My family lives in Greenwood, Mississippi. Nestled in the heart of the Delta, we are proud of our small-but-vibrant shul; even when only a dozen or so folks fill the pews, time spent in our building is meaningful. However, recently we saw our sanctuary overflowing with guests for the first time in years—and we were honored to host an event that led to powerful connections and conversations with our Delta neighbors.
We had two special visitors drawing the crowd in that night: Dr. Amy-Jill Levine (or AJ, as she prefers), and Rabbi Jeremy Simons of the ISJL. Rabbi Simons led a beautiful Shabbat service, warmly welcoming everyone and putting all attendees at ease immediately. I was so proud to have him representing the Jewish faith and standing up there in front of so many, leading everyone in a shared experience of Sabbath peace.
Then, AJ took the stage. AJ is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Department of Religious Studies, and Graduate Department of Religion. She’s a Jewish woman who studies and teaches about Christianity—and thereby she possesses a rare ability to speak the language of both Christians and Jews. She can represent both viewpoints fairly, and help us understand each other. Her opening line was something like: “Faith is more like love than Sudoku. Sudoku only has one correct solution. Love is subjective rather than right or wrong—you can’t control who you love and different people will have different preferences.”
People came from all over to hear her speak; Christians were challenged and enriched by her teachings on Christianity, and Jewish attendees were similarly riveted by her approach to scholarship and religious studies transcending both religions. Though the program took place in a synagogue, AJ knew her audience was primarily Christian. She addressed all equally, and encouraged all to be open to challenge and new notions. As local bookstore employee and program partner Steve Iwanski noted in his wonderful blog following AJ’s presentation: “…she sought to bring light to the parts of Jewish faith that may be unfamiliar to the typical Christian.
The crowd lingered for a long time afterward, and one could pick up smatterings of conversation that sounded exactly like the kind of interpretive dialogue Dr. Levine had implored us to engage in.” Having Rabbi Simons and Dr. Amy-Jill Levine lead and teach from our synagogue’s pulpit to a completely full house was an incredible delight. Everyone there shared in learning, in listening, in strengthening our own individual understanding and also our collective understanding of one another.
As an Ahavath Rayim member, an ISJL board member, a Greenwood resident—I could not have been more proud. It was not just a night of academics, but of spiritual moments. My 86-year-old mother-in-law, Ilse Goldberg, kindled the Shabbat candles and recited the blessings, which was such a moving moment. A lot of planning goes into bringing an event like this together, but moments like this are so precious that all the planning is worth it.
That night, I felt the pride of our ancestors – Ilse in the room, and others no longer with us. If they could have seen the full pews and felt the support and investment of our neighbors, I know how proud the previous generations of the congregation would be. I’m just honored that I could be part of such a wonderful communal experience, and grateful to see our shul stuffed to the gills with long-time supporters and first-time visitors. I hope to see our friends and neighbors joining us in fellowship many more times in the future.
What began years ago has now become a very common event in our Delta community of Greenwood, Mississippi: we host a group from “somewhere else” as they tour the Jewish South.
The groups are diverse, find their way to Greenwood and the South for many different reasons. In recent years, as a Board Member of the ISJL and through my association with Rachel Jarman Myers—this thriving experience has grown and become something I’m proud to be part of with increasing frequency.
This past spring we hosted a number of groups. Two of my favorites were a congregational group from Syracuse, New York, led by Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord; the other was The University of Maryland’s Hillel organization. The Syracuse group was a warm, enthusiastic community that connected with our own. I received a lovely letter from the rabbi following their visit. Our shared love for our Jewish community was so evident, throughout the visit and in our communication thereafter.
The coordinator for the Hillel group, Amy Weiss, became a great email friend of mine as she planned this wonderful Alternative Spring Break Trip to the Mississippi Delta. Led by Corinne Bernstein, Anna Koozmin, and Noah Stein, a total of 14 young folks flew into Memphis and spent a full week in Mississippi. The trip represented a combination of service, experience, culture, Judaism, and fellowship. Our family farm in Carroll County served as their “base camp,” providing a wonderful refuge after each day’s service to the community.
The group invited our family and our shul members to Friday night dinner and services at our farm. The evening was just amazing… from the food, the fellowship, the services, and most importantly, sharing Shabbos with our new friends.
T. Mac Howard, founder of Delta Streets Academy, an initiative that identifies and mentors at-risk young African American men, was one of the Hillel group’s favorite work sites. An email introduction between T. Mac and Amy parlayed into a working relationship between the two groups.
The school benefited, the Hillel group experienced a component of life most had never seen, and connections were established that will all be for good. It was a win–win, and the perfect Tikkun Olam for the Hillel group.
Greenwood is a natural place to stop because of the amenities available: The 5-star boutique Alluvian Hotel and a variety of restaurant opportunities rival anywhere in the South, and the charm of our small community is unparalleled. Ahavath Rayim, our Greenwood synagogue, was founded in 1907; more than 100 years later, we continue to gather and we fully participate in Jewish life—Delta Style.
In addition to touring our shul, both groups were treated to a “walking tour” of Downtown Greenwood by Dr. Mary Carol Miller, a noted historian and author. Greenwood is surrounded by three rivers and for decades has been known as the Cotton Capital of the World. The Jewish presence in our community is wide-spread.
What’s the value of the experience? The values are as diverse as the groups we host.
To understand that a Jewish community does exist in the Jewish South, to experience some of the sites, like the BB King Museum in Indianola, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and to visit the offices and meet the staff of the ISJL are all important components of the experience.
What’s so special to me is the relationship that we develop with these groups—although some we will never see again, we still form lasting bonds. The understanding and the conversations that we engage in as a result of these encounters are meaningful. To expose our “guests” to the Jewish life we live every day is important. We are unskilled and untrained ambassadors for our Judaism, as we reach out to the predominately non-Jewish world of the South. Hopefully, the “outreach” of these trips in small measure—makes this world a better place.
And if you’re interested in your own Southern Jewish Experience trip, contact Rachel Jarman Myers!