As a parent of teenagers, there are times when you make decisions for your kids and there are times when you empower them to make their own decisions. A recent conversation around the dinner table at our house included discussion of the upcoming Confirmation service in which my 10th grader Jacob will participate.
My youngest son, Eric, asked Jacob: “Why do you have Confirmation?”
Jacob’s immediate response, before explaining what Confirmation meant (which is probably what his younger brother was asking), was simply: “I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
I didn’t respond to that statement – at least, not first.
First, we discussed what Confirmation meant, perhaps not quite as eloquently as the explanation from MyJewishLearning.com: “The custom most commonly associated with Shavuot is the ceremony of Confirmation. The festival of Shavuot, because of its association with giving of Torah, has been linked with the study Torah. The ceremony of Confirmation was introduced by Reform Judaism in the early part of 19th century in Europe and was brought to the United States about mid-century. In this ceremony, the now-maturing student “confirms” a commitment to Judaism and to Jewish life. While boys and girls are considered to be spiritual adults by age 13, they are better prepared at age 16 or 17 to make the kind of emotional and intellectual commitment to Judaism that Confirmation implies.”
Then, we “discussed” the other issue.
“I’m doing it because mom and dad didn’t give me a choice not to do it.”
That’s right – there was no choice.
When it was time to sign up for religious school, we completed the paperwork for Jacob. It was not even a consideration that he wouldn’t participate. My husband and I believe that it’s our job as parents to give our children opportunities for learning. It’s also a larger lesson in taking an active role in the community. I would like to think that Jacob would have come to the same decision. I mean, what’s so terrible about having dinner once a week with your friends, and then spending some time with the rabbi discussing current events and learning more about Judaism and other religions?
Tonight, May 10, Jacob will join his six other classmates as they lead the service, share in the Torah reading, and discuss what they have learned this year. I am proud of him, proud that he understands that this is just one more step in his Jewish learning and his participation as a member of his Jewish community.
We don’t take the commitment and participation in the Jewish community lightly. Our confirmation class has seven students – not because students that age opted out – that’s the total number of Jewish kids in our community that are Jacob’s age! Out of those seven students, two students live out of town – in fact, they live about two hours away. Although they have Skyped many weekly sessions, they (and their parents) have also driven 4 hours round trip in the middle of the week to participate whenever they could. This is truly a commitment to Judaism and the community.
As I listened to the confirmation students and the rabbi have one last practice of the Torah service on the bimah, I heard laughter, gentle teasing of each other, but also support of one another. They have created a wonderful community and they genuinely care about each other.
When I see the group in their white robes chant The Ten Commandments and discuss what they have learned this year, I know I will feel proud of Jacob and his classmates as they continue on their Jewish paths. I also feel confident that when he gets a little older, he’s not going to mind at all that we “made” him do this. In fact, I’m pretty sure tonight, he’ll be glad to be standing with the members of his community.
Mazel tov to all of you who have kids participating in Confirmation services this year!
Did you ever “make” your kids participate in Jewish communal life? Did your parents “make” you? How do you feel about it?
(Editor’s Note: the photos included in this post come from the archives of the ISJL’s museum department. From the top: Columbus, MS, Confirmation Class of 1937; Clarksdale, MS, Confirmation Class of 1963; Auburn, AL, Confirmation Class of 2008. Yasher koach to the Schipper family, and all of the students soon to be pictured in the Jackson, MS Confirmation Class of 2013, continuing the community tradition!)
Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Ashland, Kentucky, to conduct a series of oral history interviews. The trip was funded by the Kaplan-Simons Family Foundation, which was started by the owners of Star’s Fashion World, once a leader among the retail businesses of downtown Ashland.
I was lucky to sit down with Jerry Mansbach for a short interview on the last day of my trip. Mansbach’s father, Joe, founded a very successful scrap metal business in Ashland and became a major supporter of the town’s small traditional shul. Jerry talks here about his family’s story and his father’s success.
More videos from the trip will be available soon on the Ashland, Kentucky, page of our Online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. You can also hear a short radio interview that I did about the project.
Every few years, national reporters rediscover the phenomenon of the “disappearing southern
Jew.” This week, Seth Berkman of the Forward newspaper published a thoughtful, well-written article headlined “Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast.”
I am quoted in it, and Berkman seems to have also used the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities as the source for much of his historical background information. We were happy to help him, and appreciate any attention given to the plight of small Jewish communities, especially from the nation’s leading Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue building in Meridian, MS, sold in the 1990s; an ISJL visit in Dothan, AL, 2013
Despite the accuracy and quality of the article, it has admittedly ruffled a few feathers down here. While the decline of the Jewish community in places like Selma and Demopolis, Alabama, and in Lexington and Natchez, Mississippi is undeniable, the state of the Jewish South today is far more complicated than just closing synagogues in small towns coupled with tremendous growth in big cities like Atlanta.
I was just in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Jewish community has grown by a factor of ten in the past fifty years. Boone, North Carolina recently saw the dedication of its first synagogue. The Jewish community in Dothan, Alabama has created an innovative program that has attracted several new Jewish families to the town, resulting in growth in the local congregation and religious school. Jewish life remains vibrant in medium-sized cities like Jackson, Mississippi; Huntsville, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Macon, Georgia; and many others. The ISJL was founded in 2000 to serve the needs of southern Jewish communities, be they small, medium, large, or nearing extinction. I think it’s fair to say that our efforts have had a significant impact on Jewish life in the region.
The key to understanding the Jewish South today is a central trend: the movement of Jews out of the retail industry into corporate America and the professions. A new Jewish community recently sprouted in Bentonville, Arkansas because it is the corporate headquarters of Wal-Mart. Much of the growth in the Jewish communities of places like Charlottesville, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is due to the increasing number of Jewish faculty and administrators associated with the large universities there. Jackson has become the largest Jewish community in Mississippi in recent decades because it is the medical and legal center for the state. The Jewish dry goods merchants who once populated these southern communities have been replaced by executives, doctors, lawyers, and professors.
The dying out of southern Jewish communities is not a new phenomenon. I’ve written the histories of many southern congregations that closed over a century ago. It’s a trend that is neither uniquely southern, nor uniquely Jewish. Small town Jewish communities across the country have declined for similar reasons to the ones described in the Forward article. I recall reading a New York Times article several years ago about Lutheran churches in North Dakota that closed because their membership had dwindled.
Throughout its history, America has never stood still. Towns and regions have boomed and crashed. Jewish communities have been established and died out, usually tied to national trends. As ISJL president Macy B. Hart is fond of saying, “change is neither good nor bad, change is change.” My job as the historian of the ISJL is to ensure that despite these changes, these communities are not forgotten, that their part in the tapestry of American Jewish life is preserved for all to see and appreciate. We are grateful that the Forward has recognized their significance, and helped us in this endeavor.