Author Archives: The ISJL

The ISJL

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Being Jewish in Jonesboro, Arkansas

Today’s guest post comes from our friend Andrea Levy, a fairly recent transplant to Jonesboro, Arkansas. Thanks for sharing your lovely words, Andrea!

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The author and her family.
Photo courtesy Andrea Levy

It is Friday morning. I am sitting at my kitchen table. I have a big smile on my face as I work on my bible study lesson for this coming Wednesday. My mother called this morning to make sure the storm wasn’t too bad last night. After the time we had to run twice to the safe room because of tornadoes, there is constant worry (such is the lot of a Jewish Mother).

The location where these tornadoes threatened? Jonesboro, Arkansas. The bible study I’m preparing to lead? A session on Jewish Holidays for the First Christian Church of Jonesboro this coming Wednesday. How the world turns.

Last Sunday, I led our synagogue service observing Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atz’maut, and sending a wonderful couple off to northwest Arkansas at an evening service followed by an Israeli themed potluck dinner with falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, pita and more. The cake had an Israeli flag on it—I wonder what Kroger thought of that?

And the Monday before that? The President of our synagogue, David Levenbach, and I participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah to us) at the Southwest Church of Christ. The program was so moving, with approximately 20 biographies of people during the time of the Holocaust portrayed by other participants provided by the US Holocaust Museum, and a short film also by the museum. David and I read prayers from Gates of Prayer.

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Stained Glass at Temple Israel
Jonesboro, Arkansas

I’m not a rabbi, by the way. I’m just a member of a small Southern congregation, and this is what you do.

So back to the bible study. I was invited to lead the bible study session this week at the First Christian Church, to talk about Jewish Holidays. I have been preparing for this feverishly, as I want to make sure to make this session is engaging and interactive. I am bringing show and tell items and some special foods with me—challah, matzah, and macaroons. I have been learning things about our holidays that I did not know before my preparations—the Torah citations for some of the holidays, the explanations behind the traditions, and most importantly why we know Shabbat falls on Friday night/Saturday.

So the smile on my face? Well, it’s both appreciation and amusement… because if I had stayed where I grew up, this wouldn’t be how I spent my morning.

I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with a large Jewish population. Now, my family and I have meandered our way to a much smaller town of 70,000, with a very small Jewish community (we were so happy to get 25 last Sunday!)—Jonesboro, Arkansas. If we hadn’t, I would not be sitting here working on my bible study lesson for next Wednesday.

Funny, but true: Sometimes when you leave a big Jewish community, Judaism becomes an even bigger part of your life.

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Posted on May 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

South(west)ern & Jewish

photo (1)Today’s blog is by Gabe Weinstein, a 2013 ISJL Summer Intern in the History Department.  He now lives in Angel Fire, New Mexico, and is a staff writer at the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. He shares his thoughts here on his new corner of the American Jewish world. 

I never thought I would find a Jewish cemetery in Mora, New Mexico. Its miles of lush pastures are surrounded by the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and most residents are Hispanic Catholics. So when I heard about the Jewish cemetery just outside town I knew I had to check it out.

I headed to Mora after participating in a cemetery cleanup at the Montefiore Cemetery outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. From the 1880’s to the 1950’s Las Vegas’ Jewish Community thrived. Charles Ilfeld and his family established one of the Southwest’s most dominant commercial enterprises in the town. Jews became active in Las Vegas’ civic affairs during the era.

Like many small towns in the ISJL’s 13 state region, Las Vegas’ Jewish community experienced a quick boom and a decline. The Jewish community dwindled over the years and the synagogue, Congregation Montefiore, closed in the 1950’s.

Mora’s Jewish community was never the size of the Las Vegas, NM community. Only a handful of German Jewish families lived in Mora and the surrounding communities of Cleveland, Ocate, Guadalupita, Sapello and La Cueva. Jewish settlers arrived in the region starting in the 1870’s and began opening general stores, butcher shops and acquired interests in real estate and livestock.

It is virtually impossible to look at a map of where I live in northern New Mexico and not find a Jewish story. Brothers Alex and Gerson Gusdorf were business tycoons in Taos. The Spigelberg brothers were among the first Jewish settlers in Santa Fe, the state’s capital. They established a successful business empire in Santa Fe and helped countless other Jewish immigrants start their lives out on the frontier.  The Rubin Family of Raton and the Herzsteins  of Clayton are two of the countless Jewish connections that can be found throughout northern New Mexico’s plains and mountains.

The Jewish history of towns like Mora, Las Vegas, Taos and Santa Fe share many similarities with Southern communities the ISJL serves. German Jews made up most of the early settlers in both places. Many Jewish merchants in New Mexico and the South settled in isolated after stints as peddlers. Like Southern Jews, New Mexico’s Jewish pioneers took on regional speech patterns. Instead of developing southern drawls, New Mexican Jews learned Spanish and local Native American languages.

Today, northern New Mexico has a small and thriving Jewish community. Taos, the region’s tourism and commercial hub, is home to a Chabad house, a non-denominational congregation, and a Chavurah.

Jewish life in northern New Mexico’s smaller and more remote communities is for the most part extinct. But the legacy of Mora’s Jewish residents is still very much felt. The offspring of the people buried in the cemetery still live in the Mora Valley and are active in Mora County’s political and commercial activities.

After my visit to the Mora cemetery I’m itching to hit the road and check out more places in New Mexico with unique Jewish stories. I have to visit western New Mexico to learn more about Solomon Bibo, the German Jew who served four terms as governor of Acoma Pueblo. One of these days I need to make the short trip up to the border towns of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado where the region’s Crypto-Jews have deep roots.

If there’s one thing I learned from my experiences at the ISJL and in New Mexico it’s that Jewish history exists in every corner of the United States. From the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico you never know when you’ll stumble upon a piece of American Jewish history.

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Posted on May 9, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Shalom, At Passover And Always

jcckcWe had another post for today, which we will share later, but in light of yesterday’s tragic shootings at two Jewish institutions in Kansas City, we offer only our prayers for the families impacted by this terrible act of violence. Places like the Jewish Community Center, open to all and committed to bettering our world, should be safe havens for everyone. An attack like this shakes us all to the core.

Particularly on the eve of Passover, we pray for freedom from violence and terror. We pray for safety, security, and over and over we will pray for shalom – at Passover, and always; in Overland Park, and everywhere.

L’shalom, y’all. 

Posted on April 14, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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