do we translate learning into action? How do we translate rejuvenation into the pursuit of a more just and compassionate world?
A passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a-b) offers one answer to these questions. Shir Yaakov Feit, WGF Fellow (Class 29), shared its wisdom at Beit Midrash Stoweflake just last week: Rabbi Yehoshua says one who learns without reviewing is like one who sows without harvesting the subsequent crop. We cannot let our learning lie fallow. Rabbi Akiva responds by saying, “Zemer b’chol yom, Zemer b’chol yom.” Sing it everyday, sing it everyday!
…Which brings us back to the 45-minute tisch and jam session at Charlie B’s Pub.
At the end, there were no more words. At the end, there was joyful noise, there was hopeful song.
Zemer b’chol yom. Sing it everyday.
Nora Feinstein, WGF Fellow (Class 28), is entering her second year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR. Nora graduated from the Double Degree program of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. In college, she was active on campus as a resident assistant, leader of the Panhellenic Council and member of student government. Between college and rabbinical school, Nora worked at the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in Washington, DC and in Jewish student life at the College of Charleston. Nora enjoys yoga, live music, hiking, good coffee and public radio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.