Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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“Did you hear about the rabbi getting thrown out of a Jackson restaurant?”
Everyone at our office has been asked that by friends and family near and far, after the story made national news last week.
Of course we heard about it. Some may have even wondered if I was involved, since I am a rabbi in Jackson, Mississippi, and there are only so many of us. But I am not the rabbi in this story; it was my colleague Rabbi Ted Riter, the interim rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation here in Jackson.
Rabbi Riter went to a small Greek restaurant—one he’s been to before—and placed a to-go order. The owner made an anti-Semitic slur regarding the size of the side salad. The rabbi, puzzled, asked for clarification. Rather than change course, the owner just dug in deeper, asking if Rabbi Riter was Jewish. When he said yes, the owner responded by cursing him out and demanding he leave the establishment store. News of the incident travelled quickly, from social media to local media to national coverage.
The Jewish community sometimes gets criticized for being overly sensitive when it comes to anti-Semitism. History teaches us that, unfortunately, such heightened sensitivity is necessary – but it’s important to balance vigilance with reason. In a country as large as ours, there will always be individuals prone to words and actions that we find objectionable. As disturbing as these cases may appear, they should not be our real worry. One person’s ignorant comments do not represent an entire city.
Further, if we turn our attention toward every isolated attack, we give such people more power than they deserve while giving ourselves unwarranted and unending anxiety. Instead, as a Jewish community our attention must be focused at how these individuals are received, not just by us, as Jews—but by everyone else in our community. The reactions are even more important than the initial action.
In the case of this incident, there is an easy way to gauge the reaction of the average person. Most of the online press coverage allowed for reader comments. Anonymous internet comments are not always pleasant to read, and probably should be avoided in most cases. However, in this case reading the comments can help us understand how others viewed the actions of the store owner. Hundreds of comments appeared within a day of the incident. Here are some examples:
I am so sorry that this happened to you.
Are you serious???!!! How ignorant.
I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. Please know not all of the Jackson Metro area is like that!!!!!!
Let’s boycott this restaurant
Unbelievable…it makes me sad
Disgusting and an embarrassment to the rest of Mississippi!
Terrible. He does not deserve his business to be successful while treating another human being this way.
I will never step foot in that restaurant ever, and that is just awful. God is watching and I feel sad that someone would do that to that rabbi. I am never going to understand the ignorance of that owner. I want to wish that rabbi happy Rosh Hashanah, and blessings to him and his family.
Internet comments are rarely a source of inspiration. Yet, in this case these comments can serve as a gift. At first, Rabbi Riter’s lunch experience seemed like an unbelievable insult on the eve of the new year. But this unfortunate incident has turned into a blessing. We enter 5775 knowing that our neighbors are as appalled by this behavior as we are. People rushed to take the rabbi’s side and assure everyone, near and far, that this anti-Semitism is not a sentiment shared by other Mississippians. They have reached out to share their regret and show their support.
That’s the real story here.
May we be grateful to live in a country that both allows for people to say whatever they believe, and in which the overwhelming majority chooses to believe in righteousness, decency, and love. May 5775 be a year of increased love and respect among all peoples, here in Mississippi, across this nation, and around the world.
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This past week, two of my co-workers and I attended an interesting lecture by Reverend Ben Matin at Millsaps College, a small liberal arts school here in Jackson. The talk, “People of the Book: Sacred Text and Multi-Faith Conversation,” was part of their Friday Forums lecture series. Rev. Matin described a unique program that brings people of faith together to discuss passages of scripture from one another’s tradition.
Interfaith dialogue is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I was baptized Catholic, raised Protestant – Southern Baptist, to be exact – and as an adult, converted to Judaism. Helping people understand and appreciate difference has been a huge part of my career. When I was a high school teacher, I designed a comparative religion course that produced a lot of interesting discussions. As a graduate student at NYU, I wrote a book chapter that examined the Face to Faith Program, which uses video conferences to enable students of different faiths across the world to share their world views on issues of social justice. Examples abound of innovative organizations working to cultivate dialogue among people of all faiths and none in order to promote tolerance and understanding.
As an historian, my job is to educate people about Southern Jewry and their relationship with people of different faiths. While it is true that the South has historically been an environment steeped in Christian culture, there are so many examples of interfaith cooperation between Jews and Christians across the South. It was not uncommon for rabbis and ministers to do pulpit swaps. In Cleveland, Mississippi, Adath Israel’s Rabbi Danziger arranged a pulpit swap with the local Episcopal priest in 2013. Danziger gave a series of lectures to the Episcopal congregation and led the Sunday morning service. This sort of cooperation continues to exist among the lay community as well. When I recently talked to the Cleveland synagogue’s president, Ed Kossman, he noted that there are typically more Christians than Jews at services. For instance, there is a local retired Baptist minister who never misses a service. Synagogue attendance of non-Jews in other small towns with declining Jewish populations, such as Natchez, Mississippi, has helped to keep synagogues open.
That interfaith spirit was echoed by the Jews of Canton, Mississippi. Members of the Christian community there not only came but also participated in services. Because no synagogue member ever felt qualified to play the organ or sing prayers during services, Fanethel Wales, a Presbyterian, played the pump organ and a Baptist minister’s wife sung Hebrew incantations during services at B’nai Israel. A most intriguing evidence of interfaith cooperation can be seen in the formation of the Christian Committee for the United Jewish Appeal in 1947 under the leadership of J.F. Barbour, the father of former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. The fund sought to raise money to help Holocaust survivors still living in Displaced Person Camps in Europe. They urged the citizens of Yazoo City to donate money to reach a goal of $6,500, and they were successful in this endeavor.
Interfaith efforts actually helped to curtail racial tension in some Southern towns. Following the Little Rock crisis in 1957, Rabbi Ira Sanders formed the Ministry of Reconciliation which included religious leaders from across the community. After Eisenhower called for a day of prayer during the Little Rock school crisis, the Ministry set up a prayer rally on Columbus Day for congregational members across the city to pray for tolerance. They did this despite bomb threats. Estimated numbers of 8-10,000 people attended services including 500 Jews. In Lexington, Mississippi, town leader and Jewish community member Phil Cohen, African American Pastor James Rodgers, and other town members formed a coalition in 1978 to work out racial strife in the town caused by an economic boycott. Cohen and Rodgers held a prayer session on the south side of town square. Both black and white residents came, and the boycotts ended for good.
As we continue to update our community histories for Mississippi and eventually other states, I encourage our readers to share their stories of interfaith cooperation. And please, send along any other interesting stories as well. The Encyclopedia is a treasured resource for many people of all faiths, and your contributions have helped to bring this history to life.