Today’s guest post comes from Bob M. Schwartz, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. His thoughts can be found at bobmschwartz.com as well.
On April 28, 2014, a tornado cut a path of destruction through Tupelo, Mississippi. Many buildings were damaged and destroyed. Houses of worship were no exception.
A tree punctured the roof of Temple B’nai Israel. A few blocks away, St. Luke United Methodist Church was hit much worse. Thanks to an outdoor security camera, the world has seen dramatic video of the church playground being blown away. The tornado also tore off the roof of the church’s sanctuary.
B’nai Israel missed only one Shabbat service for repairs. At St. Luke, Sunday services for the 800-member congregation were held in the Family Life Center. But many classes and groups had to look for temporary homes elsewhere.
That’s where the story of friendship begins- or really, where it continues.
B’nai Israel has been an integral part of the Tupelo community since 1939. It is the center of Jewish life for a broad region stretching all the way into Alabama. When the current building was dedicated in 1957, it was a development supported and celebrated by institutions across northeast Mississippi, including many of the local churches.
Openness has marked the relationship between B’nai Israel and the churches that surround it. So it was natural that when St. Luke Church needed a place for its Sunday School, it would come calling at B’nai Israel. But there is much more to this story than just a convenient location.
Bettye Coggin of St. Luke Church is the primary teacher of what is called the Friendship Sunday School. It is an adult education class that includes about sixty congregants, mostly in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Three of the couples are “charter members,” having been in the class for fifty-two years. That is where the “Friendship” name came from.
In this case, that was not the only friendship that mattered.
George Copen is a past President and current Board member at B’nai Israel. His family came to Tupelo in 1954, where his parents Reuben and Dorothy Copen played a major role in the growth of the congregation. George attended school in Tupelo, and it was there in 8th grade that he first met Bettye Coggin.
Continuity has been until recently a hallmark of Southern life and Southern Jewish life. And even with the increased mobility of the last few decades, Tupelo and other Southern sites still seem to have a hold on the people born or raised there. So maybe it is no surprise after decades that Bettye Coggin and George Copen should still be in Tupelo, worshipping in buildings just a few blocks apart, serving leading roles with their congregations. They also continue to share the principle that in extreme circumstances they should get together to help serve their congregations and their faith.
There are differences in particular beliefs, of course. On the most fundamental of human concerns, though, those differences vanish in the face of need and service. Bettye Coggin points out that current curriculum for the Friendship Sunday School concerns the Old Testament, and studying that inside a Jewish synagogue adds a special dimension to the learning. While these particular lessons may not include Ecclesiastes, part of the biblical Ketuvim (Writings), that book has something appropriate to say:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
By Education Fellow Rachel Blume
“Office was destroyed. Walking to hospital with Mom. Can’t find your brother.”
I received this text message from my father just after 5:00pm on April 27, 2011, after an EF4 tornado ripped through the heart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, my hometown. This storm caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage, killed more than 50 people, and left both physical and emotional scars on countless others.
At the time, I was finishing my last week of graduate school and packing up my apartment in Atlanta, which had been my home for the previous 6 years. I had accepted a position as an ISJL Education Fellow and was preparing to move to Jackson, Mississippi. Now, as my time here comes to a close and I prepare for my next transition, I’m amazed at how quickly two years have come and gone. I also find myself recalling the natural disaster that I will always associate with my move to Jackson.
When I tried to call my dad or text back, nothing would go through. The tornado had taken out all of the cell towers, and it was nearly impossible to get a signal in town. I was unable to contact either my parents or my brother. I felt completely helpless. I was over 200 miles away and couldn’t reach anyone.
When I was finally able to make it home roughly 72 hours later, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight of what used to be my parent’s law firm, my second home.
The remains of my parents’ old building.They were inside when the tornado hit and survived by sheltering themselves between shelving units in a storage room. Their firm is up and running again in a brand new facility.
Though both the experience of nearly losing my parents and the the destruction that I witnessed in Tuscaloosa were unnerving and even traumatic, the outpouring of support from the greater community to my family was a revelation. Numerous people showed up to aid in the clean-up process, and those that couldn’t physically help sent meals or found other ways to show their concern. I’d never experienced that type of love and support from such a large number of people.
The most important lesson I have taken from those events is how a community can become like family. Prior to this, I had taken a passive role, not only in my Jewish community, but also in the community at large. While an interest in connecting with and supporting Jewish congregations had already led me to take the job with the ISJL, the collective response that I witnessed in the aftermath of the tornado further inspired me to work for the betterment of the communities—Jewish or otherwise—in which I live.
I carried this motivation with me to all of the communities I worked with during my two years as an Education Fellow. I have been lucky enough, not only to contribute to these communities, but also to benefit from them. Seeing the camaraderie and closeness of our communities has encouraged me to continue as an active participant moving forward.
In the next few weeks, my time at the ISJL will end, and I will move into the next phase of my life, attending law school in Houston, Texas. While I’m thankful that my family has not gone through another natural disaster, I know that the lessons I learned from the last one will serve me well through my new transition.