At my congregation in New Orleans, I teach an adult beginner Hebrew class. There are many different types of students in the class: Jews who want to be able to better follow the prayers in Hebrew during services; Christians who want to be able to read passages from the Bible in the original language; Jews preparing for an adult bar/bat mitzvah; and those in the process of conversion to Judaism.
Last week I fielded a question from a woman in that last group. Her question was not about Hebrew, but about Judaism: “I am coming to the Rabbi’s classes, I have learned the history and holidays and all pertinent information, I am learning how to read Hebrew… but I still don’t think I understand what it feels like to be a Jew. What should it ‘feel’ like?”
I invited her to attend Shabbat services with me that Friday night and sit with me so I could show her in live action what being Jewish feels like to me – how praying, hoping, and coming together with other Jews moves me, personally. She was hesitant at first; wasn’t there an easier answer? Could she “Google it on her own,” or figure out some other way to get this question answered, on her own time frame and by herself?
Quite simply… no.
Judaism is a communal experience. Yes, we can learn information on our own, but when we attend a class or have a study buddy, that’s when there is debate and discussion— and that is the Jewish way to learn. Yes, we can pray on our own, but when we attend a Shabbat service, meet and greet others, and pray together, we share a bond with our community like no other—and that is the Jewish way to pray. Judaism is, above all, a shared experience. No matter how big or small our Jewish community, the fact that we come together is meaningful.That sense of connection—that is the way to “feel Jewish.”
I don’t know if there is a way to teach someone a feeling, but when you show them how you feel things and where you feel things and why, they begin to understand and maybe can feel it for themselves. My student did come to services last Friday night, and sat beside me. After being nervous about the initial peer pressure to get up and greet someone that you don’t know, she participated. After experiencing the connections, right from the beginning of the worship experience, she said to me: “This really is a communal experience.”
Quite simply… yes.
We use the phrase “transplants” often down here—referring to the “Yankees” who for one reason or another found themselves down South. (Transplants like… me.)
In the Southern Jewish communities with which I interact, the transplants are often people who, though lacking “deep Southern roots,” have stepped up as local leaders. They step up alongside those with the deep Southern roots, the ones who have been leaders in their communities for multiple generations. Both the transplants and the long-term residents share an appreciation of and dedication to Jewish communal life—but for the transplants, this passion is often newfound. Even if they weren’t as active “Up North,” they end up serving as leaders in their Southern congregation, and ambassadors in their communities.
When I traveled as an Education Fellow, I would hear from moms and dads in small Southern towns who “never in a million years” thought they would be teaching religious school. In New York, New Jersey, California, places with large Jewish populations, there were plenty of people to do all the things that maintain a healthy and thriving congregation. In smaller communities, it’s more do-it-yourself.
So, what was I doing in Tarpon Springs? It began with a phone call from Joel May, a transplant to Tarpon Springs. But he wasn’t the typical “snowbird” retiree most of us picture when we imagine transplant Jews moving to Florida. Joel is originally from Jasper, Alabama. And while he has lived in many places since, he was a born and bred Southern Jew. He contacted me about a loan of an eternal light for their sanctuary, a process we affectionately call “re-planting”. Being from the region, Joel knew of our museum. He made the connection, and I worked with him and his committee to re-plant a beautiful ner tamid from Gemiluth Chassed, a congregation that had closed in Port Gibson, Mississippi, to his congregation in Florida.
For me, the experience of replanting a Southern Jewish artifact rich in value and history (the ner tamid was originally donated to Gemiluth Chassed, the oldest synagogue in Mississippi, built in 1892) was already incredible. Making it even more meaningful was the Southern Jewish congregant, Joel from Jasper, helping to bring this artifact to his new community. His new a community is one full of transplants, from many places outside the South, but all are now connected to the Southern Jewish experience. It is a remarkable testament to the contribution and quality of the small population of Southern Jewish communities.
My time in Tarpon Springs was lovely. Years ago, I was lucky to drop into communities every other weekend, but I had forgotten what a joyful feeling it is to be warmly welcomed into a new group of people. Food, music, gossip, what could be better! What I soon learned is that while the community was made up of transplants, they weren’t the typical New York Jews I was expecting. All the jokes I had written into my talk about Brooklyn were going to fall flat with the people I was meeting from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota. (Apparently the west coast of Florida attracts Midwesterners—who knew?!) I admit I felt foolish for coming with preconceived assumptions, when most of what I do each day is try to break down stereotypes of Southern communities.
But I was pleasantly surprised that many of the people in the congregation would find it easier to connect to small town congregational life like Port Gibson. I heard from people telling me about their families immigrating to the Midwest, opening stores or becoming fur traders, very similar narratives of the Southern story that I was planning to share. I listened and learned about the natural connections between Midwest and Southern congregations that I hadn’t previously considered before my visit. This made this replanting all the more special.
The night of the dedication, I met a few people who had come because they did have Southern roots. A woman from Atlanta, a family from Brookhaven, Mississippi, a couple from New Orleans. I liked seeing them seated in the congregation, nodding along with my new Midwestern-ex-pat friends as I talked about the connection between the long and rich history of Jewish communities in the Deep South to the larger national Jewish population. Dedicating a piece of the Gemiluth Chassed sanctuary built a special connection through time and space between these two small congregations, a connection that is important for continuing to support the legacy of Jewish communities in the region.
This eternal light, the ner tamid, will be given the opportunity to shine again and serve a congregation, ensuring the ancestors of small town Jewish communities like Port Gibson will not be forgotten… well, I get goosebumps just thinking about it! I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful celebration.
I recently came across this list of the “most and least Jewish states.” The list is derived from a study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). Wyoming was denoted as the least Jewish state, measuring 23 Jewish individuals per 100,000 people. New York, of course, was the “most Jewish state,” with a whopping 4,046 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people.
My current state, Mississippi (ranked once again as the most religious state in a recent Gallop poll), boasts 43 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. That places it at #46 on the list.
People tend to have a lot of negative assumptions about being Jewish in Mississippi. In all honesty, despite being a native Texan, I was a little hesitant about moving to the Magnolia State from New York City. I had lived in the “most Jewish state” for five years; my alma mater, NYU, had a thriving Hillel and large Jewish community, and it didn’t take much effort for me to be involved in Jewish life. Down here in the heart of Dixie, the scene is different—but it’s really quite lovely. Several trips to the Delta as this winter began reminded me why that is so true.
Here’s the thing: Jews in Mississippi have historically had to work pretty hard to maintain their Jewish identity. For instance, the ISJL’s founder and president, Macy B. Hart, would ride 80 miles with his family from Winona, Mississippi, to Temple Adath Israel in Cleveland, Mississippi to attend services and go to religious school. In the early 1960s, Cleveland had one of the largest temple youth groups in the state, with its membership including Jewish youth from many small surrounding Delta towns. Devoted Jews from smaller towns across the state made those long drives to participate in Jewish life in places across the state like Cleveland, Greenville, and Greenwood.
Though few in number these days, all three of those towns still hold services, thanks to dedicated community members that put in a lot of effort to maintain Jewish religious practice. I got to see this firsthand on my recent visits to the Delta — place like Greenwood, Mississippi, where ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg and her family work tirelessly to keep her congregation, Ahavath Rayim, going strong. Her family’s commitment there is downright inspirational.
I also attended services at Adath Israel in Cleveland led by Rabbi Harry Danziger, retired now after a long career in Memphis. The service was intimate, and the congregation was most welcoming. They typically hold a potluck following services—the week I was there, they served fried chicken and latkes. What could be better?
The Chanukah party at Hebrew Union in Greenville, Mississippi, was joyful. Every year, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt prepare 30 pounds of brisket for the part, and everyone helps out making latkes. I got in on the latke-making action, too. (This was my first time making them. I don’t cook, but they weren’t too bad!) Another delightful Delta visit.
Mississippi may not have a lot of Jews, but the ones that call the state home have, in my experience, been steadfast, loyal, and most of all, kind. It seems to me there’s more than one way to calculate “most Jewish”—it’s not just the number of people, it’s the amount of enthusiastic Jewish life. We have plenty of it here. If you haven’t already been, y’all come on down and visit us in the Magnolia State!