Below is an excerpt from a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward entitled “The Best Jewish Film Festivals of 2014”:
The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, Mobile, Ala.
New York, Chicago, Miami, we expect. But Charlotte, N.C.? Baton Rouge, La.? After much deliberation, we finally chose The Mobile Jewish Film Festival, which will feature just seven selections (one of which is still a mystery), but still deserved an award because, well, Alabama.
We don’t know about y’all, but to us, a Jewish film festival in Mobile, Alabama isn’t so stunning. Neither, for that matter, is a Jewish film festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, nor Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (In fact… several of the Southern Jewish film festivals, including the ones in Mobile and Baton Rouge, were started up as part of the ISJL’s Jewish Cinema South regional film festival network.)
In fact, when looking at the communities in-depth, a Jewish film festival in these towns merits more of an “of course.” The Jewish community of Mobile is in fact home to two synagogues (one Reform and one Conservative), a Jewish Family Services, a Jewish Federation, and an excellent Holocaust Library. And then there’s Charlotte, with 12,000 Jews and 26 different Jewish organizations listed in the Jewish community directory. It’s also home to Shalom Park, a 54-acre campus which brings together the entire local Jewish community. Baton Rouge’s community, while small, also has two synagogues, a Federation, and a Hillel located at Louisiana State University.
The two of us writing this post are big-city Yankees in every sense of the term. One of us hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, considerably more well-known for its cheese than its grits. The other one of us is from Baltimore, Maryland, which some might argue has little bits and pieces of Southern character. However, most would agree shares more with Delaware or New Jersey than it does with Louisiana or Tennessee.
We understand the author’s perspective, because at one point each of us shared it with her. Our communities growing up did not discuss the South as a contributor to Jewish life. To be frank, versions of ourselves from a few years ago might not have expected to hear about Southern Jewish Film Festivals, either.
But these feelings of ours were at best sectionalist and at worst ignorant. They failed to recognize the unique and beautiful character of many Southern Jewish communities. They ignored the truth that many of the earliest American Jewish communities sprouted in the South, in locations such as Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. Finally, they create a schism between Jews in the North and those beneath the Mason-Dixon line.
We hope the author will come and visit Mobile, Charlotte, or even us at the ISJL headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re confident that, if she does, she’ll leave with the knowledge that Jewish life in our region is alive and well. And maybe, just maybe, she won’t be so stunned the next time she learns of a Jewish cultural event in the Deep South.
Today’s blog post was co-authored by Education Fellows Dan Ring and Lex Rofes.
It’s a great piece, about a dynamic educator. (We’re biased, of course, but we’re not the ones who wrote the article! Trust the objective journalism and you’ll still be charmed by Rachel!) Here’s a quick excerpt:
When Rachel Jarman Myers, a Jewish educator, works with children in Jackson, Miss., she typically asks the students if they know any Jewish people. Sometimes, one child raises a hand. But when she specifies that the person cannot be Myers herself, the child’s hand almost always goes back down. The Jewish population in Mississippi has always been small. It peaked in 1927 with just 6,420 Jews. Today, there are only 1,500 Jewish people in an overall population of more than 2.9 million, according to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life…
All right, now that we’ve piqued your interest — you can read the entire article here, and we hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!
Mazel tov, Rachel!
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.