Yesterday was an important day in the lives of many of our community's teens…. College acceptance day. Each year, on May 1, graduating high school seniors nationwide must select the school they intend to begin their college education. Back in 2021, Hannah, our daughter, chose to attend the University of Alabama – Birmingham.
For our family, this was an exciting time because not only would she be experiencing new things, it would mean that we would get to visit and tour an entirely new part of the country. And while we had previously been to Alabama many times, it was always in southern Alabama (what they call LA… Lower Alabama). We have genuinely enjoyed spending time in Birmingham for the last two years.
When I was in grad school at Hebrew Union College, one of my classmates was from Birmingham and always raved about how tight-knit the community was and how important being a part of the community was to Jews living in the Birmingham area.
Why am I sharing all of this? Well, this past weekend, I got to spend time helping Hannah move out of her dorm and into a house that she and a couple of friends will be living in next school year. And what I only found out after I had made my plans was that the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham was holding its annual Jewish Food and Culture Fest that same weekend. When I mentioned this to Hannah, I could hear the excitement in her voice. Unbeknownst to me, she had seen the billboards and signs around town and really wanted to go. "Daddy, I cannot wait!"
When we arrived at the JCC, we had to park in an overflow lot because so many people were already there. As we walked up, we could see a massive crowd of people lined up, easily 100 people deep, to get their food. Volunteers were wearing shirts with Shalom Y'all blazoned upon them with an impressive list of the event sponsors. While waiting, we reviewed the menu - brisket, smoked whitefish salad, stuffed cabbage rolls, falafel, kugel, potato burka, chocolate babka, Dr. Brown's soda, and many other delicacies. We were in heaven.
We found a table and dug in. Hannah had the biggest smile on her face as she opened her container of brisket, and I could tell her mouth was watering. I spent several minutes looking around at the faces of people I did not know, yet I felt a sense of comfort and instant connection. I didn't feel like a stranger at all. I felt at home.
You may have heard about Southern hospitality… I can assure you that it is a real thing. But this was so much more than that. It was the power of the Jewish community at work.
With our stomachs full, after perusing the booths, we walked back to our car, and I couldn't help but think about one of my all-time favorite Jewish songs. In 1983, Rabbi Larry Milder penned what has become a true Jewish camp standard "Wherever You Go, There's Always Someone Jewish."
Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish. You're never alone when you say you're a Jew. So when you're not home, and you're someone kind of newish, the odds are, don't look far, 'cause they're Jewish too.
The message of this song rang true for me in a way I had never experienced until this past weekend. And I felt an incredible sense of pride, not just for this Jewish community, but for what our Jewish Federation works to do for our local Jewish community.
Please know that while we have yet to be able to put on another Jewish Food Festival as we did in 2019, I am bringing back a few ideas from Birmingham that I intend to make part of our own once we can hold it again.