Few places in America are more remote than southeastern Kentucky. Back in the early 20th century, a handful of Jewish families settled in the area, though their numbers never became significant since the area was so hard to get to. No rail connection directly linked the region to any of the eastern ports of immigration. If you settled in Harlan, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, you were willing to live far from the centers of American Jewish life. At the ISJL, we talk a lot about small and isolated Jewish communities. Harlan certainly falls under that category. While Harlan Jews established a congregation, B’nai Sholom, in 1931, the community never had more than 30 or so families, including members from surrounding towns like Pineville, Middlesboro and Evarts.
One might assume that the Jews living in Harlan were cut off from the issues and events that preoccupied Jews living in places like New York. But this would be incorrect. While I was going through the records of the B’nai Sholom at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, I came upon a fascinating discovery. In 1933, the congregation held a Purim event which drew over 100 people. During the program, the congregation adopted a motion “protesting against the Haman-like designs of the German Hitler.” The congregation sent a copy of the resolution to President Franklin Roosevelt and the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Local Christian ministers also joined the protest statement.
What most struck me about this was the fact that Hitler had only just recently come to power, being appointed chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. Just two months later, Harlan Jews labeled him a “Haman,” and drew parallels between the Purim story and the plight of Jews in Germany.
This incident shows that even though they lived in southeastern Kentucky, Harlan Jews kept up with world events and were deeply concerned about their fellow Jews in other parts of the world. Jews who live in small towns like Harlan get used to hearing the question, “I didn’t know Jews lived in [fill in the blank].” Small-town Jews may rarely cross the minds of Jews who live in larger metropolitan areas, yet these Harlan Jews understood the idea of klal israel, that we are one people.
By ISJL Education Fellow Dan Ring
The ISJL Education Curriculum addresses Israel in many ways at various grade levels. The fifth grade, for example, contains a lesson about the Western Wall (also called the Kotel) in Jerusalem. For an activity, teachers can have students write prayers to be placed in the Wall and ask their Education Fellows to arrange for the letters to reach their intended destination.
Although you can easily do this virtually through different websites, I was excited when the fifth grade class at Temple Israel Religious School in Columbus, Georgia, wrote physical letters, which I was able to have delivered through face-to-face social networks.
Here is how it went down:
1. During Lesson 7 of the 5th grade curriculum, students in Columbus composed their own prayers and put them all in an envelope.
2. During my fall visit, the class surprised me with the collected notes.
3. Two weeks later, I attended a bar mitzvah in Baltimore, my hometown. My friend Josh, a Yeshiva student in Jerusalem and the brother of the bar mitzvah boy, was visiting for the occasion. So I gave him the envelope.
5. A few days later, Josh returned to Jerusalem, where he took the written prayers to the Wall.
6. The prayers have been delivered (to the Wall).
Thanks again to Josh for helping out the fine students of Temple Israel, and to another Josh for taking such great photographs!
For more than a year, I’ve been working with Dr. Ron Wolfson to plan a ten-day lecture tour to visit communities across the South. Every detail imaginable had been checked and double checked to ensure that each of the twelve partner congregations on the tour would have their expectations not only met, but exceeded!
But no matter how much you plan, you can’t plan everything.
Two weeks before the start of the tour, Dr. Wolfson mentioned something that I should have thought of myself: his beloved father, Alan Wolfson, had passed away a couple of months earlier, and Ron wanted a minyan each day in order to say Kaddish. My answer was to assure him we could make that happen – but honestly, my heart began to pound because in the mostly smaller Southern communities we were heading towards, a daily minyan is not always the easiest of things to find or create on short notice.
There needn’t have been any worry, because one by one, each host congregation stepped up with true Southern Jewish hospitality to make it happen. Many of the people who showed up to enable Dr. Wolfson to say Kaddish are quite familiar with the process and frequently participate in such rituals; However, many, like myself, have never been called upon or volunteered to be counted for this beautiful mitzvah. Each of us received more than we gave in performing this mitzvah. Dr. Wolfson thanked everyone with genuine appreciation, but the response was almost universally “My pleasure!”
And it was. It was our pleasure to participate in this process in each of the 10 communities – creating a “minyan of minyans” across the South.
Have you ever stepped up to be counted for a Kaddish minyan? How did you feel about the experience?