Arise my beloved, my fair one, come away! For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has come, and the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The green figs form on the fig tree, the vines in blossom give off fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my fair one, come away! — Song of Songs 2:10–13
As winter turns to spring we are awakening to the rebirth of the natural world after a long and cold winter. Yet for students, myself included, the arrival of spring means the end of another school year and many long hours of working on finals before being able to enjoy the warm weather. Spring is undoubtedly a season of change and growth, not merely physical and natural growth but intellectual and emotional growth too. This notion manifests itself in Jewish tradition as families and friends gather together each spring celebrate the holiday of Passover and commemorate the change in Israelites’ status from slaves in Egypt to free people on their way to the Promised Land. During this time of year, I find myself reflecting on the year that was, how my classes and my fellowship helped me to grow and change, and how these experiences have helped shape my life as I prepare to enter my last year of rabbinical school.
Working at Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati, under the mentorship and supervision of Chief Executive Officer Beth Schwartz, MSW LSW, afforded me the opportunity to learn firsthand the world of non-profit communal services. Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati is a nonprofit social service agency that strives to serve all individuals in their times of need, thereby strengthening the lives of individuals and the entire community. The work I did as a rabbinic fellow was mostly behind the scenes. Once I received an orientation to Jewish Family Services as a whole, I then met with the directors of each department, and together we brainstormed how I could be of help to them in achieving their goals. Throughout the year I worked to help build organizational capacity within each department of Jewish Family Services, contributed insight into new programming options, constructed an effective means to raise HUC-JIR Cincinnati student involvement with Jewish Family Services, and above all learned through the experience of being surrounded by a professional staff deeply committed to their work and to the mission and vision of their organization.
Jewish Family Services provides assistance to individuals who are often experiencing a vulnerable time in their lives. The impoverished person who has little to eat. The elderly man or woman who is failing to thrive and is transitioning from independent to assisted living. A couple who unsuccessfully tried to conceive and have decided to adopt. An at-risk and challenging youth working hard to keep track of schoolwork. Jewish Family Services has the capacity to help those who are experiencing any of these circumstances, to support them in their efforts to persevere through these narrow places in life – always with compassion, dignity, and grace. It is the nature of the job and approach to working with clients that makes the work of Jewish Family Services inherently Jewish. Recognizing the narrow places or experiences in life as normal and surmountable, and empowering people to transcend them is itself the story of Passover.
Passover celebrates the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt. The word Egypt in Hebrew is, mitzrayim, stems from the word tzar meaning, “narrow”. When we sing about our redemption m’mitzrayim, we are singing not only about the redemption of our ancestors from Egypt the physical place, but also of the narrow places that we ourselves may experience in our own lives today. Each and every one of us has our less than ideal moments, days, weeks, or months. Many of us are fortunate to have the wherewithal and support from others to come out from the narrow places we may experience from time to time. For those who do not have this luxury, Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati is there to assist. My experience working at Jewish Family Services this year reinforced in my mind the importance of helping those in need. This is a lesson I will certainly take with me as I enter my final year of rabbinical school and soon thereafter, the rabbinate.
Simon Stratford is a fourth year rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati, working at the Jewish Family Services of Cincinnati.