Category Archives: History

Interfaith Collaboration: A Southern Tradition

Rabbi Ira Sanders

Rabbi Ira Sanders

This past week, two of my co-workers and I attended an interesting lecture by Reverend Ben Matin at Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school here in Jackson. The talk, “People of the Book: Sacred Text and Multi-Faith Conversation,” was part of their Friday Forums lecture series. Rev. Matin described a unique program that brings people of faith together to discuss passages of scripture from one another’s tradition.

Interfaith dialogue is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I was baptized Catholic, raised Protestant – Southern Baptist, to be exact – and as an adult, converted to Judaism. Helping people understand and appreciate difference has been a huge part of my career. When I was a high school teacher, I designed a comparative religion course that produced a lot of interesting discussions. As a graduate student at NYU, I wrote a book chapter that examined the Face to Faith Program, which uses video conferences to enable students of different faiths across the world to share their world views on issues of social justice. Examples abound of innovative organizations working to cultivate dialogue among people of all faiths and none in order to promote tolerance and understanding.

B'nai Israel in Natchez, MS

B’nai Israel in Natchez, MS

As an historian, my job is to educate people about Southern Jewry and their relationship with people of different faiths. While it is true that the South has historically been an environment steeped in Christian culture, there are so many examples of interfaith cooperation between Jews and Christians across the South. It was not uncommon for rabbis and ministers to do pulpit swaps. In Cleveland, Mississippi, Adath Israel’s Rabbi Danziger arranged a pulpit swap with the local Episcopal priest in 2013. Danziger gave a series of lectures to the Episcopal congregation and led the Sunday morning service. This sort of cooperation continues to exist among the lay community as well. When I recently talked to the Cleveland synagogue’s president, Ed Kossman, he noted that there are typically more Christians than Jews at services. For instance, there is a local retired Baptist minister who never misses a service. Synagogue attendance of non-Jews in other small towns with declining Jewish populations, such as Natchez, Mississippi, has helped to keep synagogues open.

That interfaith spirit was echoed by the Jews of Canton, Mississippi. Members of the Christian community there not only came but also participated in services. Because no synagogue member ever felt qualified to play the organ or sing prayers during services, Fanethel Wales, a Presbyterian, played the pump organ and a Baptist minister’s wife sung Hebrew incantations during services at B’nai Israel. A most intriguing evidence of interfaith cooperation can be seen in the formation of the Christian Committee for the United Jewish Appeal in 1947 under the leadership of J.F. Barbour, the father of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The fund sought to raise money to help Holocaust survivors still living in Displaced Person Camps in Europe. They urged the citizens of Yazoo City to donate money to reach a goal of $6,500, and they were successful in this endeavor.

Rabbi Harry Danziger

Rabbi Harry Danziger

Interfaith efforts actually helped to curtail racial tension in some Southern towns. Following the Little Rock crisis in 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders formed the Ministry of Reconciliation which included religious leaders from across the community. After Eisenhower called for a day of prayer during the Little Rock school crisis, the Ministry set up a prayer rally on Columbus Day for congregational members across the city to pray for tolerance. They did this despite bomb threats. Estimated numbers of 8-10,000 people attended services including 500 Jews. In Lexington, Mississippi, town leader and Jewish community member Phil Cohen, African American Pastor James Rodgers, and other town members formed a coalition in 1978 to work out racial strife in the town caused by an economic boycott. Cohen and Rodgers held a prayer session on the south side of town square. Both black and white residents came, and the boycotts ended for good.

As we continue to update our community histories for Mississippi and eventually other states, I encourage our readers to share their stories of interfaith cooperation. And please, send along any other interesting stories as well. The Encyclopedia is a treasured resource for many people of all faiths, and your contributions have helped to bring this history to life.

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Posted on September 29, 2014

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A Historian’s First Trip to the Jewish Delta

Greenvilletemple2

An image from Greenville’s past

What’s “new” for this historian? Well, at the moment, we are in the process of updating the Mississippi entries for our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities, and so I recently took a trip to do some research in the Mississippi Delta.

Driving past miles and miles of open farm fields, I was immediately reminded of childhood visits to my grandparents’ farm in rural Louisiana. While they farmed soybeans and corn, cotton is clearly king in these parts.

This was my first time to visit this part of Mississippi and I was thrilled to experience the warm hospitality there. In addition to doing research at local libraries and archives, I was able to talk with a number of Delta Jews about Jewish history and life in the region. The people I met in the Delta remain committed to do whatever necessary to continue to make it a wonderful place in which to live and thrive.

Chief among them is Greenville resident and local historian Benjy Nelken. Benjy is passionate about Greenville’s history and helped to create a few museums around town, including the Greenville History museum. It provides a unique glimpse into life in Greenville from the late 1800s through the 1970s. The collection includes a fascinating array of memorabilia, artifacts, photographs, and news clippings that takes visitors through each day of the historic 1927 flood as well as other important events and cultural collections indicative of the area.

Benjy took the time to compile research folders on a number of topics available to researches, including one on his own family’s history. Benjy also started the Century of History Museum housed at Hebrew Union Temple. The museum, housed in the library, details the contributions and culture of Greenville’s Jewish residents since 1867. The museum was brimming with resources, and Benjy really did a nice job with tracing a tremendous amount of history with helpful explanatory labels. There was a lot that was not on display (newspaper articles, temple records) that was available for perusal, as well.

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Mayor Rosenthal and Dr. Bordelon in Indianola

I encourage our readers to pay these terrific museums and Hebrew Union Temple a visit. Services at Hebrew Union are led by Rabbi Debra Kassoff twice per month. While you are there, stop over at Jim’s Café for lunch. The people are warm, the portions generous, and the food, authentically Southern. If you have time to stay for dinner, head over to Doe’s Eat Place for one of the best steaks you’ll ever experience.

The next stop in my Delta travels was Indianola, Mississippi. There I had the privilege of meeting some long-time Indianola residents, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt, and the town’s current mayor, Steve Rosenthal. Their histories will be helpful as we add a new entry for the town of Indianola. If you get out to Indianola, a trip to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is a must.

I continued on to Greenwood. I’ve met longtime Greenwood resident Gail Goldberg a few times already, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of our conversations. Her passion for Ahavath Rayim and the Greenwood community is inspiring. Despite having a small amount of regular members, they get between 50-75 people every Rosh Hashanah. People are drawn to spiritual life there, and she reports that they often get people from very far away that are dedicated to ensuring that worship at the synagogue continues. If you get a chance to visit, services are led by Marilyn Gelman the first Friday of every month.

Ahavath Rayim1

Ahavath Rayim, Greenwood

Having experienced it firsthand, I now fully understand why the Delta remains such a special place. Reading about the Delta is quite different than being there and truly experiencing it. What struck me the most was how committed the Delta residents are to keeping this region alive and well for future generations. New industry is coming in and progressive civic initiatives are being offered, providing more resources for a better future. For instance, Mayor Rosenthal initiated the Indianola Promise Community (IPC), a community-based initiative to provide children with the opportunity to succeed in school, graduate, and attend college. It was modeled after Harlem’s Children Zone and they are having a positive impact on the community.

I can’t wait to reveal the new and improved Mississippi entries soon. In the meantime, I invite our readers to share their stories about Mississippi history with me so we can have even more history to share with our readers. With new technology, it has never been easier to make the historical research process more collaborative. Recently, we added a Dropbox option for sharing files, and you can also email me anytime. I look forward to hearing all of your stories!

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Posted on September 12, 2014

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A Different Kind of Jewish “Movement”

“Do you live in the same place where you were raised?”
eatons-luggage
The ISJL’s founder, Macy B. Hart, likes to ask people that question. He asked it of me, and like so many others, I had to say no.

I was born in Texas and have lived in many different states—California, Virginia, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, New York, and now, Mississippi. I recently found this New York Times article, which shows where we came from, state by state, since 1900. As a historian, it fascinated me, and I wanted to share it with our readers here.

In 1900, 86% of Mississippians were born in Mississippi. By 2012, that number dropped to 72% — which is still higher than a lot of states, such as Texas, where only 61% of Texans originally hailing from the state.

The number of native born Mississippian Jews has declined precipitously. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews spread themselves throughout the state. In 1937, Jews lived in 107 different Mississippi towns. It reached its peak in 1927, with 6,420 Jews. Since then, it has declined steadily. In 2012, only 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi, with Jackson having the largest community. The generation of Jewish merchants produced children who became college-educated professionals and had little interest in taking over family businesses. The decline of Mississippi’s rural economy and the rise of national retail chains have also pushed Mississippi Jews to such booming Sunbelt cities as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston.

Chart from New York Times.

Chart from New York Times.

I never expected to live in Mississippi, but I am so glad to be here and to call Jackson my home. The Jewish community here has been more than welcoming. It is a testament to the fact that despite their small size, Mississippi Jews continue to identify with their heritage, and have kept Judaism alive in the Magnolia State.

Wherever they may end up living, Southern Jews are proud of their heritage. As a native Southern Jew, I am honored to be able to tell those stories. So what about you? Do you or your other family members have Southern roots? I am curious to hear from all of our readers about their journeys so I can continue to share them on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish communities.

Y’all don’t be shy now!

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Posted on August 18, 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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