Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Hank Bamberger of Utica, New York, who spent some time traveling in the South this summer as part of the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program. A version of this piece first appeared in the newsletter of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, and is shared here with permission.
“You’re going WHERE in July?”
We couldn’t blame people for reacting that way. The answer was that my wife Sheila and I would be visiting four small congregations in four southern states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas – with a side trip to the URJ’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, all this under the auspices of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – and all during the summer.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Klein, who had served as the rabbi in Monroe, LA, sent us an email assuring us that it would only be hot outside. No one else was that encouraging.
In spite of the heat concerns, we headed South – and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Wherever we went, we were welcomed with true Southern hospitality. Each of the two Erev Shabbat services I conducted drew about a dozen and a half people. That may not sound like many, but percentage wise, it’s a lot. Consider this: Congregation Meir Chaim in McGehee, AR, has only seven families on its membership list!
Adult education in three congregations produced slightly lower numbers (!) but great enthusiasm. Talk at meals ranged from dealing with congregational matters to local and regional Jewish history to, inevitably, mutual acquaintances.
We even made some time to be tourists. The Clinton Library in Little Rock is worth a trip in itself, and if you go, the Little Rock Zoo is very nice as well. Of course, we saw lots of countryside. In nine days, we logged just over 1,500 miles of driving.
To top everything else off, the weather was mild (for summer in the South). Since our trip occurred during the terrible heat wave in the Northeast, it was hotter in Utica, NY than in Utica, MS. Go figure!
In short, we felt that we had made a contribution to those small congregations which work so hard to survive. A great way to spend our summer vacation, and I encourage other clergy interested in the Rabbis on the Road program to contact Rabbi Marshal Klaven at the ISJL.
“Do you know a rabbi by the name of Abraham Joshua Heschel?”
The question was asked of me by Jean Jackson, a life-long resident of Selma, Alabama.
I was setting up in Selma that hot August Saturday preparing to officiate a Bar Mitzvah, and was a little caught off guard by the inquiry. I replied:
“I didn’t know him personally. But, who doesn’t know his enduring words from this very town, where he marched with Dr. King? In recollecting on that moment, he said his ‘feet were praying.’”
“Well,” Ms. Jackson responded, “when they weren’t praying, they were resting at my home. I hosted him for the night and the next morning I saw one of the most amazing sights these eyes of mine have ever seen.”
I grabbed my colleague Rabbi Matt Dreffin who was on the road with me for that trip, and together we listened to her enthralling tale:
The Rabbi came into my living room, where the Russian Orthodox Priest (also staying at our home) was sitting. They nodded to one another in reverent silence. Then the Rabbi put his prayer book on my mantle and recited his morning prayers. All the while, the Priest listened intently, prayerfully. When the Rabbi finished, he closed his book and took a seat. Then, the Priest stood up, went to the mantle laid out his religious items and opened his prayer book. He too recited his morning prayers, while the Rabbi sat there, intently, prayerfully, taking it all in.
Picturing this historic scene, we were mesmerized by her words. When she went silent for a moment, the real world returned, along with the warm, stiff Southern air in the synagogue building that had no air conditioning.
Then, Ms. Jackson added: “So, don’t tell me religions cant’s get along!”
I assured her I wouldn’t dare. After all, Heschel’s host had just reminded me of the powerful changes that happen when strong interfaith guests, hosts, and partners in progress come together in places like Selma, Alabama.
Rabbis and cantors from Central Synagogue in New York are about to hit the Southern road. Again.
It’s all part of the ISJL Rabbinic Department‘s Rabbis on the Road program. We believe that serving small and isolated Jewish communities is important. For years, we’ve encouraged larger communities and congregations to form partnerships with smaller congregations, in order to make rabbinic and educational services available to more people.
Recently, under the visionary leadership of senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Central Synagogue answered the call.
Over the course of this year, Central Synagogue clergy have traveled South, visiting small Southern Jewish communities. Three of these trips have already transpired, with more to follow.
Feedback from communities has been tremendous. Here’s one example:
“Dear Rabbi Rubinstein – Considering your schedule over the last few days, I cannot say enough how much in debt I am to you for making your visit to Selma happen. The only negative of your coming was it just was not long enough!!! But that is okay, when something is really good, you take what you can get and be happy! Everybody, and I truly mean EVERYBODY, was so happy and impressed with you. They took to heart your words of faith and encouragement, enjoying the high profile stories you passed on. People hung around the Temple ‘til we had to blink the lights to get them to leave, a testimony of how energized you left them. As our attendees left, they couldn’t say enough of how much they enjoyed listening to you… It was a great day for me, Temple Mishkan Israel and historic Selma, Alabama.”
The Rabbis on the Road journeys continue this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman will be visiting with the congregations of Am Shalom (Bowling Green, KY), B’nai Sholom (Bristol, TN) and Emanuel (Stateville, NC). Student Cantor David Mintz will be with the congregations of Temple Sinai (Lake Charles, LA), Temple Shalom (Lafayette, LA) and B’nai Israel (Monroe, LA).
These are transformative experiences for both the visiting clergy and the hosting congregations. We share our unique experiences, but are also brought together by our Jewish identity. Through experiences like Rabbis on the Road, may we continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in the South, and throughout the United States.