On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.
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?
On a recent pit stop I made in a rural part of Tennessee, I found an unexpected statement. There, in the “middle-of-somewhere,” I came across a plastic toilet-paper dispenser with the words “The Jew Was Here” scrawled across it. Seeing this scrawl, a question barked at me.
But “ Why in the world…?!” was not the question I heard.
After all, when you see a simple message like that, why ask why? It seems human enough to want to leave a lasting mark on this world, so that when our finite lives come to their inescapable end, something of us will remain, something that says: “I was here. I mattered.”
However, a statement like “The Jew Was Here,” left on a roadside toilet-paper dispenser may not be the lasting message we desire. Those who come later will undoubtedly question: “What does it say about the person who was here, some person now gone?”
Does it say that his/her life was as fragile as single-ply or simply went round and round until it finally went down?
Clearly, not! And the reason I’m dead certain of this is because the entirety of anyone’s life cannot be captured in such a quick scribble as “I was here.” Rather, to adequately gain a glimpse of our existence, one must look to things more lasting. We must look to the children we teach, and the love we share, and the lessons we impart. We must look to our communities strengthened and our contributions made. Those places are where the impression of us remains, and will – God willing – continue to be seen for generations to come.
So, in the public restroom in Tennessee, the question I walked out of the stall with was not “why” but “what?”
What shall be the mark we will leave? Shall it be a scrawled graffiti scar, which time (and a little elbow-grease) will eventually erase? Or, will it be a work of art, celebrated throughout the ages?
That is up to you. After all, your life is a pen, moving over the living, breathing text known as the world. So, please, step right up and leave your mark, because you are here… and you matter!