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.
The intrepid BBC crew traveled with Rabbi Marshal Klaven, visited with community members in Jackson, Vicksburg, Greenwood, and Greenville – where they also attended the Delta Jewish Open.
It’s a great story, absolutely worth a listen and a read – particularly since listening means hearing the music, full quotes, and sounds of the South portrayed in beautiful audio, and reading the story means a stroll through some great images. The keen observations and reflections the reporter conveys move the piece along thoughtfully and swiftly. It’s a great piece, and for a radio piece, quite long.
But such pieces are never quite long enough to tell the full story. That’s why we’re grateful for this blog, for social media, for traveling staff and speaking opportunities and the chance for longer storytelling. The chance to share observations like this one, from ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg of Greenwood, Mississippi (who was interviewed for the story, and shared these thoughts after hearing it air and seeing the “End of a Deep South Way of Life” headline):
“The BBC story was a great tribute to those before us and for whom we ‘stand on their shoulders’ to move forward. With great respect to the amazing story, I offer my thoughts: My personal commitment to Judaism has been strengthened by our small community size. For my husband Mike and me, sustaining Jewish life here is not only a responsibility, but also a sacred privilege. Perhaps we are the ‘new’ model for Judaism. In bigger cities, when a congregation grows too large to be personal anymore, families splinter off and start chavurah groups or new congregations.
“We already are a chavurah. Our Jewish community is as personal, as warm, and as rewarding as they come. In Greenwood, we continue to gather and we continue to live full and committed Jewish lives. Yes, right here in the Mississippi Delta. Our synagogue is operational, our cemetery is well maintained, our membership is very engaged, our programming reflects our love of Judaism, our learning is ongoing and each of us feels extremely proud of our shul and our Judaism. We are connected to our community in many diverse ways, as has been the fact for over 100 years. Don’t say Kaddish for us yet. We have a lot of Jewish life left to live!”
And let us say, Amen. Those are our favorite parts of the Southern Jewish story: the stories of small communities still vibrant, of new and growing Jewish communities still small but growing in strength and numbers, of connections between communities, of pride in place. So much of that truly was captured beautifully in the BBC story, and we are grateful that through their telling of it, more people will hear about the Southern Jewish experience. Even as some doors close, others will open, and there’s always a next chapter to be shared.
“All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo
This line was quoted by Carol Penick, Executive Director of The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi at the opening of the foundation’s annual luncheon. This year, as the foundation celebrated its 10th anniversary, they honored ten “Women of Vision”. Carol pointed out that years ago, the time for change in the role of women had come– but while the time for change had come, it took people like these ten women who invested time, energy, and funds into making sure that changes took place in Mississippi.
The ISJL was honored to participate in the event, which honored our own board member emeritus, Kathryn Wiener.
As one of the women who helped start the Women’s Foundation, Kathryn Wiener has made a significant impact on the lives of women throughout this state. As pointed out at the event, the foundation has grown from a fund which distributed $6,400 to a foundation which distributed $506,000 this year. The Women’s Foundation is the only grantmaking and advocacy organization in Mississippi entirely dedicated to funding programs that improve the lives of women and girls statewide.
By ensuring the creation of the Women’s Foundation, Kathryn has been instrumental in advancing the economic security, safety and health of women and girls in Mississippi as well as their families and communities. In fact, it is because of the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi that the ISJL has been able to implement T.A.P.(Talk About the Problems) in Mississippi schools.
T.A.P., a conflict resolution program, provides a process through which students can resolve their conflicts peacefully. Girls who are selected to serve as peer mediators play a critical role in helping their peers arrive at a peaceful resolution to their conflict thereby improving the learning environment of all of the school’s students.
In addition to helping women and girls in Mississippi, Kathryn played an important role in the founding of the ISJL. Thanks to leaders like her, our organization now reaches a 13 state region, enhancing Jewish life for thousands of Southern Jews each year.
In his introduction of Kathryn Wiener, Dr. Robert Pearigen, President of Millsaps College told the audience that there isn’t a cultural organization in Jackson that has not been touched by Kathryn Wiener. Kathryn’s reach has been deep and vast. Kathryn is an example of what one individual can do to improve the lives of people in their community.
The ISJL is tremendously grateful to the Women’s Foundation of Mississippi for inviting us to participate in honoring Kathryn Wiener, a strong Southern Jewish woman. Seeing Kathryn, along with her nine “sisters in change,” be recognized for achievements that were undoubtedly hard to come by, was inspiring and energizing. We celebrate Kathryn, and her peers, all of whom chose to engage in turning the idea of advocacy for women and girls into a reality. We recognize the great responsibility that comes along with standing on the shoulders of such incredible women, and are honored to have been given the opportunity to be a part of the ongoing pursuit of positive change.