This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!
I recently solved a history mystery, and it started with a tiny pencil.
I was looking through a box of old minutes from Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, when the smallest, most dainty pencil, attached to a small ribbon, fell from a folder. It looked like something that would be found with an old fashioned dance card, or some an extravagant wedding idea found on Pinterest.
It was attached to a program from the 1927 convention of the Mississippi Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which had been held in Meridian that year. But then, moving my attention past the dainty pencil, I noticed that the pencil had been used to scratch out the April date and replace it with November. Clearly, the women in Meridian had spent a lot of time and money on putting together such a large gathering. I was curious as to why they postponed the conference till later in the year. After all, they had already printed programs! Why the date change?
It was a mystery!
Luckily, we have all the minutes from the Meridian sisterhood in our collection, so I was able to find the notes from 1927 to try to see what had transpired. It didn’t take long for all the light bulbs to go off in my head. You’ll notice in the page from the meeting on May 2nd that Miss Sarah Marks, President of the State Federation, announced that “the Executive board rules to postpone the State Convention until fall due to the disastrous flood conditions.”
The Flood! Of course!
The flood of 1927, which I have written about before on this very blog, had stuck again. In another letter, Miss Marks continues: “Due to the flood condition that prevented a large number of delegates and visitors from attending the convention and out of sympathy and respect due those vitally interested in Sisterhood work, we deemed it wise to postpone our convention until the fall.”
For those of you who have been involved with conference planning, you only imagine the expletives that didn’t make it into these minutes. But you’ll be happy to know that a few pages into the future, on the meeting of December 7th, 1927, the committee reported that the conference was a major success and that everyone was pleased with Meridian’s beautiful hospitality.
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just behind us, I thought I would share a little bit about the significance of these holidays from the perspective of historical research.
When I have only one day in a town to research the history of its Jewish community, I don’t have time to scroll through 100 years of daily newspapers on microfilm. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that help me to quickly find a needle (or mention of the local Jewish community) in the haystack of multiple microfilm reels. One useful shortcut is the “High Holiday Research Method.”
I have compiled a list with the dates of every Rosh Hashanah between 1880 and 1960 (thanks to Hebcal!). Usually, the local newspaper will have some mention of the Jewish holidays and often will describe the activities of local Jews. For example, in Lockhart, Texas, I found a mention of a short-lived Jewish congregation that met in a rented hall for the High Holidays in 1922, attracting Jews from several other small towns in the area. This Lockhart congregation did not last for long, and the tiny Jewish population left in town had no recollection of it. Were it not for my finding this Rosh Hashanah notice, this congregation may have been lost to history.
Newspapers from around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also contain ads run by local Jewish merchants informing their customers that they will be closed on the holidays. These ads are a great way of determining which stores are Jewish-owned, and offer insight about what we here at the ISJL call the “southern Jewish experience.”
One of my favorite of these ads comes from Meridian, Mississippi in 1942. Most of the town’s Jewish merchants banded together to take out one ad, announcing the closing of all of their stores for Rosh Hashanah. The sheer number of businesses, fourteen, attests to the important economic role played in Meridian. Also, notice that the ad declares that the stores would be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Clearly, these stores were usually open on Saturday, the best day of the week for business.
It was almost impossible for a Jewish merchant in Meridian to be shomer Shabbos and make a living. Thus, they had to adjust. In the early 20th century, Meridian’s small Orthodox shul held Saturday morning services at 6 a.m. so members could pray on the Sabbath and then get to their stores in time to open for business. And yet, as the 1942 ad attests, even as they adapted their religious practices, Jews were not willing to give up the high holidays. This was not easy. Indeed, several of these stores opened at 6 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah to try to recoup some of the losses they would incur.
Today, only a small number of southern Jews own retail stores and such ads are largely a thing of the past. Future historians will probably not find much value in the “High Holiday Research Method.” Yet as some aspects of the southern Jewish experience change, some stay the same, as many southern Jews still wrestle with the dilemma of how to maintain their traditions as a tiny minority living in the Christian Bible Belt.