I am coming up on my one-year anniversary of working at the Jewish Women’s Archive. It’s a pleasant shock that nearly twelve months have passed since I joined the Jewish communal world; before I came to JWA, I maintained a safe distance from full-time employment with a Jewish organization.
I left my position as executive director of a summer writing camp last spring to figure out my next steps. Like many women my age (I am looking directly into the jaws of turning 50) I knew that the time had come to make a deliberate change. My kids were getting older, I needed more colleagues, more intellectual grist, blah blah blah.
Last month, I had the good fortune of reflecting on the changes of this past year, as I prepared to teach my first workshops with my JWA skirt on. I went to Jackson, Mississippi for the annual education conference of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). As a guest presenter, I taught about the importance of primary source-based learning, Jews and the music of the civil rights movement, and what inspiring Jewish women like Bella Abzug and Queen Esther can teach us about costumes and identity.
Moments like this are when I know I made the right shift in my career. I am learning a whole new lexicon. A new prism for viewing the world. A history I knew existed, but didn’t really know how to access. A framework for living the next decades of my life. An understanding that feminism is not monochromatic. And, as a result, a passion for the subject matter I get to shepherd(ess) every day.
Which brings me, again, to the ISJL. I listened to music from the civil rights era pretty much nonstop for a few weeks to get me into the mindset for teaching the topic. I learned many new details about Freedom Summer. I read and re-read Heather Booth’s letter to her brother, in which she writes about her “fear and exhaustion” but also the “songs that help to dissipate the fear.” The more I learn about Freedom Summer (I got an early look at the extraordinary new Stanley Nelson documentary which premiered June 24 on PBS), the more I am humbled by the bravery of all the volunteers.
I am also profoundly inspired by the Jewish civil rights workers who comprised an estimated 50% of those college-age volunteers that summer. They went to heal fractured communities, to encourage the disenfranchised to vote, to bring a modicum of dignity to those whose basic democratic freedoms had been denied for over a hundred years, and to try and build a better world for the next generation through the creation of Freedom Schools.
Is it okay to say I had fun preparing for my first conference, even when the topics were tough? I had fun because I discovered new ways to think about my own history and identity and how to translate these discoveries for others. I have a new modus operandi, which I am proud to have and even prouder to impart—I kinda lectured friends at dinner about the important Jewish role models who preceded us, and not only were my friends encouraging, they were thrilled to learn the stories that were new to them.
And I had a great time teaching at the ISJL conference; the educators were smart, eager to learn new materials, and committed to sustaining Jewish life in their home towns. As a northeastern Jewess, I was moved to learn about the many small communities in the South where one Jewish educator nurtures and nourishes the children growing up there, and how, like Bella and Esther, these educators have to wear a few identities to navigate their different orbits.
My time in Jackson also had an unexpected “shining moment.” I met Pam Confer, who was at the hotel to plan for Freedom Summer activities later in the week. I asked her if she would come and sing “This Little Light of Mine” during my presentation on civil rights and music. I had planned on playing a recording of Betty Fickes’ version of the song, but the thrill of having a local artist sing was too tempting to pass up; her beautiful voice filled the room and showed us all how the power of music can bring people together. Everyone was smiling and clapping; the mood in the room was electric.
Thank you, ISJL, for introducing me to Southern Jewish life, and giving me the chance to experience shining a new light. And as we approach the 4th of July holiday, may we continue working toward liberty for all!
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Usually we think of small, southern communities as being at least a beat behind their larger counterparts, especially when they have small—even “diminishing”—Jewish populations. Many of these Jewish communities were once thriving, but they have followed the American trend of younger generations abandoning smaller hometowns for larger urban centers.
These communities may be demographically small, but they should be considered ideologically large in their response to those who have intermarried.
How these communities respond should be instructive to other communities, regardless of size or region. It is true that the intermarriage rate—particularly among non-Orthodox Jews—is among the highest in these communities. Even if there is debate among demographers as to the exact rate of intermarriage, what is most important to consider is the trend lines. That’s why the well-practiced response of these communities is so important at a time when the rest of the North American community has finally transcended the question of “Should we reach out to those who have intermarried?” and moved to “How should we reach out to those who have intermarried?”
In a word, the only response of these smaller Southern communities has always been the same: welcome.
To be the most welcoming of communities is the only response possible and that is what these small communities have been doing. The synagogue remains the most numerous of Jewish communal organizations in the United States. In smaller communities, it is often the only Jewish communal institution and serves a multiplicity of functions. That’s why its actions are so demonstrative.
How have these Southern Jewish communities led the way? While institutions in other parts of the country are still debating the roles for those of other religious backgrounds in synagogues throughout the country, many in the South have long seen “non-Jewish partners” take on key roles in their communities.
As part of Jewish Outreach Institute’s ongoing partnership with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, I traveled to Mississippi this past week to serve as faculty at the ISJL’s education conference. I was reminded, again, of how many individuals in these Southern communities might not be Jewish—but are undoubtedly contributing to the Jewish future.
Simply by committing to raise Jewish children, they are contributing to our future; but their involvement goes above and beyond that. Southern congregations recognize this, voting with their feet and extending full synagogue membership to non-Jewish partners. These unsung heroes have joined the boards of synagogues, sometimes a thankless task, and have even become board presidents in some places. They are religious school teachers, and some have even become the directors of their town’s religious schools.
These partners-of-Jews have cast their lot with the Jewish people. The synagogue has become their spiritual home. We welcome them. We applaud them. And we thank so many in the Southern parts of these United States for leading the way, providing an example for the rest of us to follow.
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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!