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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Right now, Rabbi Matt Dreffin and Rabbi Marshal Klaven are in the midst of the Passover Pilgrimage, journeying to communities throughout the South to lead seders and Passover programming.
Here is one of Rabbi Klaven’s first updates from the road: “Question: What do you get when 10 Jews and 50 non-Jews get together? Answer: An unforgettable 1st Seder on the ISJL Passover Pilgrimage. This evening in Natchez reminded us all: to go great distances, we cannot go at it alone; but –as the Bible says– we must go as “a mix multitude!” Thank you, Congregation B’nai Israel and all our wonderful friends there!”
The Passover Pilgrimage continues through April 20, with stops in more than half a dozen Southern states:
Seders along the way take place at congregations (including churches), and additional pastoral visits and events are planned. As ambassadors for this festival of freedom, the rabbis are excited to share their thoughts along the way and post-pilgrimage. In the meantime, we wish them safe travels and will continue sharing periodic updates on the ISJL Facebook page, as well.
Where is this rabbi?
What is the rabbi wearing?
What is this rabbi doing?
And finally… was that rabbi you pictured a man, or a woman?
When I asked this series of questions at a Sisterhood Shabbat service a few weeks ago in Mississippi, more than half the congregants said they pictured a male rabbi. This was not surprising to me. Men filled this role for hundreds of years, and the idea of a male rabbi is part of our tradition. But it is also important for us to consider the role women have in leading our communities and embrace them as leaders. I will go ahead and tell you right now that I am especially invested in this conversation, because I plan to enroll in rabbinical school and hope to serve as a congregational rabbi.
When I spoke on this topic at Sisterhood Shabbat, I called on the congregation to empower women as leaders in the Jewish community. I was especially adamant that women rabbis receive equal pay, which is not yet a reality. These sentiments were mostly well-received, as I believe they would be in many congregations I visit. Most people have adjusted to the idea that women can be rabbis and that they should be treated with respect, but some communities are not quite sure how to do that.
In my travels across the South I have come across some interesting questions related to the role of women as rabbis. One thing I have found very interesting is the Name Question. As in, should rabbis be addressed as “Rabbi (last name)?” “Rabbi (first name)?” Just by a first name? I have met rabbis who employ each of these combinations and their reasons for doing so are compelling. Those who choose to go by their first names do so because it creates a closer relationship and allows them to do more sincere pastoral care. At the same time, calling clergy by their title and last name is a tradition which many people feel is a necessary sign of respect. I think there is an added layer of nuance for female rabbis, who might struggle to command an appropriate level of respect and who might choose to go by their last names to help with this issue.
Speaking of what to call someone, people in the communities I visit are often riveted by the question of what to call a woman rabbi’s husband in place of “rebbetzin,” the Yiddish word used for a rabbi’s wife. Some suggestions I have gathered include rebbetz-bro, rebbetz-him, rebbetz-sir, and “the luckiest man in the world.” These questions and related suggestions are funny, but they also show that the concept of a woman rabbi is still relatively fresh, and we still have some details to work out.
Being an ISJL Education Fellow has prepared me for some of the challenges I expect to face as a young female rabbi. You might be shocked to learn that teachers, directors, and congregants are not always excited to take advice or direction from a 23-year-old. I have been learning to present myself in a dynamic, professional way that convinces these people to take me seriously despite my age. I expect the strategies I have learned to cope with this issue will be useful as I go forward. Being a Fellow has also confirmed for me how much I love to help Jewish communities grow to their fullest potential and how much I do, in fact, want to be a rabbi.
When I close my eyes, I can even picture it.
 According to a study published by the CCAR, women head rabbis receive, on average, as little as 80%-93% as much pay as their male counterparts.
 Thanks to the HUC Rabbinical School in Israel class of 2007 for the first two suggestions.