Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Spotlight On: Midland/Odessa, Texas (31.9425° N, 102.2019° W)
Welcome to the first installment of Spotlight.
A lot of us think the subject of geography is cool. A lot of us are excited when a
geography category comes up during a round of trivia. A lot of us think maps are pretty
neat. But not many of us study geography in college. For those who didn’t have that
opportunity, here’s a geographer to share the first installment of Spotlight, a forum in
which I will be highlighting the regional variations I come across during my travels as an
Education Fellow at the ISJL as they relate to geographical and Jewish topics.
I recently took a trip to Midland/Odessa, Texas to lead programs for the congregation at
Temple Beth-El. For anyone who hasn’t heard of this combined statistical region, it’s
worth a peek at a map. The city of Midland was founded in 1881 as a midway point
between El Paso and Dallas on the Pacific Railway. Traditionally, white collar workers
lived in Midland, while blue collar workers lived in Odessa. Twenty-three miles separate
the cities from one another, but it is clear today that the cities have a symbiotic
relationship. This relationship exists clearly in the business function, the thriving oil
industry, but also in other affairs, such as Jewish life.
There is a full history of the Jewish experience in Midland/Odessa available through the
ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, so I won’t go into much detail on
it. But let’s make sure we do cover regional variations and interesting geographical
When many people think of a combined metro area, some famous ones come to mind–
Maybe Dallas-Ft. Worth or Minneapolis-St. Paul. Most of these metros are less than 15
miles apart. And between the centers of them are suburbs and businesses that serve
both cities. Midland and Odessa, however, are 23 miles apart, downtown to downtown,
and between the two cities lies almost nothing besides the “cash crop”- oil fields. The
cities only agreed to a combined statistical designation recently, as it allowed for larger
companies to come and serve the now combined “Petroplex.” Throughout my visit, I
learned that the synagogue population is split between the cities of Midland and Odessa.
I spent the weekend hanging out in both Midland and Odessa. Erev Shabbat services on
Friday night were at the synagogue in Odessa. I was also hosted overnight in Odessa. A
community lunch the next day was in Midland. Havdalah was at a community
member’s home in Midland. I went on a tour of the “Petroplex” with a community
member, exploring both Midland and Odessa (including George W. Bush’s childhood
home). Religious school on Sunday was in Midland. Last but not least, I was taken to the
airport on Sunday afternoon, located smack dab between Midland and Odessa, among
the oil fields.
In no place is the symbiotic relationship between Midland and Odessa more obvious
than in the Jewish life. There are separate school districts for Midland and Odessa.
There are separate Walmart’s and other businesses of the like for the two cities. But
there is only one synagogue – Temple Beth El, and it draws people from both Midland
and Odessa, to observe Jewish traditions, and also to celebrate a longstanding Jewish
presence in the Permian Basin.
The Jewish community, small but dedicated, consists of approximately 65 families,
mostly located within the Permian Basin. There are approximately 8 students in the
religious school, all enthusiastic and eager young Jewish children. I had a wonderful
time teaching students about the Jewish obligation to social justice and tikkun olam.
You may have noticed that lately at your local gas pump prices have gone down. Some
places in the country have even seen prices well below $2. Midland/Odessa is the hub of
this gas gala that has led to plummeting petrol prices nationwide. Just as Jews were
initially attracted to the Permian Basin in the early 1900s for its oil industry, who’s to
say we won’t see a resurgence of this migration? This post isn’t intended to be a plug for
Jews to move to Midland/Odessa, but hey, if you like the oil industry, this may be the
place for you. And if you like geography, this region is a goldmine. And I didn’t even
touch on the physical geography of the Permian Basin!
Next time on Spotlight we’ll explore Jewish life in the Valley and Ridge region of the
Pronounced: hahv-DAHL-uh, Origin: Hebrew, From the root for “to separate,” the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the week.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.