I read with interest and appreciation Ben Greenberg’s recent post “Synagogues: Begin with Why.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about the same phrase, but substituting the “Why” with “How.”
I’m currently serving on the rabbinic search committee for my small Jewish congregation in Jackson, Mississippi. This process has compelled us to take a critical look at ourselves. The membership and leadership of the congregation has been asking a lot of questions. We are reflecting about what our congregation is, why our congregation exists, and how everything we do gets accomplished. What are the qualities we think are most important for our rabbi, as spiritual leader and perhaps executive director, to lead the one synagogue in our Bible Belt town? And what will make a rabbi want to bring his or her life into our community?
We are the only congregation in Jackson. Being the only game in town means there is no “shul shopping” to find the perfect fit for one’s family. The congregation must be the one-size-fits-all answer to everyone who lives here. This leads me back to the “how”. How can one congregation, with a very small staff, serve the needs of a diverse membership of 215 family units?
The answer does not begin or end with finding the right rabbinic candidate. The “how” has to involve everyone – all of our congregants who make this temple their home congregation.
All of our members must contribute, and I’m not just talking about money (although that’s vital to keeping the lights on). All must contribute time. All must invest in the feeling of community. Whether welcoming those who come to worship, teaching a class, planning a program, visiting the sick, answering phones, helping with office work, landscaping, preparing a holiday meal, organizing meaningful activities with the larger community… the list goes on and on. No one will do this for us, and no one should. We get out of synagogue life what we put into it. Without us, there is no “how.”
And then I think about some of the challenges of the smallest synagogues—those with 50 members or fewer. There are congregations where every member has a key to the building—because they are all responsible; members take turns ensuring there is wine and grape juice for Kiddush, and even purchasing the toilet tissue for the restroom. Many of these communities can no longer afford to have a full time rabbi, so their “how” is that everyone must contribute resources, expertise and time to make their synagogue a spiritual home, a place where everyone is welcome.
That is the challenge for us in smaller communities, but it is also our strength. It is what will make the right rabbinic candidate feel at home here, because they will be welcomed and meaningfully put to work—as are all our active members.
Synagogues: Begin with “why,” yes, absolutely. But we will only continue and be sustained, year after year, by all of us asking (and answering) “how.”
Tent: The South was an immersive learning experience.18 strangers got on a bus and trusted me to show them the Jewish South. Everything that we had worked so hard to put together was experienced, appreciated, and enjoyed by an enthusiastic group of adventurers.
I thought rather than tell you about our adventure – I’d show you the people and places, and describe a few of the surprises and lessons that we explored along the way.
Delta Chinese Reunion: During our afternoon at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, we received a comprehensive and entertaining overview and tour of the Delta region. We discussed the cultural diversity for the region and the influential Chinese population. After stopping for the necessary Fighting Okra memorabilia (surprise- everyone needed a t-shirt!), we made our way to the hotel, where it turned out the the Delta Chinese American Reunion was taking place, in conjunction with the opening of a new exhibition on Delta Chinese heritage. What luck! Everything we had discussed about Jewish communities in the region aligned with the history of Chinese immigrants and communities, and seeing it firsthand further strengthened our understanding of how Jews fit into the story of immigrant communities living and working in the South.
David Feldman: David Feldman wasn’t someone we met, but someone we made a surprise visit to go see. Our Lead Scholar Eric Goldstein alerted me that he had a relative, David Feldman, buried in the Greenwood cemetery. Eric asked if we had time to visit. Based on the schedule, we didn’t. But this trip was turning out to be less about the schedule and more about following the interests of the group so off we went! We found the stone pretty quickly (it’s a small cemetery) and I watched as ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg took a photo of Eric with the stone. Eric mentioned that he’s not sure anyone from his family has ever visited this grave and Gail said she was honored to be a part of the reunion. I think we all had a moment like that on this trip, some small connection or moment that related us to the larger Southern Jewish story.
This trip was filled with people and places that I’m lucky to work with and visit frequently. But one of the main takeaways expressed during our last night together was how fortunate the participants felt to be able to visit these special Southern places, particularly the congregations that may not be as accessible in the next few years. I never like to use the words “dying” or “diminishing” when referring to these congregations, but rather the phrases of the congregants themselves who describe their “small” or “older” groups. We learned so much this week about the strength and warmth of a small congregation and the dedication it takes to continue Jewish life in rural areas.
Another participant mentioned that she was moved during our Shabbat experience in Tupelo when during the Mi Sheberach the congregants each gave reports on the well being of each of the people on the list. She felt a closer connection to the community and how important each individual member is to the life of a congregation. Of all the congregations we visited, we also got a sense that being a member here is almost like a second time job, whether it’s lay leading services or buying the toilet paper, everyone has a role and pitches in. Participants left the South with a charge to find ways to become more engaged in their own communities.
My own personal takeaway? I couldn’t help be feel that being on a bus with non-Southerners solidified by own Southern Jewish Identity. I may not have been born here, but I’m now a happily committed resident and realized during our discussions I more often support, identify with, and sometimes defend the Southern Jewish way of life. Whether I’m talking to a non-Jewish population about Judaism or a non-Southern population about the South, as an educator, sharing is a vital component of how I communicate.
And one last note that resonated with me came from participant who is currently living in Brunswick, Georgia. She said the trip made her realize that she is the next generation for that historic congregation. Many of our discussions spoke about the future of the Jewish South, and she so eloquently described the weight and honor she felt, continuing Jewish life in her community.
This is already a long post, but there’s so much more to share! I invited participants to share their own experiences so you’ll hear from them but you can also see some of this through their eyes on our Tagboard page. Maybe you’ll be inspired to come down for your own Southern Jewish journey!
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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City. The museum, which can only be experienced through a guide-led tour, immerses you in the tenement story. Through the lens of the building itself, this museum tells the story of thousands of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries by exploring sections of one particular building on the Lower East Side that was home to many different people since 1863.
The tour I went on focused on the bottom level of the building, where numerous shops have rested over the years. As my group walked down the steps into the building, we were transported to 1870, to a German lager saloon. We learned about the couple who owned the saloon, their hardships, adopted children, the organizations they were members of, and imagined their lives in the very space we were sitting. Next, we learned about the kosher grocery store, the kosher butcher shop, and the peddler’s store that resided in the same space that was once a saloon.
As we learned more about each shop that inhabited this space, I thought about how amazing it was that such varied stories existed there—a German lager saloon, a kosher butcher, a lingerie store. I imagined all the owners sitting down for dinner together, discussing the hardships of owning a business in New York City.
I felt similarly about an historic building in Jackson—The Fairview Inn.
The first time I went to the Fairview Inn, I met with members of the selection committee for Jewish Cinema Mississippi, the Jewish film festival that takes place each January in Jackson. As we were drinking gourmet cocktails named for Mississippi authors (the bar at the Fairview is called The Library Lounge), I listened to the history of the bed and breakfast. The previous owner, who turned the space into a bed and breakfast, was William Simmons.
Simmons was born in Utica, MS in 1916 and grew up in Jackson, MS. He founded the Citizens’ Council in Jackson, which was a part of a network of white supremacist organizations. The groups opposed racial integration in the 1950s and 60s, using intimidation, economic boycotts, propaganda, and violence. Simmons functioned as editor and publisher of The Citizen, Administrator of Citizens’ Councils of America, and President of Citizens’ Council Forum. As a Citizens’ Council representative, he appeared on television and spoke to audiences across the nation. Upon hearing this, I felt a bit nervous in the space. I imagined Council meetings taking place where I was sitting.
But this place is now an entirely different sort of space: In 2006, the Fairview was purchased from Simmons by Peter and Tamar Sharp—a Jewish couple.
There is now a mezuzah on the front door, and Jewish organizational meetings often take place inside. This place is not The Fairview Inn of the past. Walking through the building, you can still learn about its history—but it is an entirely different space today.
Since I moved to Mississippi in June, I’ve had the chance to learn about the complex and inspiring history of Jews in the South. There’s something about living here I haven’t quite been able to put into words. While spending a few days with the TENT tour last week, Dr. Eric Goldstein perfectly captured what I’ve been feeling—he said that there’s an incredible weight of history here. This weight lends a feeling of significance and sanctity to sites that might otherwise seem ordinary. Sitting at the Fairview Inn, I think about the role we play in repurposing spaces, that spaces are shaped by the people who inhabit them.
Do you know the history of the space you live or work in? Does this history impact the way you experience that space today? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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