There are 650 miles and 3 states between Fort Mill, South Carolina and Greenwood, Mississippi, but their connection is closer than ever after Michael and Carol Pleskoff made the trek to Jackson, Mississippi, two weeks ago.
The couple, along with other members of Fort Mill’s Temple Solel, met with Rabbi Marshal Klaven on a rabbinic visit to the newly formed congregation in July. They were looking for a Torah to use during the monthly services they hold in a local church. Rabbi Klaven recommended contacting me, and two days later I was helping to arrange the loan of a Torah from the collection of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE).
The Torah once belonged to the congregations of Temple Beth Israel in the Mississippi delta community of Greenwood. Jews arrived in Greenwood in the 1850s, and by 1890 they had begun to organize a Jewish community. In 1897, a group of merchants met in a store house and formed the first synagogue, a Reform temple named Beth Israel.
Beth Israel always remained a small synagogue. In 1940, there were 30 members. By 1957 the temple had 66 members and twenty students in Sunday school. Like many small communities in the region, when people started to leave Greenwood for opportunities elsewhere the Jewish community was not able to replenish itself, and the congregation closed its doors in 1989. The Torah and other religious artifacts were donated to the MSJE.
The end of Beth Israel does not reflect a dwindling of Jewish life in the South. Just the opposite, Temple Solel is an example of Jewish communities growing in different parts of our region as populations shift to larger cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. Michael and Carol are examples of dedicated congregants, traveling that 650 miles to Jackson in their RV, in order to preserve their Jewish traditions. By replanting a piece of Southern Jewish history in their new congregation, Temple Solel will continue the legacy of Jewish life in the South. As congregants read from this Torah they will be reminded of those who read from it before them and how those congregants promoted Jewish life in this region in order to pave the way for thriving communities today.
Hurricane Katrina (and the man-made disaster of the levee breaks) struck Louisiana and Mississippi seven years ago today, with devastating effects. Now as the region prepares for Hurricane Isaac, we also remember Katrina.
In 2005, when Katrina struck, I was still living in the New Orleans area. The city and her surrounding suburbs were all affected. The Jewish community felt the wrath of the storm – particularly the Modern Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel, which was destroyed.
At that time, I was Executive Vice President of Temple Sinai in New Orleans. As a practicing Reform Jew, I had become involved with the local Federation, but, until then, I had not thought much about how our small Orthodox congregation benefited the whole Jewish community. In the aftermath of the storm, every congregation, including mine, reached out to them to provide temporary worship space until they could figure out what to do next. I found myself thinking about the interdependence of New Orlean’s Jewish community. and wondering how the loss of Beth Israel Congregation would affect the rest of our largely Reform contingent.
After Katrina it quickly became apparent that the Jewish community would either come together and survive as a whole or fall apart in individual efforts. Nearly a quarter of local Jews permanently relocated in the months after the storm. Those who remained had to embrace pluralism in a whole new way. We needed each other to survive and thrive as a Jewish community.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Robert Loewy, Metairie Reform congregation Gates of Prayer and Beth Israel formed a historical partnership, with the Orthodox congregation meeting in the Reform synagogue for the last seven years, until this past weekend. Shared space, increased understanding and partnership between the two congregations taught the entire Jewish world the importance of community.
But why does a city need a full range of Jewish observance? If it wasn’t for the Orthodox community, there would be no community day school. Without a community day school, the Reform and Conservative congregations would never have been able to attract the current roster of Rabbis, Cantors and Educators who moved to the New Orleans area since Katrina. Congregation Beth Israel also brought the amazing Rabbi Uri Topolosky, an asset to the whole city who moved to New Orleans in 2007, and has led the congregation’s rebirth.
Of course, benefits go both ways. Without the Reform and Conservative Jews in the city purposefully patronizing the two Kosher restaurants in town, they would not be able to stay in business in order to serve the Orthodox Jews (and many Reform and Conservative Jews) who keep Kosher. And our efforts to reach out to the greater community are strengthened by our partnerships in the larger Jewish Federation.
In order to maintain a thriving Jewish community and give back to the city as a whole, we need each other; we are absolutely interdependent.
In August of 2010, I was privileged to attend the ground breaking ceremony of Congregation Beth Israel. After sharing a space amicably, Congregation Gates of Prayer sold a parcel of their land to Beth Israel to build their new synagogue and permanent home.
Last weekend, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a great miracle happened there)! After seven long years in the lovely wilderness of Gates of Prayer, Beth Israel joyfully paraded its five Torah scrolls out of the temporary space and into the Ark of their very own synagogue. Dignitaries from federal, state and local government, along with well-wishers from the entire community were invited to be a part of that glorious day. Yes, it was the seventh anniversary of hurricane Katrina, but much more importantly, it was the first day for Beth Israel in their own home once again.
While the congregations are now in separate buildings, they made a conscious decision to share the children’s’ play yard, so this generation and the next will never wonder quietly to themselves, “Why are the other ones important to me and the world around me?”
They will already know.
Skype. Gchat. iPhone.
These are some of my primary tools in my modern Jewish education career.
Utilizing technology is important for pretty much all Jewish educators these days, but when you’re serving an entire region, they become more than enriching add-ons. They become absolute necessities.
I work as a virtual supervisor (not a term that was thrown around much back when I was in grad school at HUC!). That means that while I’m based in San Antonio Texas, the other ten people in my department are based out of the ISJL office in Jackson, Mississippi. When I first took on this role, I admit that I worried: what if my staff didn’t get what they needed from me. Mentorship is so important, and I want to always be a good supervisor to my staff.
But then I recalled my previous professional settings where I had supervisors who were sitting just inches away, and yet remained completely unavailable to me. I began realizing that meaningful connection isn’t just about physical presence, though that is important (and I do fly to Jackson quite frequently). It’s about mental presence. It’s about tuning in, and being responsive, and being accessible. Reachable, even if that means leaning pretty heavily on technology. Most of all, it’s about communication. And so that’s what I’ve committed to: being an always-mentally-present supervisor even when I wasn’t always physically present.
The way I work with my staff mirrors the way we work with our Southern communities, often quite far-flung, and ensure their positive Jewish experiences. My unconventional supervision succeeds because it fits with this model. My staff is constantly on the road, serving nearly 80 congregational schools. We guide hundreds of teachers and reach thousands of students, from afar – but again, thanks to email and messaging and video conferences, we are always in touch.
Each community we serve receives a weekly email from their fellow. We distribute a monthly e-newsletter from the department. We are on daily calls, webinars and Skype sessions with our communities. Most importantly, we see them three times a year, and we make every moment count. When we aren’t teaching or leading a program, we are celebrating Shabbat with families at their dinner tables, we attend birthday parties for the children of the congregation, and we schmooze in the homes of our host families.
We have the privilege of becoming part of the community – and technology helps make it possible. Particularly in a region like the South, where there are more small Jewish communities than large ones, and often many miles separating these communities, anything that helps strengthen connections and communication between people is truly a blessing.
Hmm. Anyone know a good bracha for kicking off my next Skype session?
People worry that this age of technology is creating distance between people. For us, it allows our impact and contact to be greater. How do you use technology to connect to others? We would love to hear your stories and comments.