As an ISJL Education Fellow, I hit the road a lot and spend time in communities that are new to me—and many of them might be new to you, too! So I’ll sometimes shine the Southern & Jewish spotlight on one of my new communities… starting today with Midland/Odessa, Texas.
I recently took a trip to Midland/Odessa, Texas. For anyone who hasn’t heard of these twin-cities and the surrounding area, it’s worth a peek at a map. The city of Midland was founded in 1881 as a midway point between El Paso and Dallas on the Pacific Railway. Traditionally, white collar workers lived in Midland, while blue collar workers lived in Odessa. Twenty-three miles separate the cities from one another, but it is clear today that the cities have a symbiotic relationship.
This relationship exists clearly in the business function, the thriving oil industry, but also in other affairs, such as Jewish life. (Speaking of which, there is a full history of the Jewish experience in Midland/Odessa available through the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities!)
When many people think of a combined metro area, some famous ones come to mind: Dallas-Fort Worth, Minneapolis-St. Paul… Most of these metros are less than 15 miles apart. And between the centers of them are suburbs and businesses that serve both cities. Midland and Odessa, however, are 23 miles apart, downtown to downtown, and between the two cities lies almost nothing besides the local “cash crop”: oil fields. The cities only agreed to a combined statistical designation recently, as it allowed for larger companies to come and serve the now combined “Petroplex.”
Though the synagogue building is in Odessa, the membership population is split between the cities of Midland and Odessa.
I spent the weekend hanging out in both Midland and Odessa. Erev Shabbat services on Friday night were at the synagogue in Odessa. I was also hosted overnight in Odessa. A community lunch the next day was held in Midland. Havdalah was at a community member’s home in Midland. I went on a tour of the “Petroplex” with a community member, exploring both Midland and Odessa (including George W. Bush’s childhood home). Religious school on Sunday was in Midland. Last but not least, I was taken to the airport on Sunday afternoon, located smack dab between Midland and Odessa, to spend a little time at the oil fields.
In no place is the symbiotic relationship between Midland and Odessa more obvious than in the Jewish life. There are separate school districts for Midland and Odessa. There are separate Walmarts and other businesses of the like for the two cities. But there is only one synagogue – Temple Beth El, and it draws people from both Midland and Odessa, to observe Jewish traditions, and also to celebrate a longstanding Jewish presence in the Permian Basin.
The Jewish community, small but dedicated, consists of approximately 65 families. There are 8 students in the religious school, all enthusiastic and eager young Jewish children. I had a wonderful time teaching students about the Jewish obligation to social justice and tikkun olam.
You may have noticed that lately at your local gas pump prices have gone down. Some places in the country have even seen prices well below $2. Midland/Odessa is the hub of this gas gala that has led to plummeting petrol prices nationwide. Jews were initially attracted to the Permian Basin in the early 1900s for its oil industry… and while this post isn’t intended to be a plug for Jews to move to Midland/Odessa, hey, if you like the oil industry, this may be the place for you. The Jewish community there really is lovely.
Speaking of lovely Jewish communities you may not have visited… I look forward to sharing the stories of some of my upcoming visits here, there, and everywhere in the Jewish South— with all of you!
There’s a slight curve to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The curve means that you can’t see what’s beyond the bridge until you are halfway across it.
This weekend, I participated in a walk across the bridge, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Because of the size of the crowd, it took at least an hour to slowly shuffle up that bridge, staring at the block letters spelling out the name of the KKK Grand Dragon it honors. When I finally crested the top, and was able to see past the curve, I was surprised by the sea of people swarming on the other side.
This weekend, the people on the other side were peaceful, wandering past vendor booths and a concert stage. But I realized that fifty years ago, when the original marchers began walking up that bridge, they had no way to know what was on the other side either… and still they kept marching.
Our morning started at Congregation Mishkan Israel, where hundreds had gathered to commemorate Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. There are only about ten Jews living in Selma today, yet almost every seat in the synagogue sanctuary was filled. People came from all over the country, including a group from North Carolina that had traveled all night by bus, and were hours away from an equally long trip home.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, was the star of the show. In 1965, after marching, he famously said he felt as though his feet were praying. His daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, addressed the crowd in 2015. She offered some context for that famous quote: He may be lauded today as a Jewish hero, but he wasn’t at the time; most Jews responded to his involvement in the movement with confusion or even hostility.
Part of the reason we revere him today was because he stood largely alone at the time.
And that’s the thing. It’s so much easier to join a cause that’s already been won. There’s a reason the marchers of 2015 outnumbered those of 50 years ago by at least 30 to 1. While we were dealing with street vendors and porta-poties, they faced tear gas and billy-clubs. Real social change rarely comes with funnel cake. I got the impression those around me understood this fact. We were there to honor those who led the movement and celebrate their success, but we were also there to energize ourselves for the work that needs to be done.
David Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, reminded us that in some states it’s easier to vote with a gun permit than a college ID. In fact, almost all of the speakers at Mishkan Israel focused their remarks of the growing disenfranchisement movement in our country, and our duty to oppose it. It’s only in hindsight that poll taxes and literacy tests appear so blatantly evil. Plenty of people defended their use at the time just as plenty defend the elimination of early voting and same-day registration today. Fifty years from now, we will look back on the current wave of disenfranchisement and wonder what people were thinking.
Professor Susannah Heschel told the audience at Mishkan Israel: “Today we’re on a pilgrimage to remember, not simply to remember what we Jews contributed to the civil rights movement— no, we’re here to thank the Civil Rights movement for what it has given to us as Jews.” Her father was a religious leader who aimed to shock people out of complacency; to truly honor his legacy, we must still be willing to shock people out of complacency today. He spoke of praying feet, but he also warned that a consensus of conscience means nothing without “incessant action.”
This incessant action is still necessary. This is why we are marching in Selma still today. We must not only march, but also raise our voices against injustice still… even when we can’t quite see past the slight curve in the bridge we are marching across.
Tent: The South was an immersive learning experience.18 strangers got on a bus and trusted me to show them the Jewish South. Everything that we had worked so hard to put together was experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of adventurers.
I thought rather than tell you about our adventure – I’d show you the people and places, and describe a few of the surprises and lessons that we explored along the way.
Delta Chinese Reunion: During our afternoon at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, we received a comprehensive and entertaining overview and tour of the Delta region. We discussed the cultural diversity for the region and the influential Chinese population. After stopping for the necessary Fighting Okra memorabilia (surprise- everyone needed a t-shirt!), we made our way to the hotel, where it turned out the the Delta Chinese American Reunion was taking place, in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition on Delta Chinese heritage. What luck! Everything we had discussed about Jewish communities in the region aligned with the history of Chinese immigrants and communities, and seeing it firsthand further strengthened our understanding of how Jews fit into the story of immigrant communities living and working in the South.
David Feldman: David Feldman wasn’t someone we met, but someone we made a surprise visit to go see. Our Lead Scholar Eric Goldstein alerted me that he had a relative, David Feldman, buried in the Greenwood cemetery. Eric asked if we had time to visit. Based on the schedule, we didn’t. But this trip was turning out to be less about the schedule and more about following the interests of the group so off we went! We found the stone pretty quickly (it’s a small cemetery) and I watched as ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg took a photo of Eric with the stone. Eric mentioned that he’s not sure anyone from his family has ever visited this grave and Gail said she was honored to be a part of the reunion. I think we all had a moment like that on this trip, some small connection or moment that related us to the larger Southern Jewish story.
This trip was filled with people and places that I’m lucky to work with and visit frequently. But one of the main takeaways expressed during our last night together was how fortunate the participants felt to be able to visit these special Southern places, particularly the congregations that may not be as accessible in the next few years. I never like to use the words “dying” or “diminishing” when referring to these congregations, but rather the phrases of the congregants themselves who describe their “small” or “older” groups. We learned so much this week about the strength and warmth of a small congregation and the dedication it takes to continue Jewish life in rural areas.
Another participant mentioned that she was moved during our Shabbat experience in Tupelo when during the Mi Sheberach the congregants each gave reports on the well being of each of the people on the list. She felt a closer connection to the community and how important each individual member is to the life of a congregation. Of all the congregations we visited, we also got a sense that being a member here is almost like a second time job, whether it’s lay leading services or buying the toilet paper, everyone has a role and pitches in. Participants left the South with a charge to find ways to become more engaged in their own communities.
My own personal takeaway? I couldn’t help be feel that being on a bus with non-Southerners solidified by own Southern Jewish Identity. I may not have been born here, but I’m now a happily committed resident and realized during our discussions I more often support, identify with, and sometimes defend the Southern Jewish way of life. Whether I’m talking to a non-Jewish population about Judaism or a non-Southern population about the South, as an educator, sharing is a vital component of how I communicate.
And one last note that resonated with me came from participant who is currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. She said the trip made her realize that she is the next generation for that historic congregation. Many of our discussions spoke about the future of the Jewish South, and she so eloquently described the weight and honor she felt, continuing Jewish life in her community.
This is already a long post, but there’s so much more to share! I invited participants to share their own experiences so you’ll hear from them but you can also see some of this through their eyes on our Tagboard page. Maybe you’ll be inspired to come down for your own Southern Jewish journey!
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