What’s More Southern & Jewish Than A Cantor on A Motorcycle?

I just completed a two-month Sabbatical from my congregation in New Orleans. I spent most of that time visiting small Southern Jewish congregations, going from town to town on my motorcycle. I visited congregations in Lafayette, Louisiana; Natchez, Mississippi; Selma, Alabama; Lake Charles, Louisiana; Monroe, Louisiana; and Galveston, Texas.

So why did I decide to spend my Sabbatical riding my bike from small Jewish community to small Jewish community?

I think the beginning of this journey began over 15 years ago, at a dinner program sponsored by the Jewish Endowment Foundation, where the featured speaker was the Southern Jewish author Eli Evans. At the conclusion of this program, Mr. Evans was signing his books, and for me, he had inscribed the following; “To Cantor Joel, whose life is now entwined with this story.”

Those words stuck with me.

I was raised in Detroit. The metropolitan area there has a population of around 80,000 Jews. I also lived in New York for seven years, with a Jewish population of almost two million. New Orleans, with a Jewish population of around 10,000, is a “small community,” relatively speaking. But in the Southern Jewish landscape, we’re “bigger” community. “Small” is all a matter of perspective.

In New Orleans, with “only” 10,000 people, consider the Jewish resources that we have: ADL, Avodah, Chabad, Jewish Children’s Regional Service, Jewish Endowment Foundation, Jewish Family Service, Jewish Federation, a Jewish Day School, two JCC sites, Jewish Youth Groups and six active congregations. Just taking into account the Reform congregations, we have five full-time rabbis, two cantors, and a cantorial soloist. We have 82 kids attending the URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp this summer.

While on my motorcycle, I really experienced small-town Southern Jewish life. When you visit Selma, Alabama, where the Jewish membership at Mishkan Israel totals less than twenty—“small” takes on new meaning. We’re talking tiny. Then there’s Galveston, Texas, a community that has a full-time Rabbi, but where the religious school has no more than 40 students from K-12. Compared to New York, tiny; compared to Selma, pretty robust.

But in these small towns, there is Jewish life. And in Natchez, Lake Charles, Selma, and even here in New Orleans—there is an informal Southern Jewish “welcoming committee.” Because there are Jewish tourists who visit, and find the synagogue and knock on the door, because they just “didn’t know there were Jews here,” and are excited to find this presence.

All of the Southern Jewish communities I visited were all so kind and gracious. (One phone call from a temple president was about going out for dinner after the Shabbat evening service. The temple president asked me, “Cantor, do you keep kosher?” I said, “No.” “Oh, okay, and Cantor, do you eat meat?” “Yes, I eat meat.” “Oh, you’re just like us.”) Southern hospitality is thriving.

Finding myself warmly welcomed was wonderful, but not surprising. What was most surprising to me was how many non-Jewish folks show up for services at these small Southern synagogues. They are not attending with an agenda to convert the small Jewish population, but simply there because they recognize that this Jewish congregation has had a long presence in their community, and they want to be there to support this Jewish house of prayer. These wonderful people are warmly welcomed, too.

Traveling by motorcycle, of course, adds its own unique aspect to the journey. Riding throughout Mississippi and Louisiana is an adventure. There is something about riding to a destination that seems to invite a sensory experience that is not as prevalent in a car. When you ride a motorcycle, you become so much more aware of your environment. When you stop to fill up for gas, riding a motorcycle opens up more opportunities to talk with other people refueling. People want to know about your motorcycle, and other bikers will come and talk to you. (I also managed to avoid tickets and speed traps, thanks to tips like the one from members of the Lake Charles synagogue about sudden speed limit changes on Route 165).

The ISJL coordinated this trip for me, and that organization has truly established strong relationships with all these congregations, by providing rabbinical support, and for some, an entire education program. When one takes a Sabbatical, there is a goal to learn something during that time. After traveling almost 3,000 miles on my motorcycle visiting these communities, I can tell you that my appreciation for my own community back in New Orleans AND for these smaller communities has deepened. I came to feel a stronger resolve to make our Jewish community the best it can be.

I learned that the inscription Eli Evans wrote out for me years ago is truer than ever: I am, indeed, “entwined in this story.”

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