You may not picture central Mississippi as central to Jewish life. But every summer, one of the most dynamic Jewish conferences anywhere takes place in Jackson, Mississippi.
Every June, Jewish educators from throughout the South, and great presenters from around the country, gather together for three days of learning, networking, celebration and inspiration at the ISJL’s teacher training institute, AKA “the education conference.” While Jackson may not be known by most as a Jewish metropolis, and most folks wouldn’t guess that this Southern town is the location for one of the leading Jewish education conferences in the country, the simple truth is that if you come to Jackson in June, you’ll know it’s true.
That conference begins this Sunday, and as always, I couldn’t be more excited. Volunteer teachers, along with full-time educators, rabbis, and Jewish professionals from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, and all over the region will sit beside one another, sharing challenges, sharing best practices, and of course, sharing meals. (Hey, you can’t have a Jewish event without food!)
I’m certain this year’s conference will lead to wonderful connections, great stories and plenty of what I like to call “goosebump moments.” For now, our team is working hard to take care of every single last-minute detail so when participants arrive Sunday, everything is in place. We’re watering the seeds and can’t wait for this blossom to once again bloom into beautiful life, nurtured in the warmth of a Mississippi summer.
Now that the Jewish fall holidays have been celebrated, I have had some time to reflect on some of the meaningful moments of late summer and early autumn. This musing was inspired in part by a coworker, who sent me a screenshot of our Facebook page, showing the interesting juxtaposition of a picture of me and my fellow clergy speaking in Jackson… with a picture of another preacher and another rabbi preparing to speak to a crowd 50 years ago.
August marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. All around the United States, the diverse people that continually make this nation so great gathered to celebrate and remember that momentous day through song and prayer, through words and fellowship. I was part of the celebration here in Jackson. As I stood on the steps of the Mississippi Capitol, beside my friend and fellow Mississippi clergyman Bishop Ronnie Crudup, to honor the steps that had been made and those still remaining in the march towards true equality, I pondered that day from 50 years ago.
What would it have felt like to stand before the gathered assembly of 250,000? What exchanges may have taken place between those who waited to speak? Did Dr. Rabbi Yoachim Prinz say anything to Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as Prinz warmed up the crowd to hear King’s dream?
Given the collective spirit of God’s will present that day, they must have. For it was that same spirit that brought me and Bishop Crudup together this summer.
“I remember the original March,” Bishop Crudup shared. “I was seven and my mother was active in the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Aren’t you frustrated then that – as a society – we haven’t covered much ground?” I asked. “After all, right here in Mississippi, we’re still miles away from reaching a state in which every citizen – regardless of race or religion, gender or sexual orientation – has equal access to the same opportunities.”
Bishop Crudup grew reflectively silent. Then he said something I’ll never forget: “You may not see it. But, from the vantage point of my years, I do. You and I can stand together, dine together, work together. So, the work of changing laws is over; what remains is the challenge of changing hearts and minds.”
I nodded, knowing that this task was going to be as – if not more – difficult than the first task. But those who marched on Washington are passing us the baton. If we wish to move our society forward we can no longer simply march on Washington; we must also march over to our neighbors, and continue these important conversations.
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.