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.
Today’s reflective post comes from Education Fellow Lex Rofes.
The end of summer can be a whirlwind for ISJL Education Fellows, as many of us spend the majority of our time traveling throughout the Southern region, getting to know Southern Jewish communities and preparing for the upcoming year of religious school. It is an incredibly exciting experience, and it has really energized us, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, and still, now – throughout the remaining autumn Jewish holidays. Wonderful as energy is, though, at times reflection is what we crave.
Thus, while in Houston with two other Education Fellows, we decided to take a couple minutes away from the excitement to engage in a little bit of meditation and self-reflection. Now, we could have done this just about anywhere – no specific venue is required to be introspective, nor are there any necessary supplies. But we had heard about a fascinating place called the Rothko Chapel, a multi-faith center for contemplation and prayer, and we decided it might be worth checking out.
We were not disappointed.
The Rothko Chapel is truly one-of-a-kind. As we walked into the lobby, the first thing we did was sign in to the Chapel’s guest book. Looking at earlier visitors, we saw people from all around the country. We proudly added our names, and our home base of Jackson, Mississippi, to this vast and varied list of places, and we headed towards the prayer space.
At its entrance, there were a number of books, humbly resting side by side. Some might not think much of this, but it certainly caused me to stop and think. Next to one another were traditional holy texts from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and others. They were carefully placed side by side, with none taking precedence over the others. Implicit to me was the idea that none of them was “more correct” or “truer” than the others. This table made me stop in awe, because on it lay eight or nine texts that are, together, the basis for thousands and thousands of years of tradition, all over the world. There they were, quiet and ancient, for all to explore, analyze, study, or question.
What struck me about these books even more was that they were very well-worn. Where the covers might once have been shiny, they were now a little bit duller. Some of the pages were a little yellowed, and maybe even torn a little bit. I thought about this not because it makes the texts any less beautiful. On the contrary, I think it adds a great deal to them. There is something unbelievably tragic about a brand new book, impeccably shiny, being placed on a shelf only to go unused for years and years. These, however, through daily exploration by visitors from around the country and the world, have given new wisdom and growth to countless people. They have earned their scratches.
Next, we went into the chapel itself. There were only a couple of others inside as we entered, but we spread out to a few different corners of the octagonal room. There were benches in the center, mats for those who wanted to sit on the floor, and, most interestingly, fourteen black paintings on the walls. The paintings set the tone for a space that felt incredibly spiritual. I sat there for a while, my mind wandering from the texts in the lobby to how I might best do teshuvah (repentance) over the High Holidays, and eventually, to nothing. I sat there and thought about nothing for the first time in almost forever.
After awhile, the other Fellows and I got up to go. We rose at precisely the same moment, without speaking or gesturing, despite the fact that we had been facing in different directions and did not know exactly where the others were.
Visiting this chapel was an unbelievable experience. Through the texts, I saw quite literally what it looks like when Judaism exists peacefully, side by side, with other world religions. It reminded me of the delicate balancing act we engage in as we attempt to maintain a level of Jewish distinctiveness while simultaneously playing a role in the betterment of the world more generally. As we walked out of the building, I returned to my work for the ISJL, an organization adeptly and simultaneously carrying out both of those missions.
L’shanah tovah, y’all.
At the ISJL, we’re often asked about all things “Southern” and “Jewish” – so it was no surprise that we received several inquiries regarding a recent article posted on JTA, headlined “Jewish newcomers bring optimism, but can they revive small towns in the South?”
Several of our staff members were interviewed for or contributed to the piece, but the question in the headline is still being asked of all of us.
My take? I think newcomers to any small town – the South, or elsewhere – can bring excitement, fresh ideas, and hopefully full participation in the Jewish community. There is certainly hope that with newcomers comes a better chance of long-term survival; this belief even inspired one group to offer Jewish newcomers $50,000 to move to Dothan, Alabama. We welcome newcomers, we see the optimism new residents can bring, but in the end, can bringing in new folks revive a community in the long term? That remains to be seen.
We are a transient society; people move around the country for any number of reasons: a new job, retirement, to be near family. It is wonderful when newcomers come into any community, bringing new ideas to share and making their mark in the community. It’s often hard to know, at first, if “newcomers” will become permanent members of the community for the long haul, especially in small towns. And if newcomers have children, will those children choose to stay in these small towns, or leave, as so many native-to-small-town-children have done over the years when they became adults?
In our daily work at the ISJL, we honor and work with Jewish communities large and small. If a community has one child in religious school or several hundred, whether they own a historic building or rent worship space in a church, no matter if their weekly Shabbat services draw 10 or 100 people, every Jew counts. No matter where they live. The ISJL helps connect these smaller population centers to the larger Jewish community, as well as to other small Jewish communities who are experiencing similar issues – diminishing population and resources.
Some of our staff are newcomers, but the organization is here to stay.
The truth is that some of these small towns in the South will no longer have a Jewish presence in the next 10 to 20 years. But the point is, however many Jews are in a community and however long they remain there, they deserve rich Jewish lives. So we will continue to provide support and resources to these communities as long as there is any Jewish presence at all – and when the last Jew in any given small Southern town is gone, we will continue to honor the memory of that community through the history collected on our Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities.
So the question remains: Can Jewish newcomers revive small towns in the South? In the short term, absolutely; in the long term, we don’t know. But no matter what, we will support the efforts of those old and new, transient or settled.
What do you think?