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Third Thursday Thoughts: Reflections from the Executive Director

The Kishke Factor

April 20, 2023 | Third Thursday Thoughts
Dawn LaRochelle, Executive Director

As you’re reading this, I’m in the middle of a whirlwind East Coast road trip with my youngest son, Andrew. Our mission: to make it to four different “Accepted Students Days” at four different colleges, from upstate New York to North Carolina. Accepted Students Day, for the uninitiated, is that pendulum-swinging moment when, after many anxiety-ridden months of students hoping and praying their dream colleges will accept them, colleges are hoping and praying their dream students will accept them. And just as applicants like my son pitched their high grades, rigorous course loads, and extracurricular achievements and poured out heartfelt essays, colleges are now in full-blown sales mode. On campuses across the country, colleges are pulling out all the stops, frantically trying to tempt their carefully selected students with the strength of their academic programs, diversity of their student clubs, impressiveness of their campus facilities, and extensiveness of their alumni networks. The tables have officially turned (she says, rubbing her hands together in undisguised malicious glee)!

No road trip would be complete without a book, of course, and for this trip, I am toting along my well-worn copy of my favorite novel, The Little Prince*. And thumbing through the yellowed pages, my eyes are drawn to the novel’s most memorable line: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Or, as my grandmother more prosaically put it, “I feel it in my kishkes.”

Admittedly neurotic mom that I am, I have assembled color-coded spreadsheets for each of the colleges in Andrew’s “Final Four” – all small liberal arts schools, all with picture-perfect campuses, all close-enough-but-not-too-close-to-home, all schools anyone would be proud to attend — to help my son make his decision. The spreadsheets have weighted categories for everything from research opportunities to internships to dorms to food in an attempt to quantify the college experience. You go with the school that gets the highest score. Science, right? But even as I geek out over data, at the end of the day, Andrew will likely base his pick on what is invisible to the eye. The kishke factor will determine where he spends four of the most formative and impactful years of his life.

Rereading the most memorable line in my favorite novel, it occurs to me that the kishke factor played a major role in my own decision to move to Portland from Western Massachusetts and accept the Executive Director position at the Maine Jewish Museum a year ago this month. Yes, the job description checked all the boxes. Yes, MJM’s mission to build bridges of appreciation and understanding among people of all backgrounds aligned with my personal and professional values. Yes, the Museum had impressive historic exhibits and consistently showed what the Portland Phoenix recently described as “some of the best art in Maine.” But what was invisible to the eye – the tingle-down-to-my-toes feeling I got from the minute I stepped foot inside the stately Etz Chaim building and heard the walls talk – sealed the deal for me. And twelve months and change later, I can confirm that, indeed, “with my heart I saw rightly.”

In the past year, visitor upon visitor has raved to me about their MJM experience. There is something special about this Museum, they tell me – they can’t necessarily put it into words, but they feel it in their kishkes when they are greeted by our warm and enthusiastic volunteer docents or walk through our Soul Survivors exhibit or attend our bustling art openings or meander through our serene sculpture garden or get a Ph.D.-level lesson in contemporary art after asking Curator in Residence Nancy Davidson a question or take in a concert in the restored 1920s sanctuary. It’s a feeling you can’t replicate online, and even as virtual events continue to dominate and the couch increasingly becomes the preferred spot from which to navigate the world, I encourage you to take the trip to Congress Street and visit us in person. It’s worth the schlep!

In particular, I would love to see you at our Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Sunday, May 21, 3 – 5:30 PM, when we will be celebrating eight outstanding Jewish leaders whose accomplishments have brought distinction and honor to the State of Maine and beyond and made the world a better place (oh, and word on the street is, you can still get listed in the program book if you join the Host Committee by end of day tomorrow!). This biannual event is full of life and love, replete with laughter and (happy) tears. It is the embodiment of the Museum’s mission, vision, and values in the most human and community-centric sense. Hearing the stories of these inductees will make you Maine Jewish proud. You’ll feel it in your kishkes. Which my favorite little prince would tell you is what matters most. And color-coded spreadsheets aside, I’m inclined to agree.

Dawn *It is one of the emblematic works for French literature, but The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery first appeared in the United States 80 years ago in 1943. The novel is actually the second most translated book in the world after the Bible, with the last one in 2022 into the Sephardic dialect of Haketi.