I’ve been thinking about numbers lately. Not in a Jewish, gematria-type way, but in a way that kinda makes me wish I had developed my quantitative reasoning skills. If I had, I’d be a bit better prepared for life moments like this…
When I was at Brandeis, I was required to take a course for “Quantitative Reasoning,” which ended up being something about the history of scientific innovation. In other words, it was a course designed for people like me, who got itchy thinking about integers.
But when the organization you’ve been employed by for the last seven years turns 15 years old, you start to consider a lot of numbers. The number of programs and services delivered, the number of partners in our region, the number of staff over that number of years. In an organization that has grown so much, in a region that is so large.. well, all that number-crunching is what I like to call a “special project.”
So where to start?
Well, where would you start? Think about your own workplace- who’s keeping up with the daily ins and outs of your organization? Who in your family or among your friends is keeping records of important life moments? Do you have someone that holds all the institutional memory?
Most of us rely on digital assistance these days — large archived email lists, folders of uploaded photos. But collecting all this data for work has gotten me thinking about the importance of archives! (Hey, I’m a museum professional, what did you expect?)
Our museum collection is filled with records from Southern congregations. These records are incredible resources for looking back into the everyday lives of Jewish communities. Minutes from sisterhood meetings, confirmation photos with names carefully handwritten on the back, ledgers with all the members and when they paid their dues, newsletters that include gems like the rabbi’s sermons and welcomes given to guests to town. Groups that have a designated secretary often embody record keeping at its finest.
The primary source documents are precious — and the documentation that goes along with preserving everything in an archive is just as important as the items themselves. As a museum registrar, I’ve got filing cabinets filled with records about records, digital files and images on all the objects in our collection. Collections management is essentially that fine balance of not only preserving objects but also creating and maintaining documentation to provide accessibility and accountability to the interested public, and to ensure that their meaning and origin is not lost.
All that to say, because the ISJL provides such a wide range of services to a variety of audiences, each department has been maintaining data in their own unique way. To commemorate our 15th year, I’m starting on a project to develop a common institutional memory, a system where we can access when we had programs in Montgomery, Alabama over the last 15 years, whose weddings were officiated by ISJL rabbis, and how many people have attended Jewish Cinema South Film festivals. I’ll be looking through old CIRCA magazines, trip reports, conference rosters, digital folders on our common drive… and figuring out the best ways to quantify our impact on this region.
So invite you to join me in this journey into numbers and impact. Take a minute and reflect on what you’ve got archived from the last 15 years of your life. What would your numbers be? How would you quantify the impact of your life? And how do you quantify your personal Jewish impact? Number of d’vrei torah given, number of matzoh balls made, or number of blog posts written? Looks like I’m already working on my own numbers, and not just my colleagues’ collective contributions!
We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.
I recently spent two weeks in Philadelphia participating in a two week seminar as part of my Museum Studies masters program at Johns Hopkins University. While there, we met with museum professionals at sites across the city, but one museum in particular reminded me of a truth we know well in the South: sometimes, you find Jewish life in unexpected places.
My most memorable Jewish moment on this trip didn’t happen while at a Jewish museum or site, but while touring the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829 as the most famous and expensive prison in the world, it was known for its grand architecture and strict discipline. Our guide, the assistant director, led us through the enormous campus. We stared into cells, imagining the types of conditions that men and women lived in until it closed in 1971.
As we got to the end of Cell Block 2, our guide led us outside, down a tight alleyway and into a room they had just restored. It was a synagogue, with a full fledged ark, ner tamid, menorahs, benches, just the way it had looked after its renovation in the 1950s. They believe it is the only solely dedicated “Jewish” worship space in a prison. I knew I would enjoy learning about the complicated interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary, but I couldn’t have planned for my feelings about walking into a restored prison synagogue. My little Jewish museum professional heart was racing!
The curators took on the challenge of deciding how to interpret the history of the space to visitors. While they didn’t shy away from telling the stories of the prisoners, the exhibit focused more on the outside Jewish community volunteers who helped to build the synagogue and facilitate Jewish life in the penitentiary.
This example of finding Jewish life isn’t like the surprising anecdotes about Jewish cotton farmers or mayors of small Southern towns. This is finding Jewish life in a more complicated space. For me, whenever a Jewish person or topic comes up in museums or conversations, I usually have the same reaction- a small feeling of familiarity, understanding and most often pride. This feeling happened in the sanctuary space, but it wasn’t until we moved to a different room that they had renovated for a full exhibit on Jewish life in the prison that I realized how out of place that feeling was- to feel familiar and connected to a population of people who had committed heinous crimes. That uncomfortable, “Bad News Jews” feeling.
Often in our work and through this blog, we here at the ISJL try to illuminate the unique characteristics of Southern Jewish Life, while also sharing commonalities among the larger Jewish population. This exhibit at Eastern State worked to do the same thing, explain the unique needs of their Jewish population while successfully creating a space for visitors to make connections to their own lives and practice. It’s an interesting place to consider the importance of communities of faith in different settings, and the diversity of Jewish life and practice. If you are ever in Philadelphia I highly recommend making the visit to Eastern State Penitentiary to see this hidden scared space– and wrestle with it yourself.