One of the foundational ideas behind the ISJL is that mid-size and large congregations should build connections to smaller Jewish communities, especially in small towns where the Jewish population is in decline. That’s why we were so glad to see this set of pictures from the Religious School of Congregation Beth-El in Fort Worth, Texas, on their recent daytrip to nearby Corsicana.
We received the photographs from Hollace Weiner, archivist at Beth-El, historian of Fort Worth and Texas Jewry, and close friend of the ISJL History Department. Describing the field trip in the Beth-El newsletter, she writes, “19 teenagers and six adults from the Religious School visited the colorful town, which is a century removed and 55 miles south of Dallas on Interstate-45.”
The group’s tour guide was Babette Samuels, one of four remaining Corsicana Jews. Babette, originally from Port Arthur, Texas, is also a friend of the ISJL, having shared a delightful oral history with us in July 2010.
The students and chaperones viewed the beautiful “Byzantine-style” synagogue of Corsicana’s Temple Beth-El, which, as Hollace writes, “was built in 1900, restored in the 1980s, and deeded to the city to use as a cultural and community center. An architectural gem, the white clapboard synagogue has two onion-domed towers and three Tiffany stained-glass windows. It is the last synagogue in the Southwest with such lofty Moorish-revival domes.”
In addition to her extensive knowledge of Corsicana’s Jewish history, Babette is also very involved with the upkeep of the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery, which was the next stop on the group’s field trip. Following the visit, the religious school made a donation to the Corsicana Hebrew Cemetery Association.
Thanks to Hollace Weiner and the Beth-El religious school for sharing this story with us. It is great to see Jewish teens learning about small-town Jewish life!
This post is by second year Education Fellow Ben Chaidell.
ISJL Education Fellows often work with our communities on how to create successful assistant teacher programs that put teenagers in younger students’ Sunday school classrooms. These emerging leaders are commonly referred to as madrichim, which means “guides” in Hebrew. The teens are the guides for the younger students and serve as role models for continued involvement in and enthusiasm for the Jewish community.
Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano, Texas has built a very successful madrichim program as part of its dynamic school culture. While the congregation is only about 15 years old, it has grown to about 200 families and almost 150 students in its religious school, including over 41 madrichim.
Implementing and maintaining an active and helpful madrichim program is no simple feat. So, what draws 41 teenagers to Sunday school on a morning when they could be sleeping? And how do they arrive ready to assist teachers and younger students?
Education Director Valerie Klein does some things differently at Adat Chaverim, and she gets good results. First, the madrichim are also known as macharniks, from the Hebrew word machar which means “tomorrow.” The macharniks are the Jewish leaders of tomorrow. Serving as macharniks keeps them engaged with the congregation through their high school years and equips them with the skills necessary to serve the Jewish community in the future.
Second, the macharniks cover a wide range of responsibilities. They teach, lead learning stations and games, and participate in classroom discussions and art projects. Further, as a group they organize the Hanukkah and Passover all-school programs. Past programs they have organized include “Willy Wonka Hanukkah” and “Who Stole the Afikoman Mystery?”
Third, Valerie and machar coordinator Joanna Rudoff set the macharniks up for success. Joanna runs check-ins and training sessions for the macharniks, who each receive their own manual at the beginning of the year detailing their responsibilities. I had the opportunity to sit in on the session in which the older macharniks passed on advice to the younger ones. Some wise gems included: “get to know your kids,” “they’ll respect you as much as you respect them,” and “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say in front of your grandma.”
Valerie credits the success of her program to the expectation that students stay involved after their bar/bat mitzvah in a unique choice-based high school program. Students earn a certain number of points to “graduate” when they are seniors from each of the following categories: youth group, high school classes, and gemilut chasidim (acts of loving kindness, which include serving as a macharnik). This flexibility enables busy high school students to schedule their Jewish involvement in a way that works for them.
Ultimately, however, the macharniks keep coming back because religious school is simply fun. Valerie recognizes that it’s not usually the teachers who motivate their students to look forward to religious school; instead, it’s the friends the students make at religious school that make them look forward to returning. As a result, Valerie encourages her students to spend time together not only at religious school but also over the summer at Greene Family Camp. Over 40 campers and staff from the congregation attended Greene Family Camp this past summer, an astounding number for the size of the congregation.
I’ve certainly had a lot of fun with the folks at Adat Chaverim and learned a lot as well, and I can’t wait for my next visit!
With Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just behind us, I thought I would share a little bit about the significance of these holidays from the perspective of historical research.
When I have only one day in a town to research the history of its Jewish community, I don’t have time to scroll through 100 years of daily newspapers on microfilm. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that help me to quickly find a needle (or mention of the local Jewish community) in the haystack of multiple microfilm reels. One useful shortcut is the “High Holiday Research Method.”
I have compiled a list with the dates of every Rosh Hashanah between 1880 and 1960 (thanks to Hebcal!). Usually, the local newspaper will have some mention of the Jewish holidays and often will describe the activities of local Jews. For example, in Lockhart, Texas, I found a mention of a short-lived Jewish congregation that met in a rented hall for the High Holidays in 1922, attracting Jews from several other small towns in the area. This Lockhart congregation did not last for long, and the tiny Jewish population left in town had no recollection of it. Were it not for my finding this Rosh Hashanah notice, this congregation may have been lost to history.
Newspapers from around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also contain ads run by local Jewish merchants informing their customers that they will be closed on the holidays. These ads are a great way of determining which stores are Jewish-owned, and offer insight about what we here at the ISJL call the “southern Jewish experience.”
One of my favorite of these ads comes from Meridian, Mississippi in 1942. Most of the town’s Jewish merchants banded together to take out one ad, announcing the closing of all of their stores for Rosh Hashanah. The sheer number of businesses, fourteen, attests to the important economic role played in Meridian. Also, notice that the ad declares that the stores would be closed on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Clearly, these stores were usually open on Saturday, the best day of the week for business.
It was almost impossible for a Jewish merchant in Meridian to be shomer Shabbos and make a living. Thus, they had to adjust. In the early 20th century, Meridian’s small Orthodox shul held Saturday morning services at 6 a.m. so members could pray on the Sabbath and then get to their stores in time to open for business. And yet, as the 1942 ad attests, even as they adapted their religious practices, Jews were not willing to give up the high holidays. This was not easy. Indeed, several of these stores opened at 6 p.m. on Rosh Hashanah to try to recoup some of the losses they would incur.
Today, only a small number of southern Jews own retail stores and such ads are largely a thing of the past. Future historians will probably not find much value in the “High Holiday Research Method.” Yet as some aspects of the southern Jewish experience change, some stay the same, as many southern Jews still wrestle with the dilemma of how to maintain their traditions as a tiny minority living in the Christian Bible Belt.