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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What began years ago has now become a very common event in our Delta community of Greenwood, Mississippi: we host a group from “somewhere else” as they tour the Jewish South.
The groups are diverse, find their way to Greenwood and the South for many different reasons. In recent years, as a Board Member of the ISJL and through my association with Rachel Jarman Myers—this thriving experience has grown and become something I’m proud to be part of with increasing frequency.
This past spring we hosted a number of groups. Two of my favorites were a congregational group from Syracuse, New York, led by Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord; the other was The University of Maryland’s Hillel organization. The Syracuse group was a warm, enthusiastic community that connected with our own. I received a lovely letter from the rabbi following their visit. Our shared love for our Jewish community was so evident, throughout the visit and in our communication thereafter.
The coordinator for the Hillel group, Amy Weiss, became a great email friend of mine as she planned this wonderful Alternative Spring Break Trip to the Mississippi Delta. Led by Corinne Bernstein, Anna Koozmin, and Noah Stein, a total of 14 young folks flew into Memphis and spent a full week in Mississippi. The trip represented a combination of service, experience, culture, Judaism, and fellowship. Our family farm in Carroll County served as their “base camp,” providing a wonderful refuge after each day’s service to the community.
The group invited our family and our shul members to Friday night dinner and services at our farm. The evening was just amazing… from the food, the fellowship, the services, and most importantly, sharing Shabbos with our new friends.
T. Mac Howard, founder of Delta Streets Academy, an initiative that identifies and mentors at-risk young African American men, was one of the Hillel group’s favorite work sites. An email introduction between T. Mac and Amy parlayed into a working relationship between the two groups.
The school benefited, the Hillel group experienced a component of life most had never seen, and connections were established that will all be for good. It was a win–win, and the perfect Tikkun Olam for the Hillel group.
Greenwood is a natural place to stop because of the amenities available: The 5-star boutique Alluvian Hotel and a variety of restaurant opportunities rival anywhere in the South, and the charm of our small community is unparalleled. Ahavath Rayim, our Greenwood synagogue, was founded in 1907; more than 100 years later, we continue to gather and we fully participate in Jewish life—Delta Style.
In addition to touring our shul, both groups were treated to a “walking tour” of Downtown Greenwood by Dr. Mary Carol Miller, a noted historian and author. Greenwood is surrounded by three rivers and for decades has been known as the Cotton Capital of the World. The Jewish presence in our community is wide-spread.
What’s the value of the experience? The values are as diverse as the groups we host.
To understand that a Jewish community does exist in the Jewish South, to experience some of the sites, like the BB King Museum in Indianola, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and to visit the offices and meet the staff of the ISJL are all important components of the experience.
What’s so special to me is the relationship that we develop with these groups—although some we will never see again, we still form lasting bonds. The understanding and the conversations that we engage in as a result of these encounters are meaningful. To expose our “guests” to the Jewish life we live every day is important. We are unskilled and untrained ambassadors for our Judaism, as we reach out to the predominately non-Jewish world of the South. Hopefully, the “outreach” of these trips in small measure—makes this world a better place.
And if you’re interested in your own Southern Jewish Experience trip, contact Rachel Jarman Myers!
Today’s guest post comes from Bob M. Schwartz, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. His thoughts can be found at bobmschwartz.com as well.
On April 28, 2014, a tornado cut a path of destruction through Tupelo, Mississippi. Many buildings were damaged and destroyed. Houses of worship were no exception.
A tree punctured the roof of Temple B’nai Israel. A few blocks away, St. Luke United Methodist Church was hit much worse. Thanks to an outdoor security camera, the world has seen dramatic video of the church playground being blown away. The tornado also tore off the roof of the church’s sanctuary.
B’nai Israel missed only one Shabbat service for repairs. At St. Luke, Sunday services for the 800-member congregation were held in the Family Life Center. But many classes and groups had to look for temporary homes elsewhere.
That’s where the story of friendship begins- or really, where it continues.
B’nai Israel has been an integral part of the Tupelo community since 1939. It is the center of Jewish life for a broad region stretching all the way into Alabama. When the current building was dedicated in 1957, it was a development supported and celebrated by institutions across northeast Mississippi, including many of the local churches.
Openness has marked the relationship between B’nai Israel and the churches that surround it. So it was natural that when St. Luke Church needed a place for its Sunday School, it would come calling at B’nai Israel. But there is much more to this story than just a convenient location.
Bettye Coggin of St. Luke Church is the primary teacher of what is called the Friendship Sunday School. It is an adult education class that includes about sixty congregants, mostly in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Three of the couples are “charter members,” having been in the class for fifty-two years. That is where the “Friendship” name came from.
In this case, that was not the only friendship that mattered.
George Copen is a past President and current Board member at B’nai Israel. His family came to Tupelo in 1954, where his parents Reuben and Dorothy Copen played a major role in the growth of the congregation. George attended school in Tupelo, and it was there in 8th grade that he first met Bettye Coggin.
Continuity has been until recently a hallmark of Southern life and Southern Jewish life. And even with the increased mobility of the last few decades, Tupelo and other Southern sites still seem to have a hold on the people born or raised there. So maybe it is no surprise after decades that Bettye Coggin and George Copen should still be in Tupelo, worshipping in buildings just a few blocks apart, serving leading roles with their congregations. They also continue to share the principle that in extreme circumstances they should get together to help serve their congregations and their faith.
There are differences in particular beliefs, of course. On the most fundamental of human concerns, though, those differences vanish in the face of need and service. Bettye Coggin points out that current curriculum for the Friendship Sunday School concerns the Old Testament, and studying that inside a Jewish synagogue adds a special dimension to the learning. While these particular lessons may not include Ecclesiastes, part of the biblical Ketuvim (Writings), that book has something appropriate to say:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).