Continuing with excellent posts from our excellent summer interns, history intern Caroline Kahlenberg considers the southernness of Alexandria, Virginia.
Two weeks ago, during our History Department research trip to northern Virginia, the same question continued to crop up: Is Virginia—and the northern border of the state, specifically—still considered the South? When we posed the question in our interviews with rabbis and long-time Jewish community members, the response was never simple. On some occasions, in fact, the phrase, “two Jews, three opinions,” took on a literal meaning.
Indeed, it’s a hard question. Defining the American South—and who is considered a southerner—has long been a topic of debate among journalists, historians, and social critics alike. It seems that everyone has their own criteria: some use the SEC football league as a guiding principle, while others prefer to base it on the sweetness of their tea.
Being neither a football fan nor a tea drinker, I turned to Virginia’s history to explore this question further. While discussions of southern identity surfaced in every congregation we visited, the city of Alexandria poses an especially interesting case.
Alexandria—today just 6 miles south of Washington, DC—was actually founded as part of the nation’s capital in 1791 and remained part of the city until 1846. During that era, Alexandria’s economy was deeply involved in tobacco production and in the slave trade. Alexandria was also the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. Not surprisingly, when the Civil War broke out, most Alexandrians—including the city’s Jewish citizens—were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Certainly, then, 19th century Alexandria aligned economically and politically with the Old South, and it remained culturally removed from Washington DC well into the 20th century. But in the decades after World War II, as the greater D.C. metropolitan area grew to once again encompass the city, Alexandria lost much of its distinct southernness .
Suburbanization largely explains this shift. In the 1950s, many federal employees moved out of DC and into the newly developed northern Virginia neighborhoods surrounding Alexandria, greatly altering the “Southern” character of the region. Alexandria, too, became one of the many “bedroom communities” catering to Washington. The shift also altered Virginia’s political landscape by bringing more liberal voters into a traditionally conservative state, which eventually transformed it into the swing state that it remains today.
As new arrivals transformed Alexandria into a suburb of Washington D.C., the Brown v. Board decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 brought new energy to the struggle for African American civil rights. Led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., most areas of the Commonwealth of Virginia engaged “massive resistance” to school integration. While Alexandria was slow to enforce the federal verdict—integrating in the mid 1960s—the city did come to terms with integration sooner than other parts of Virginia. Prince Edward County, for example, shut down its schools for five years in defiance of integration. While the history of Alexandria’s integration is neither a perfect nor complete measure of the city’s regional identity, it provides some insight into its demographic and cultural transformation.
Hailing from a suburb of Washington, DC myself (though on the Maryland side) I can certainly relate to this complicated geographic identity. Personally, I don’t call myself a southerner. And according to the native Mississippians that I’ve met during my time here in Jackson, I’m most definitely a Yankee. But in Vermont, where I attend college, friends and teachers quite often consider Maryland the South, or at least close enough to it; to them, I’m not a true Yankee. The South is relative.
So, is today’s northern Virginia still the South? Looking at its recent history, I’d say “not exactly,” but it certainly retains some Southern elements. In addition to the historic Old Town, the people we talked to in Alexandria, for instance, were extremely hospitable, something I’ve come to greatly appreciate in Mississippi. I can’t exactly say the same about northern Virginia’s heavy traffic, which had a certain “DC” feel. Ultimately, though its location on a map has remained the same, the area’s cultural, demographics and politics have become less aligned with today’s Deep South, and more so with the country’s Mid-Atlantic region. Overall, it’s a tricky question. Next time, maybe I’ll just try the tea.
Skype. Gchat. iPhone.
These are some of my primary tools in my modern Jewish education career.
Utilizing technology is important for pretty much all Jewish educators these days, but when you’re serving an entire region, they become more than enriching add-ons. They become absolute necessities.
I work as a virtual supervisor (not a term that was thrown around much back when I was in grad school at HUC!). That means that while I’m based in San Antonio Texas, the other ten people in my department are based out of the ISJL office in Jackson, Mississippi. When I first took on this role, I admit that I worried: what if my staff didn’t get what they needed from me. Mentorship is so important, and I want to always be a good supervisor to my staff.
But then I recalled my previous professional settings where I had supervisors who were sitting just inches away, and yet remained completely unavailable to me. I began realizing that meaningful connection isn’t just about physical presence, though that is important (and I do fly to Jackson quite frequently). It’s about mental presence. It’s about tuning in, and being responsive, and being accessible. Reachable, even if that means leaning pretty heavily on technology. Most of all, it’s about communication. And so that’s what I’ve committed to: being an always-mentally-present supervisor even when I wasn’t always physically present.
The way I work with my staff mirrors the way we work with our Southern communities, often quite far-flung, and ensure their positive Jewish experiences. My unconventional supervision succeeds because it fits with this model. My staff is constantly on the road, serving nearly 80 congregational schools. We guide hundreds of teachers and reach thousands of students, from afar – but again, thanks to email and messaging and video conferences, we are always in touch.
Each community we serve receives a weekly email from their fellow. We distribute a monthly e-newsletter from the department. We are on daily calls, webinars and Skype sessions with our communities. Most importantly, we see them three times a year, and we make every moment count. When we aren’t teaching or leading a program, we are celebrating Shabbat with families at their dinner tables, we attend birthday parties for the children of the congregation, and we schmooze in the homes of our host families.
We have the privilege of becoming part of the community – and technology helps make it possible. Particularly in a region like the South, where there are more small Jewish communities than large ones, and often many miles separating these communities, anything that helps strengthen connections and communication between people is truly a blessing.
Hmm. Anyone know a good bracha for kicking off my next Skype session?
People worry that this age of technology is creating distance between people. For us, it allows our impact and contact to be greater. How do you use technology to connect to others? We would love to hear your stories and comments.