Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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Fully capturing the essence of Jewish life across the South can be tricky, especially in towns without a formal congregation. That’s why we appreciate when people reach out to us with their stories and contributions. Recently, a very interesting inquiry led to a rich research experience – and a fun road trip to Lake Providence, Louisiana.
Louisiana native Spike Herzog wanted to make some donations to our museum collection. His father owned a store, Galanty’s, which had been in business since 1896, and he was left with an array of artifacts. We just needed to come get them.
Museum coordinator Rachel Myers and I thought it would be interesting to do an oral history with Spike and his two sisters while we visited the store in Lake Providence.
After Spike’s father, Alex Herzog, bought Galanty’s, he turned it into a high-end men and boy’s clothing store. The store was famous for its fine suits, and people like comedian Jerry Clower would come in to buy his apparel. Galanty’s worked in tandem with the Stockners, who sold women’s clothing right next door.
Spike recalled that the store served as a gathering place for coffee and conversation. According to Spike and his sisters, a main reason for the store’s success was Alex’s dedication to treating everyone with respect, regardless of their race. After Alex’s death, Spike received a call from a retired African American teacher who told Spike that Alex was the first white person to treat him with respect and dignity.
Alex Herzog married a Methodist woman named Marian, who worked in nearby Transylvania as a social worker for the Farm Security Project. She then went on to become a teacher and eventually was elected town Alderman. Turns out, Marian’s stepmother was Dr. Grace Bordelon. After I did some digging, I found out that Grace’s brother, James Bordelon, was my great-grandfather! I was thrilled to find this connection, and it reminded me how interconnected these small Southern communities can be.
Although Spike and his sisters were raised in the Methodist church, they had strong Jewish role models in their family. They remembered their grandfather, Will, reading through his prayer book every Sunday. As children, they were exposed to Jewish cuisine and traditions at family dinners at their Grandmother Sallie’s house.
My first oral history experience since moving to Mississippi was fascinating. Not only did we learn about the captivating story of the Herzog family (incidentally, Spike’s real name is Walter—his sister Billie Hart nicknamed him “Spike” because she adored Spike Jones, the drummer!), but also we also learned about other Jews in the area.
After a trip to the local library, I was able to confirm that several Jewish families lived in Lake Providence, and most of them ran businesses. Lake Providence in the early to mid-1900s included Rosenzweig’s Grocery, the Good Luck Store, Fisher hotel, Coleman’s Clothing, Stafford’s Café, Pure Food, Kaufmans’s Haberdashery, Sol Stockner’s Ready to Wear; The Fashion Shop, Nevin’s Jewelry, Herzog’s, Leach’s Hardware Store, Smilow Hardware, Minsky’s Drug Store, Levy’s, Goodstein’s Furniture Store and Charles Perry’s. Leon Minsky and his son, Reynold started a pecan picking business in the 1950s that is still in operation today.
From their position as merchants, Jews became a part of the social fabric and dedicated leadership of Lake Providence. Three Jewish men served as mayor: Solomon Dreyfus from 1887-1888; Elias Stockner from 1914-1916; and Elias Leon Minsky from 1970-1974. Although Lake Providence Jews never established a congregation, many faithfully attended services in nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi, Greenville, Mississippi, or McGehee, Arkansas.
Although only a few Jews remain in Lake Providence today, the many who once lived there left a strong legacy in the community. I encourage our readers to keep sharing their stories with us so that we can keep providing rich and nuanced accounts of our Southern Jewish heritage. Some of our best stories start with that contact – like a phone call from a man named Spike.