On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.
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.
Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?