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…

Posted in Kentucky, Shabbat dinner, Uncategorized.

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