Today’s tale of Southern Jewish family, history, and a meaningful road trip comes to us from our summer history intern, Gabe Weinstein, in the last of our “summer intern” series of posts. Thanks, Gabe, and all of our interns for the wonderful work and great reflections!
My Grandma Ethel lived in Cleveland, Ohio for over 50 years, but she never lost her Alabama drawl.
The drawl was her trademark. Her thing. Ethel immediately left the South after she graduated college in 1946. and never lived beneath the Mason Dixon line again. But a part of her heart always remained in northeastern Alabama.
There are over 250 Jewish communities in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. Grandma’s hometown, Piedmont, Alabama is not one of them. It’s easy to see why when you drive down Center Avenue. The storefronts that once housed dry goods stores and clothing stores sit empty, waiting patiently for new tenants that will never arrive.
Grandma Ethel’s family ended up in Piedmont for the same reasons thousands of Jewish families landed in small towns across the south. My great-grandfather George Kass had the opportunity to run a dry goods store. After a failed stint as a jewelry salesman in New York, George packed up the family and moved to Piedmont in the mid-1920s. The move made sense: prior to the New York stint, George had run a dry goods store in Cartersville, Georgia, and his wife Kate had family in Atlanta.
Grandma and my Aunt Louise never felt alienated growing up as Jews in Piedmont. Their friends always came over to socialize and they were always welcomed in their friend’s homes. There was one other Jewish family in town, the Steinbergs, who owned a clothing store next to my great-grandfather’s store and had been in town since 1912. But they were close with their non-Jewish neighbors, too: up until her death in August 2011, Grandma Ethel kept in touch with one of her closest childhood friends from Piedmont, Elizabeth Ellen, AKA “Sis.” Continue reading
This past Thursday, my wife and I got up early, packed our car with trunks, suitcases, plastic drawers, and sleeping bags, and drove our two daughters to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Actually, at first we stopped outside the gates to wait in line with a hundred or so other cars. The “gate opening” tradition is a long one at Jacobs. People get there up to three hours early and wait in 95 degree heat. The kids walk up and down the rural road reconnecting with old friends from summers past. Many of the parents who are Jacobs alumni do the same.
Finally, at 11 am, the gates are opened, we receive our cabin assignments, and we help move our kids into their bunks and cubbies. As soon as we help them unpack, we are encouraged to hit the road, so the “magic” of camp can start.
I suspect this experience is quite common for parents who send their kids to summer camp. But there is something about Jacobs Camp that makes it rather unique. For many of the kids “walking the line” on this hot summer morning, the friends they reunite with make up most if not all of their Jewish social life. My two daughters are the only Jewish kids in their classes at school, and most all of their friends at home are non-Jewish. In places like Jackson, Mississippi, where we live, and other places like Hot Springs, Arkansas, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama, where many Jacobs campers come from, this is not uncommon. Each summer, my daughters look forward to experiencing the immersive Jewish social environment of the camp. For the past 43 years, Jacobs Camp has helped make sure that Jewish kids in the Deep South become Jewish adults, not something we can take for granted down here.
This function is no accident. In fact, it was the central reason the camp was created in the 1960s. Jewish parents from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and western Tennessee decided that such a camp would help provide a desperately needed Jewish peer group for their kids, many of whom lived in small, isolated communities. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to which most congregations in the region belonged, did not support the plan, fearing that the region’s Jewish population was too small to support a camp. But the small Jewish population was precisely the point for the camp! Once the congregations in the region raised the money and broke ground, the Union agreed to take ownership of Jacobs as part of its national network of camps.
No other camp has to attract anywhere near the same percentage of Jewish kids in residing in its region to fill its beds (nearly 30%!). The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named for the former executive director of Temple Sinai in New Orleans who died while the camp was being developed, was truly a grassroots effort of the region’s Jewish families. Because of this, there is a pride of ownership and a strong sense of connection to it.
Our forebears built the camp with the dream of providing a Jewish environment for the next generations of Jews in the Deep South. My children are now part of that generation. While much has changed in the Jewish South over the past 43 years, the challenge of raising Jewish children in an overwhelmingly Christian environment with little in the way of a Jewish peer group remains. And so each summer we continue the ritual of labeling shirts and shorts, pulling trunks out of the attic, packing the car, and walking up and down the line, eagerly waiting for the gates to open.
Do you have memories of going to summer camp growing up?
According to the National Jewish Population Survey, there are approximately 1.5 million non-Jews helping to raise Jewish families in the United States.
Certainly, this reality is prevalent in the Southern Jewish communities I work with, and we often face the question: “To what extent can these non-Jews participate in the rites of Judaism?”
This question becomes front and center as a family prepares for a child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. With its focus on the “transmission of Torah,” this event is full of symbolism. Recreating the Mt. Sinai moment, the rabbi often will take the Torah from the ark and pass it to the grandparents, who then pass it on to the parents, who finally give it to the child.
But, which family: non-Jews, or just Jews?
Obviously, this question is highly charged, religiously as well as relationally, both for the family and the officiating clergy. Because, how can one honor a child’s entire lineage while maintaining our unique Jewish legacy? Recently, officiating at a Bat Mitzvah held in a 100 year-old Mississippi Delta congregation, I approached the challenge in this way, attempting to honor both family and history:
“Here stand the generations of this Bat Mitzvah’s family. Though all may not be able to trace their lives back to Sinai, surely all have transmitted Torah to this child. For some, it was done through the written word. For others, it was done through action, as they maintained a life in accordance to the eternal values of our faith. There are those who say this is odd; our Sages disagree. For, they questioned, ‘Why was Torah given to the people on Mt. Sinai and not in the land of Israel?’ Because, they answered, ‘had God delivered Torah in Israel, the Israelites may erroneously think it as their sole intellectual property. But, as Torah was given in an ownerless place (i.e. the wilderness), it is and should always be open and available to all.’ [Numbers Rabbah 1:7]”
Thinking and acting as if Torah belongs to Jews and Jews alone would have been a mistake then, and now. Sure, it is our honored responsibility to ensure Torah’s existence from generation to generation, but we do so in order that others may have the opportunity to freely live by its lessons. That what’s occurring in this family, and so many others throughout the Jewish world, where non-Jews are actively molding the next generation of Jews.
So, we all must ask ourselves: how are we ensuring that the blessing of non-Jews within the Jewish community is being celebrated?
How do you (or your congregation) work to include non-Jewish community members in your midst? Share your thoughts in the comments below!