Now that the Jewish fall holidays have been celebrated, I have had some time to reflect on some of the meaningful moments of late summer and early autumn. This musing was inspired in part by a coworker, who sent me a screenshot of our Facebook page, showing the interesting juxtaposition of a picture of me and my fellow clergy speaking in Jackson… with a picture of another preacher and another rabbi preparing to speak to a crowd 50 years ago.
August marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. All around the United States, the diverse people that continually make this nation so great gathered to celebrate and remember that momentous day through song and prayer, through words and fellowship. I was part of the celebration here in Jackson. As I stood on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol, beside my friend and fellow Mississippi clergyman Bishop Ronnie Crudup, to honor the steps that had been made and those still remaining in the march towards true equality, I pondered that day from 50 years ago.
What would it have felt like to stand before the gathered assembly of 250,000? What exchanges may have taken place between those who waited to speak? Did Dr. Rabbi Yoachim Prinz say anything to Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as Prinz warmed up the crowd to hear King’s dream?
Given the collective spirit of God’s will present that day, they must have. For it was that same spirit that brought me and Bishop Crudup together this summer.
“I remember the original March,” Bishop Crudup shared. “I was seven and my mother was active in the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Aren’t you frustrated then that – as a society – we haven’t covered much ground?” I asked. “After all, right here in Mississippi, we’re still miles away from reaching a state in which every citizen – regardless of race or religion, gender or sexual orientation – has equal access to the same opportunities.”
Bishop Crudup grew reflectively silent. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “You may not see it. But, from the vantage point of my years, I do. You and I can stand together, dine together, work together. So, the work of changing laws is over; what remains is the challenge of changing hearts and minds.”
I nodded, knowing that this task was going to be as – if not more – difficult than the first task. But those who marched on Washington are passing us the baton. If we wish to move our society forward we can no longer simply march on Washington; we must also march over to our neighbors, and continue these important conversations.
On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.
Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Hank Bamberger of Utica, New York, who spent some time traveling in the South this summer as part of the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program. A version of this piece first appeared in the newsletter of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, and is shared here with permission.
“You’re going WHERE in July?”
We couldn’t blame people for reacting that way. The answer was that my wife Sheila and I would be visiting four small congregations in four southern states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas – with a side trip to the URJ’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, all this under the auspices of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – and all during the summer.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Klein, who had served as the rabbi in Monroe, LA, sent us an email assuring us that it would only be hot outside. No one else was that encouraging.
In spite of the heat concerns, we headed South – and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Wherever we went, we were welcomed with true Southern hospitality. Each of the two Erev Shabbat services I conducted drew about a dozen and a half people. That may not sound like many, but percentage wise, it’s a lot. Consider this: Congregation Meir Chaim in McGehee, AR, has only seven families on its membership list!
Adult education in three congregations produced slightly lower numbers (!) but great enthusiasm. Talk at meals ranged from dealing with congregational matters to local and regional Jewish history to, inevitably, mutual acquaintances.
We even made some time to be tourists. The Clinton Library in Little Rock is worth a trip in itself, and if you go, the Little Rock Zoo is very nice as well. Of course, we saw lots of countryside. In nine days, we logged just over 1,500 miles of driving.
To top everything else off, the weather was mild (for summer in the South). Since our trip occurred during the terrible heat wave in the Northeast, it was hotter in Utica, NY than in Utica, MS. Go figure!
In short, we felt that we had made a contribution to those small congregations which work so hard to survive. A great way to spend our summer vacation, and I encourage other clergy interested in the Rabbis on the Road program to contact Rabbi Marshal Klaven at the ISJL.