You may not picture central Mississippi as central to Jewish life. But every summer, one of the most dynamic Jewish conferences anywhere takes place in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every June, Jewish educators from throughout the South, and great presenters from around the country, gather together for three days of learning, networking, celebration and inspiration at the ISJL’s teacher training institute, AKA “the education conference.” While Jackson may not be known by most as a Jewish metropolis, and most folks wouldn’t guess that this Southern town is the location for one of the leading Jewish education conferences in the country, the simple truth is that if you come to Jackson in June, you’ll know it’s true.
That conference begins this Sunday, and as always, I couldn’t be more excited. Volunteer teachers, along with full-time educators, rabbis, and Jewish professionals from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and all over the region will sit beside one another, sharing challenges, sharing best practices, and of course, sharing meals. (Hey, you can’t have a Jewish event without food!)
I’m certain this year’s conference will lead to wonderful connections, great stories and plenty of what I like to call “goosebump moments.” For now, our team is working hard to take care of every single last-minute detail so when participants arrive Sunday, everything is in place. We’re watering the seeds and can’t wait for this blossom to once again bloom into beautiful life, nurtured in the warmth of a Mississippi summer.
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!
What began years ago has now become a very common event in our Delta community of Greenwood, Mississippi: we host a group from “somewhere else” as they tour the Jewish South.
The groups are diverse, find their way to Greenwood and the South for many different reasons. In recent years, as a Board Member of the ISJL and through my association with Rachel Jarman Myers—this thriving experience has grown and become something I’m proud to be part of with increasing frequency.
This past spring we hosted a number of groups. Two of my favorites were a congregational group from Syracuse, New York, led by Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Concord; the other was The University of Maryland’s Hillel organization. The Syracuse group was a warm, enthusiastic community that connected with our own. I received a lovely letter from the rabbi following their visit. Our shared love for our Jewish community was so evident, throughout the visit and in our communication thereafter.
The coordinator for the Hillel group, Amy Weiss, became a great email friend of mine as she planned this wonderful Alternative Spring Break Trip to the Mississippi Delta. Led by Corinne Bernstein, Anna Koozmin, and Noah Stein, a total of 14 young folks flew into Memphis and spent a full week in Mississippi. The trip represented a combination of service, experience, culture, Judaism, and fellowship. Our family farm in Carroll County served as their “base camp,” providing a wonderful refuge after each day’s service to the community.
The group invited our family and our shul members to Friday night dinner and services at our farm. The evening was just amazing… from the food, the fellowship, the services, and most importantly, sharing Shabbos with our new friends.
T. Mac Howard, founder of Delta Streets Academy, an initiative that identifies and mentors at-risk young African American men, was one of the Hillel group’s favorite work sites. An email introduction between T. Mac and Amy parlayed into a working relationship between the two groups.
The school benefited, the Hillel group experienced a component of life most had never seen, and connections were established that will all be for good. It was a win–win, and the perfect Tikkun Olam for the Hillel group.
Greenwood is a natural place to stop because of the amenities available: The 5-star boutique Alluvian Hotel and a variety of restaurant opportunities rival anywhere in the South, and the charm of our small community is unparalleled. Ahavath Rayim, our Greenwood synagogue, was founded in 1907; more than 100 years later, we continue to gather and we fully participate in Jewish life—Delta Style.
In addition to touring our shul, both groups were treated to a “walking tour” of Downtown Greenwood by Dr. Mary Carol Miller, a noted historian and author. Greenwood is surrounded by three rivers and for decades has been known as the Cotton Capital of the World. The Jewish presence in our community is wide-spread.
What’s the value of the experience? The values are as diverse as the groups we host.
To understand that a Jewish community does exist in the Jewish South, to experience some of the sites, like the BB King Museum in Indianola, the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and to visit the offices and meet the staff of the ISJL are all important components of the experience.
What’s so special to me is the relationship that we develop with these groups—although some we will never see again, we still form lasting bonds. The understanding and the conversations that we engage in as a result of these encounters are meaningful. To expose our “guests” to the Jewish life we live every day is important. We are unskilled and untrained ambassadors for our Judaism, as we reach out to the predominately non-Jewish world of the South. Hopefully, the “outreach” of these trips in small measure—makes this world a better place.
And if you’re interested in your own Southern Jewish Experience trip, contact Rachel Jarman Myers!