Every few years, national reporters rediscover the phenomenon of the “disappearing southern
Jew.” This week, Seth Berkman of the Forward newspaper published a thoughtful, well-written article headlined “Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast.”
I am quoted in it, and Berkman seems to have also used the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities as the source for much of his historical background information. We were happy to help him, and appreciate any attention given to the plight of small Jewish communities, especially from the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue building in Meridian, MS, sold in the 1990s; an ISJL visit in Dothan, AL, 2013
Despite the accuracy and quality of the article, it has admittedly ruffled a few feathers down here. While the decline of the Jewish community in places like Selma and Demopolis, Alabama, and in Lexington and Natchez, Mississippi is undeniable, the state of the Jewish South today is far more complicated than just closing synagogues in small towns coupled with tremendous growth in big cities like Atlanta.
I was just in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Jewish community has grown by a factor of ten in the past fifty years. Boone, North Carolina recently saw the dedication of its first synagogue. The Jewish community in Dothan, Alabama has created an innovative program that has attracted several new Jewish families to the town, resulting in growth in the local congregation and religious school. Jewish life remains vibrant in medium-sized cities like Jackson, Mississippi; Huntsville, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and many others. The ISJL was founded in 2000 to serve the needs of southern Jewish communities, be they small, medium, large, or nearing extinction. I think it’s fair to say that our efforts have had a significant impact on Jewish life in the region.
The key to understanding the Jewish South today is a central trend: the movement of Jews out of the retail industry into corporate America and the professions. A new Jewish community recently sprouted in Bentonville, Arkansas because it is the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. Much of the growth in the Jewish communities of places like Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is due to the increasing number of Jewish faculty and administrators associated with the large universities there. Jackson has become the largest Jewish community in Mississippi in recent decades because it is the medical and legal center for the state. The Jewish dry goods merchants who once populated these southern communities have been replaced by executives, doctors, lawyers, and professors.
The dying out of southern Jewish communities is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written the histories of many southern congregations that closed over a century ago. It’s a trend that is neither uniquely southern, nor uniquely Jewish. Small town Jewish communities across the country have declined for similar reasons to the ones described in the Forward article. I recall reading a New York Times article several years ago about Lutheran churches in North Dakota that closed because their membership had dwindled.
Throughout its history, America has never stood still. Towns and regions have boomed and crashed. Jewish communities have been established and died out, usually tied to national trends. As ISJL president Macy B. Hart is fond of saying, “change is neither good nor bad, change is change.” My job as the historian of the ISJL is to ensure that despite these changes, these communities are not forgotten, that their part in the tapestry of American Jewish life is preserved for all to see and appreciate. We are grateful that the Forward has recognized their significance, and helped us in this endeavor.
There it was, in the news, soon after the results of the November 6 election were announced: bigotry in the spotlight, here in Mississippi, again. Headlines declaring a “riot” on the campus of the University of Mississippi (more often referred to as Ole Miss), with white Southern students shouting racial slurs and burning an Obama/Biden campaign poster. Black vs. white. Racial tension in the Bible Belt.
How do we encounter that experience?
There’s a long and complex history of civil rights in the South, and Jewish involvement in civil rights. Luckily, at the ISJL, in addition to studying and sharing the histories, we consider it an honor to have seen and participated in the great work of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation (WWIRR) in action. The WWIRR is located on the campus of Ole Miss, right in the center of the recent controversy.
This whole incident is in “our neighborhood,” but all the more so in the WWIRR’s neighborhood. And community reaction and engagement around this is in my wheelhouse, and something I – and hopefully, the readers of this blog – care about. So I reached out to Dr. Susan Glisson, Executive Director of the WWIRR, to ask her about the situation that has caught national attention, the realities, and responses.
Here’s what she had to say.
Malkie: The WWIRR’s Position on Racial Reconciliation includes an emphasis on the importance of language and “how it is often unintentionally used to blur, divide, and polarize what are essentially similar efforts”. As I was thinking about the ways in which to describe what happened on the evening of November 6th, I considered my choice of words. (Do I call it an occurrence? No, that sounds unintentional. I guess I should call it a riot, but was it a riot? Does the word “protest” capture what took place?) Each word seems blurry in its own way. How might you describe what took place on the Ole Miss campus?
Dr. Glisson: I can only say now that one of the participants described his participation in the event as “defending his beliefs” in “the Republican side of campus, the Confederate side of campus.” So, I think it is clear that racial fears underlie what happened Tuesday night.
Malkie: You informed us that a walk took place on campus called We Are One Mississippi Candlelight Walk. Were you able to attend? What was the tone and message of this walk?
Dr. Glisson: I was there. It was serious and reflective, resolved and hopeful. The message is that love is greater than hate and that we refuse to go back to any old regime of bigotry.
Malkie: For some, these events will serve as an indicator that racism in Mississippi is pervasive. How would you respond to an individual who draws this conclusion?
Dr. Glisson: The results of the election clearly show that we are the most racially polarized we have ever been. Racism is pervasive throughout the country and I think the only question may be about degrees. We ALL have much work to do.
Malkie: Our blog is called “Southern and Jewish.” What would you like Jews in the South to know about the work of the Winter Institute?
Dr. Glisson: The Winter Institute works in communities and classrooms, in Mississippi and beyond, to support a movement of racial equity and wholeness as a pathway to ending and transcending all division and discrimination based on difference.
Malkie: Can you share ways in which you think Jews in the South can play a role in advancing racial reconciliation?
Dr. Glisson: There is a rich history of collaboration between Jews and civil rights activists; I hope we can rekindle that connection through dialogue and community building to repair the wounds of the past.
What are your thoughts on this incident? What do you think is the most constructive way for communities to come together to “repair the wounds of the past”?
Hey girl! I read the open letter written to you by that rabbi in Dallas. You know, the one where he claims you’re not really a Jewish woman? ‘Cause apparently unless you’re married (presumably to a dude of Jewish descent), raising Jewish kids, refraining from “making public what is private”… the list goes on and on, but the point is: according to him, you’re not actually a Jewish woman.
And oh yeah, since you’re being cheeky while also not meeting certain critical fertility-related requirements, and therefore are not really a Jewish woman, you MUST REFRAIN FROM co-opting, referring to, or riffing on any “traditional Jewish terminology … because to do so is a lie.”
Like, that video you made encouraging folks to get out to the ballots? “Let My People Vote”? According to the letter, cease and desist, yo! You can’t use phrases like that! They rip off the Bible. You’re not really Jewish, he claims, so you have no right to such sacrilegious wordplay! More than two million views and energizing young voters, be damned! (I mean, for real. That’s what he said. Sigh.)
Well, I understand that religious differences abound. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the Texas rabbi, only two states over from me as I sit here in Mississippi. Instead, I wanted to reach out to you, to let you know that I feel your pain. ‘Cause according to him, I’m not a Jewish woman, either. Maybe I’m really a small Irish boy who practices Jain! Who knows? I am not what I thought I was!
I’m afraid a mass identity crisis may well be on the horizon. Because I’m pretty sure a lot of us ladies who thought we were Jewish – snarky, single-past-30, social-justice-oriented – just learned that we’re outta the tribe.
I guess what I’m saying is, I’m in your tribe.
So, um, what are you doing next week? Want to go get some coffee and compare comedy bits and dating advice? We can meet up wherever it is that the tribe of Make-’Em-Laugh-and-Make-a-Difference, Oops-Always-Thought-We-Were-Being-Our-Authentic-Jewish-Selves chicks are allowed to hang out.
(Also, let’s come up with a catchier name for our tribe.)
PS Your dad’s responses to the piece were totally awesome, even if NSFW. Guess that runs in the family! He can be in our club, even if he’s not a Formerly Jewish Woman. I also liked him mentioning your rabbi-sister, who, incidentally, was a mentor of mine in college. Small world, huh?