Last week, I was on the road with TENT, a week-long traveling seminar on culture, history, and social justice for a group of Jewish twenty-somethings. The group started in New Orleans and finished in Memphis, spending several days in Mississippi along the way.
I accompanied the group from New Orleans to Jackson, and it was a privilege to spend time with such an intelligent, enthusiastic group of young adults. All but one of them hailed from the North, so it was interesting to watch them experience Southern culture and learn about Southern Jewry from trip leader Rachel Myers and their scholar-on-the-road, Professor Eric Goldstein of Emory University.
Some in the group had been to New Orleans, but none of them had been to Natchez, Mississippi, the second stop on our tour.
Natchez, a river port town in Adams County, sits on high bluffs towering over the mighty Mississippi River. Commonly referred to as “The Bluff City,” Natchez is one of the oldest and most important European settlements in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Its economy, firmly rooted in the cotton trade, prospered during the 19th century and attracted people from around the world seeking to profit from the trade. Goods came to the area from ports in New Orleans, St. Louis, Boston, New York, and even Great Britain. As a result of this great success, in 1860 Natchez had more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
Though past its economic prime, Natchez continues to attract visitors with its many historic homes and festivals that celebrate life in the Old South. Here, in the so-called “most Southern place on earth,” the group quickly learned that Jews flourished in The Bluff City for over two centuries.
Natchez has thirteen National Historic Landmarks and over 1,000 structures on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of historic churches are scattered throughout the city, including Temple B’nai Israel. The original temple was built in 1870, but burned to the ground due to faulty wiring. B’nai Israel’s new building was dedicated on March 25, 1905, with over 600 people in attendance.
A number of esteemed guests come to B’nai Israel to talk to us about the history of the Natchez Jewish community. Mayor Larry Lynn “Butch” Brown [named for two other Natchez Jews of blessed memory, Larry and Lynn Abrams] spoke about the many contributions Jews made over the years, and invited us to return to the city’s tri-centennial celebration in 2016. Mimi Miller, Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation, shared that the synagogue looks much as it looked in 1905. The bima, lighting fixtures, and chairs are the same. Temple member Beau Baumgardner informed us that lay-lead services are held monthly, despite the fact that the median age of temple members is 74. The congregation is fortunate to have David Goldblatt, a music professor at Alcorn State University, serve as cantorial soloist. To the group’s surprise, Beau also told us that often, more gentiles than Jews are in attendance at Shabbat services.
After visiting the temple, we met Natchez resident Jerry Krouse and toured his historic home. His adorable granddaughters helped lead the tour. Jerry has an exquisite collection of mid-eighteenth-century Rococo furniture and antiques.
Though small in numbers now, the Natchez Jewish community continues to shine in this historic gem of a city. In 1991, Temple B’nai Israel went into partnership with the ISJL (then called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience) to ensure their temple’s preservation down the road. B’nai Israel is now listed as a Mississippi historical site. In fact, the Historic Natchez Foundation has a riddle on their architectural scavenger hunt: “I alone am surmounted by a dome, but I have few members who call me home.”
The TENT participants visiting Natchez almost all came from towns with large, thriving Jewish communities. We were all impressed by the determination of the Natchez Jewish community to keep their Jewish traditions alive for as long as possible. It was a wonderful way to begin a journey through the Jewish South, and a good lesson: a community can be small, and still be thriving.
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Flashback: a few weeks ago, on this very blog, a post about Jewish conferences is published… authored by yours truly (shameless, right?). The piece was about how valuable such gatherings are – so valuable that they should be placed above sleep on our collective priority list. Just weeks after writing that piece, I found myself in Cambridge, Massachusetts for… you guessed it: another Jewish conference.
I was at Harvard University for the weekend conference, along with a few hundred others from around the country – in fact, 8 states out of the 13-state ISJL region were represented there! We had all come together for the first-ever conference of Open Hillel.
Open Hillel is a campaign that seeks to broaden the parameters of permissible conversation about Israel and Palestine at Hillel chapters around the country. Those who attended this conference feel that the value of machloket l’shem shemayim, spirited debate for the sake of heaven, should manifest itself even on the question of Zionism; that especially on questions related to Israel and Palestine, which often touch us in the deepest corners of our neshamot (souls), we should be open to a vast array of differing perspectives. Open Hillel believes that all Jews – even those who aren’t Zionists – deserve to be heard and included in Jewish communal conversations.
I learned an unbelievable amount at this inspiring event, attending sessions about human rights, the bounds of the Jewish “Open Tent,” even exploring issues like intermarriage and gender identity. I met wonderful students, recent college graduates, and older community members who were united by their desire to lay it all on the table – to staunchly debate the topics about which we disagree and, as a result, to grow in our knowledge of the issues.
But I had a funny thought while at this conference. Does it relate to my work at the ISJL at all?
The ISJL serves a geographic region; my department, the education department, specifically serves religious schools. The premise of our work is that every Jewish child should have access to an excellent Jewish education. We serve communities with twenty-five students, or five students, or even one single student. They receive access to the same resources that a community with 300 students gets. Every community is welcomed, and none is valued more than any other.
Open Hillel does not serve a particular geographic region. It does, however, serve a Jewish constituency, including a group which, like smaller communities, is occasionally overlooked: those whose perspectives differ staunchly from many Jewish institutions’ stances on Israel and its policies. Open Hillel recognizes that, regardless of any individual’s political stances about Israel, our Jewish institutions must provide a space for all to engage equally; that every Jewish person should have access to an excellent Jewish community.
I believe our Jewish community can and must uphold the ideal of “Eilu v’eilu div’rei Elohim Chayim” – “These and these are the words of the Living God” (Talmud Eruvin 13b). In Talmud, in our synagogue board meetings, and even at our dinner tables, we engage in rigorous debate about issues we deem important. Valuing and participating in debate is not merely part of being Jewish – it is perhaps the basic premise from which the rest of our tradition follows.
Though the focus areas are different, Open Hillel addresses issues of inclusion and empowerment– as does the ISJL. The ISJL knows that the existence and experiences of our wonderful Southern Jewish communities might be totally unknown in other places. Through our work, we build awareness and ensure that Southern Jews are viewed as a vital piece in the beautiful puzzle that is American Jewish Life.
Open Hillel wants to do something similar by demonstrating that harsh critics of Israel – even Jews who are not Zionists – are a crucial part of our community’s make-up. That so many of these people, who some might believe are just apathetic about their Judaism or actively “self-hating,” are as deeply in love with their Jewish identities as those who think differently. The goal these organizations have in common is to foster a diverse Jewish community that will thrive for centuries.
That goal can and should be our Jewish communal Torah. The rest is commentary. Let’s go and do it.
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In the summer of 2013, I left a wonderful congregation in North Carolina to pursue an exciting opportunity on the staff of Gann Academy in Massachusetts. Many of the rabbis I work with at Gann Academy take on added responsibilities during the High Holy Days, helping out at Hillels, chavurot, and synagogues in the Boston area. As we swapped sermon ideas and commiserated over cantillation, my colleagues were surprised to learn that I’d be spending the holidays with Temple Emanu-El of Longview, Texas as part of the ISJL’s “Rabbis on the Road” program.
Though I am familiar with the South, even I wasn’t sure what to expect from a community that would fly in a rabbi from 1,700 miles away, sight unseen, to lead their High Holy Day services. As I left the airport, speeding down Route 20 from Dallas, Kol Nidre playing on the rental car stereo, I realized that, for the first time, I was leading the entire High Holy Day service, and I had no idea what the minhag ha-makom [local custom] was in East Texas.
As soon as I arrived in Longview, however, I found everything I could have hoped for in a community: open and supportive, warm and welcoming. And in addition to the southern hospitality I’d been missing in Boston, I discovered one of the most dedicated collections of lay leaders I have ever encountered.
Though the Jewish population of Longview has dwindled over the years, a small cadre of dedicated families has maintained their synagogue both physically and spiritually. The temple building is not only immaculately kept, but also frequently put to use. While rabbinical leadership has diminished from full-time to biweekly to occasional visits from the ISJL, Temple Emanu-El continues to hold lay-led Shabbat services and dinners nearly every week.
Temple Emanu-El doesn’t just serve the longstanding members of the Longview community. As the only synagogue in a 40-mile radius, Jews – and the many, many local friends of the Jewish community – came in from the surrounding communities of Marshall and Kilgore. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I noticed young couples, new to town and far from home, joining the community for the first time.
Many families had a tradition of inviting their children and grandchildren to spend one of the holidays with them, and more than one family had three generations present at our Yom Kippur service. Practically every synagogue I’ve been to offers separate programming for children, so I was curious as to what the young people would get out of the service. Would they be bored? How would they respond to a worship experience that was not designed for them?
There were some naps, and yes, there were some meltdowns. But there were also helpers at Havdallah, Judaic crayon art created during the sermons, and exuberant demonstrations of cheer routines during the break-fast. Instead of feeling like the rabbi of a very small congregation, I started to feel like a member of a very large family.
My favorite moment of my visit was when, at the end of the Kol Nidre service, at nearly ten o’clock in the evening and following a lengthy, aimed-at-adults sermon, two young sisters shyly approached the bimah, nudging each other and whispering.
“You tell her!”
“No, you tell her.”
Finally, one of them said, “In part of your sermon, you were talking about Jonah, but you said Noah.”
So, they were paying attention…
Celebrating the holidays with Temple Emanu-El certainly kept me on my toes. It also showcased the dedication, commitment, and attention to detail of a community I might not otherwise have had a chance to meet. I headed home feeling that the Jewish future is in good hands. And that’s a great way to start the New Year.
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