Today’s guest post comes from our friend Andrea Levy, a fairly recent transplant to Jonesboro, Arkansas. Thanks for sharing your lovely words, Andrea!
It is Friday morning. I am sitting at my kitchen table. I have a big smile on my face as I work on my bible study lesson for this coming Wednesday. My mother called this morning to make sure the storm wasn’t too bad last night. After the time we had to run twice to the safe room because of tornadoes, there is constant worry (such is the lot of a Jewish Mother).
The location where these tornadoes threatened? Jonesboro, Arkansas. The bible study I’m preparing to lead? A session on Jewish Holidays for the First Christian Church of Jonesboro this coming Wednesday. How the world turns.
Last Sunday, I led our synagogue service observing Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atz’maut, and sending a wonderful couple off to northwest Arkansas at an evening service followed by an Israeli themed potluck dinner with falafel, hummus, Israeli salad, pita and more. The cake had an Israeli flag on it—I wonder what Kroger thought of that?
And the Monday before that? The President of our synagogue, David Levenbach, and I participated in Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah to us) at the Southwest Church of Christ. The program was so moving, with approximately 20 biographies of people during the time of the Holocaust portrayed by other participants provided by the US Holocaust Museum, and a short film also by the museum. David and I read prayers from Gates of Prayer.
I’m not a rabbi, by the way. I’m just a member of a small Southern congregation, and this is what you do.
So back to the bible study. I was invited to lead the bible study session this week at the First Christian Church, to talk about Jewish Holidays. I have been preparing for this feverishly, as I want to make sure to make this session is engaging and interactive. I am bringing show and tell items and some special foods with me—challah, matzah, and macaroons. I have been learning things about our holidays that I did not know before my preparations—the Torah citations for some of the holidays, the explanations behind the traditions, and most importantly why we know Shabbat falls on Friday night/Saturday.
So the smile on my face? Well, it’s both appreciation and amusement… because if I had stayed where I grew up, this wouldn’t be how I spent my morning.
I grew up in Highland Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago with a large Jewish population. Now, my family and I have meandered our way to a much smaller town of 70,000, with a very small Jewish community (we were so happy to get 25 last Sunday!)—Jonesboro, Arkansas. If we hadn’t, I would not be sitting here working on my bible study lesson for next Wednesday.
Funny, but true: Sometimes when you leave a big Jewish community, Judaism becomes an even bigger part of your life.
At the ISJL, we’re often asked about all things “Southern” and “Jewish” – so it was no surprise that we received several inquiries regarding a recent article posted on JTA, headlined “Jewish newcomers bring optimism, but can they revive small towns in the South?”
Several of our staff members were interviewed for or contributed to the piece, but the question in the headline is still being asked of all of us.
My take? I think newcomers to any small town – the South, or elsewhere – can bring excitement, fresh ideas, and hopefully full participation in the Jewish community. There is certainly hope that with newcomers comes a better chance of long-term survival; this belief even inspired one group to offer Jewish newcomers $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama. We welcome newcomers, we see the optimism new residents can bring, but in the end, can bringing in new folks revive a community in the long term? That remains to be seen.
We are a transient society; people move around the country for any number of reasons: a new job, retirement, to be near family. It is wonderful when newcomers come into any community, bringing new ideas to share and making their mark in the community. It’s often hard to know, at first, if “newcomers” will become permanent members of the community for the long haul, especially in small towns. And if newcomers have children, will those children choose to stay in these small towns, or leave, as so many native-to-small-town-children have done over the years when they became adults?
In our daily work at the ISJL, we honor and work with Jewish communities large and small. If a community has one child in religious school or several hundred, whether they own a historic building or rent worship space in a church, no matter if their weekly Shabbat services draw 10 or 100 people, every Jew counts. No matter where they live. The ISJL helps connect these smaller population centers to the larger Jewish community, as well as to other small Jewish communities who are experiencing similar issues – diminishing population and resources.
Some of our staff are newcomers, but the organization is here to stay.
The truth is that some of these small towns in the South will no longer have a Jewish presence in the next 10 to 20 years. But the point is, however many Jews are in a community and however long they remain there, they deserve rich Jewish lives. So we will continue to provide support and resources to these communities as long as there is any Jewish presence at all – and when the last Jew in any given small Southern town is gone, we will continue to honor the memory of that community through the history collected on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
So the question remains: Can Jewish newcomers revive small towns in the South? In the short term, absolutely; in the long term, we don’t know. But no matter what, we will support the efforts of those old and new, transient or settled.
What do you think?
Imagine for a moment that you’re strolling down the main thoroughfare of a bustling city. The year is 1946, and a feeling of contentment surrounds you. All around, familiar signs and aromas fill the air. On either side of the street, stores with Jewish names flaunt their wares and hotels and restaurants advertising kosher meals beckon you inside. You must be in New York City, or Chicago-or perhaps you’re in Hot Springs.
That’s right: Hot Springs, Arkansas!
Thanks to the healing properties of the thermal waters that flowed from Hot Springs Mountains, by the early 1800s this town has already become one of the country’s leading spa destinations. Hot Springs Reservation, the first designation of Hot Springs National Park, was set aside by Congress in 1832 to protect this unique national resource and preserve it for public use, making it the oldest unit in the national park system.
Hot Springs was actually one of my first weekend getaways after moving to Jackson. The main drag downtown is lined with bathhouses, ready to provide visitors with the chance to soak up the water. I remember feeling like I stepped back into 1905 as my bath attendant led me into a large marble room featuring 6 different bathing/torture devices (they don’t call it a needle shower for nothing!) that a dozen half naked women were using to properly extract the medial benefits of the springs. It was a unique and memorable experience, and although my husband would enthusiastically disagree, *I* think you should definitely try it out!
While the Jewish presence in Hot Springs was firmly established in the 1840s, many more Orthodox Jews were drawn to the spa city around the turn of the century, as part of the great migration of East Europeans to the United States.
Over the years, as Hot Spring’s Jewish population swelled, kosher and kosher-style restaurants and hotels flourished. Among the was the popular Knickerbocker Hotel, pictured above. Robert (Bob) Gartenberg, son and grandson of former owners Leo and Peter Gartenberg, recalls the heyday:
“The Knickerbocker was a very popular kosher hotel and has a real nice restaurant serving kosher meals. At one time there were about five or six kosher hotels in Hot Springs. I can remember as a child going to the hotel for the pre Yom Kippur Meal; it was only a block from the Temple.”
According to Mr. Gartenberg the hotel closed in the late 1950s. The property became rental apartment homes for years, until it was sold again in 1974, vacated, and subsequently fell into disrepair. Today, all that remains is a shell, except for the Knickerbocker Hotel sign.
After being left in the parking lot of Congregation Beth Jacob, the sign eventually came under the watchful eye of Congregation House of Israel, until they donated it to the ISJL (Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) in the winter of 2001. Worn and faded, devoid of the formerly-bright neon, the Knickerbocker Hotel sign nevertheless has a proud legacy. Hopefully one day it will be lifted high again, so that all who see it will come to know the story of the Hot Spring Jewish experience.