At the ISJL, we’re often asked about all things “Southern” and “Jewish” – so it was no surprise that we received several inquiries regarding a recent article posted on JTA, headlined “Jewish newcomers bring optimism, but can they revive small towns in the South?”
Several of our staff members were interviewed for or contributed to the piece, but the question in the headline is still being asked of all of us.
My take? I think newcomers to any small town – the South, or elsewhere – can bring excitement, fresh ideas, and hopefully full participation in the Jewish community. There is certainly hope that with newcomers comes a better chance of long-term survival; this belief even inspired one group to offer Jewish newcomers $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama. We welcome newcomers, we see the optimism new residents can bring, but in the end, can bringing in new folks revive a community in the long term? That remains to be seen.
We are a transient society; people move around the country for any number of reasons: a new job, retirement, to be near family. It is wonderful when newcomers come into any community, bringing new ideas to share and making their mark in the community. It’s often hard to know, at first, if “newcomers” will become permanent members of the community for the long haul, especially in small towns. And if newcomers have children, will those children choose to stay in these small towns, or leave, as so many native-to-small-town-children have done over the years when they became adults?
In our daily work at the ISJL, we honor and work with Jewish communities large and small. If a community has one child in religious school or several hundred, whether they own a historic building or rent worship space in a church, no matter if their weekly Shabbat services draw 10 or 100 people, every Jew counts. No matter where they live. The ISJL helps connect these smaller population centers to the larger Jewish community, as well as to other small Jewish communities who are experiencing similar issues – diminishing population and resources.
Some of our staff are newcomers, but the organization is here to stay.
The truth is that some of these small towns in the South will no longer have a Jewish presence in the next 10 to 20 years. But the point is, however many Jews are in a community and however long they remain there, they deserve rich Jewish lives. So we will continue to provide support and resources to these communities as long as there is any Jewish presence at all – and when the last Jew in any given small Southern town is gone, we will continue to honor the memory of that community through the history collected on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
So the question remains: Can Jewish newcomers revive small towns in the South? In the short term, absolutely; in the long term, we don’t know. But no matter what, we will support the efforts of those old and new, transient or settled.
What do you think?
I’ve been thinking a lot about race lately. Many others have, too, in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal – but I’ve also heard plenty of people saying it’s “not about race,” suggesting that the death of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict, comes down to guns, laws, confusing jury instructions, prosecution not making their case, and so on.
But let’s be honest – it’s a lot about race.
I am a white woman, born in 1964 in Jackson, MS. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, attended private schools for most of my education, and worshipped at the local synagogue where, at that time, all the members were white.
I didn’t question my insular upbringing or privilege; my parents owned a restaurant, and worked long, hard hours to provide for us. But lately, I have considered this: if I had been born into an African American family, same year, same city - what would my childhood have been like? And framed by those experiences, what would my adult life look like now?
How can I possibly know? Do I even live in the same United States as Charles M. Blow, a columnist and parent of black sons, who wrote in the New York Times recently: “As a parent… I am left with the question ‘Now, what do I tell my boys?’ We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly. So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?”
Reading that, I think I don’t live in the same United States. I get to live in a society where I don’t have to tell my kids how to walk home safely, because of how they look to others. I don’t have to fear immediate judgments being made about me, or my children, based on the color of our skin. Because I am white. Yes, I am in the minority because I am Jewish, but unless I’m wearing a Star of David, no one sees my Jewishness when I walk down the street. So how can I relate?
I recalled a movie I had seen some twenty-odd years ago. I couldn’t recall the title at first, but then I found it, and the lines I was trying to remember (thank you, Google). The movie’s title is Soul Man. It came out in 1986, with C. Thomas Howell in the role of Mark, a white student who poses as an African American to receive a full scholarship to Harvard. James Earl Jones played the role of Mark’s professor and when the deception finally was revealed, Mark and Professor Banks engaged in the following dialogue:
Professor Banks: You’ve learned something I can’t teach them. You’ve learned what it feels like to be black.
Mark: No sir.
Professor Banks: Beg your pardon?
Mark: I don’t really know what it feels like sir. If I didn’t like it, I could always get out. It’s not the same sir.
Professor Banks: You’ve learned a great deal more than I thought.
That awareness is key: it’s not the same.
We need to acknowledge this, and we all need to learn more. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued the following statement after the Zimmerman verdict: “There are serious, unresolved issues of race in our country, and this trial underscored the need to explore these issues more fully. Hopefully, the debate concerning the justice of the verdict in the Zimmerman case will inspire a continued much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.”
There is hope – now, and in decades past. In a glimmer of light this week, NPR featured this story of photographer Joseph Crachiola and a photograph he took 40 years ago in Detroit, of two white children and three black children, clearly friends, in a neighborhood known then (and now) as “racially divided.” The photo I’m sharing again here, in this blog. A photo of friendship. A reminder that we can find connections, and bridge the divide. We are not born divided.
But none of us can do it alone. We need to talk to each other.
Jackson 2000 is an organization here in Mississippi dedicated to bringing the community together in the Jackson metropolitan area by promoting racial harmony through dialogue and understanding, facilitates “Dialogue Circles”– groups of people who commit to a 6 week series of facilitated meetings to meaningfully engage on issues related to race and community. No one is naïve enough to think that 6 weeks of conversation will solve all the problems/issues/inequities that exist, but these conversations, and just as importantly, these connections, help us all move forward, together.
And maybe someday, we will all live in the same country, where all of our children are safe.
As a parent of teenagers, there are times when you make decisions for your kids and there are times when you empower them to make their own decisions. A recent conversation around the dinner table at our house included discussion of the upcoming Confirmation service in which my 10th grader Jacob will participate.
My youngest son, Eric, asked Jacob: “Why do you have Confirmation?”
Jacob’s immediate response, before explaining what Confirmation meant (which is probably what his younger brother was asking), was simply: “I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
I didn’t respond to that statement – at least, not first.
First, we discussed what Confirmation meant, perhaps not quite as eloquently as the explanation from MyJewishLearning.com: “The custom most commonly associated with Shavuot is the ceremony of Confirmation. The festival of Shavuot, because of its association with giving of Torah, has been linked with the study Torah. The ceremony of Confirmation was introduced by Reform Judaism in the early part of 19th century in Europe and was brought to the United States about mid-century. In this ceremony, the now-maturing student “confirms” a commitment to Judaism and to Jewish life. While boys and girls are considered to be spiritual adults by age 13, they are better prepared at age 16 or 17 to make the kind of emotional and intellectual commitment to Judaism that Confirmation implies.”
Then, we “discussed” the other issue.
“I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
That’s right – there was no choice.
When it was time to sign up for religious school, we completed the paperwork for Jacob. It was not even a consideration that he wouldn’t participate. My husband and I believe that it’s our job as parents to give our children opportunities for learning. It’s also a larger lesson in taking an active role in the community. I would like to think that Jacob would have come to the same decision. I mean, what’s so terrible about having dinner once a week with your friends, and then spending some time with the rabbi discussing current events and learning more about Judaism and other religions?
Tonight, May 10, Jacob will join his six other classmates as they lead the service, share in the Torah reading, and discuss what they have learned this year. I am proud of him, proud that he understands that this is just one more step in his Jewish learning and his participation as a member of his Jewish community.
We don’t take the commitment and participation in the Jewish community lightly. Our confirmation class has seven students – not because students that age opted out – that’s the total number of Jewish kids in our community that are Jacob’s age! Out of those seven students, two students live out of town – in fact, they live about two hours away. Although they have Skyped many weekly sessions, they (and their parents) have also driven 4 hours round trip in the middle of the week to participate whenever they could. This is truly a commitment to Judaism and the community.
As I listened to the confirmation students and the rabbi have one last practice of the Torah service on the bimah, I heard laughter, gentle teasing of each other, but also support of one another. They have created a wonderful community and they genuinely care about each other.
When I see the group in their white robes chant The Ten Commandments and discuss what they have learned this year, I know I will feel proud of Jacob and his classmates as they continue on their Jewish paths. I also feel confident that when he gets a little older, he’s not going to mind at all that we “made” him do this. In fact, I’m pretty sure tonight, he’ll be glad to be standing with the members of his community.
Mazel tov to all of you who have kids participating in Confirmation services this year!
Did you ever “make” your kids participate in Jewish communal life? Did your parents “make” you? How do you feel about it?
(Editor’s Note: the photos included in this post come from the archives of the ISJL’s museum department. From the top: Columbus, MS, Confirmation Class of 1937; Clarksdale, MS, Confirmation Class of 1963; Auburn, AL, Confirmation Class of 2008. Yasher koach to the Schipper family, and all of the students soon to be pictured in the Jackson, MS Confirmation Class of 2013, continuing the community tradition!)