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!
This February, for the first time ever, the ISJL is hosting a reunion of all of the alumni of our Education Fellowship Program. Almost 40 young professionals have now completed this immersive two-year Southern Jewish experience. As we get ready to convene this great group, the three former Fellows who still work full or part-time for the ISJL will be sharing reflections on their time as Fellows. Second trip down memory lane comes from Rachel Jarman Myers, a 2008-2010 Education Fellow who now runs museum and special programming for the ISJL.
Rachel Jarman Myers
ISJL Education Fellow 2008-2010
Now: ISJL’s Museum Director & Special Projects Coordinator
It’s been a little while since I was hitting the road as a Fellow, but the memories are still just like yesterday! Here are some of what I remember most from visits to two of the communities I served, which are located pretty near one another: Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida.
Pensacola, Florida: My First Mardi Gras
When assignments are divvied up, Fellows are always excited, imagining all the places throughout our region we’ll get to visit. For me, a New England girl settled in landlocked Jackson, Mississippi, I just wanted to end up in a place near the ocean. Pensacola, Florida fit the bill with beautiful beaches perfect for a Havdalah by the fire or morning yoga by the water.
I served as a fellow for Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation founded in 1876 – one of the oldest synagogues in Florida. I must have been impressed with the long history, because looking back through my files I realized that I had written a d’var Torah relating that week’s portion with the story of how the Jewish community in Pensacola began. (What can I say, I’ve always had an interest in community histories!) I used the Torah portion, Mishpatim, which outlines the laws for societal life to make the connections to how Jewish immigrants adapted to life in Northern Florida. In it, I referenced how Beth El was started by immigrants making a new life for themselves and their families. But one major challenge for these new communities, was that very few of these immigrants were rabbis. Without rabbis or even an established Jewish community near by, Jews wrestled on their own to define their Judaism. This small group of people, a minority in a foreign land, decided to come together and develop their own version of Jewish practice. On my visits to Pensacola, I was lucky to meet congregants, like the dedicated and enthusiastic education director Wendi Ochs, who continued the long legacy of Pensacola’s Jews building beautiful Jewish life in their beachside home.
Getting to participate in the unique practices and traditions of so many congregations across the South was one of my favorite parts of being a fellow. Not only did I experience what Jewish life looked like inside each temple, but also how the congregants interacted with their neighbors in the larger community. While in Pensacola in February, a young teacher invited me downtown for “the parade.” Little did I know that I was about to experience my first Mardi Gras celebration! I had always assumed New Orleans had the monopoly on the festivities but quickly learned that places like Mobile, Pensacola and other Gulf Coast cities also had longstanding Mardi Gras celebrations. Pensacola hosts a huge parade with costumes, bands, and most importantly, floats throwing beads. I didn’t know I wanted a set of plastic beads until I reached my hand up and caught my first pair. I’ve been hooked since. (Side note: Danny Zimern, Pensacola’s Mardi Gras President? Jewish guy.)
I haven’t been able to return to Pensacola since I was a fellow in 2008-2009, but with Mardi Gras right around the corner- I may need to plan a trip!
Mobile, Alabama: Tefillin & Teachers
When I first met Rabbi Steve Silberman at the ISJL Education Conference, we immediately hit it off, sharing memories of growing up in Connecticut and our fondness for pizza. When I was placed with his congregation Ahavas Chesed we used the word bashert (“meant to be”).
I remember distinctly, the first time driving into the city along the streets with the huge live oak trees, thinking that I was going to like this place. My visits to Mobile were always festive — staying with congregants that had a houseful of animals, attending a performance of “Dracula the Ballet,” or spending the day at the Jewish Home Beautiful, an event where diverse members of the Mobile community come into the shul for an open house. The women of the Sisterhood set up tables representing each Jewish holiday, congregants give tours through the sanctuary, and the men’s club sells corned beef sandwiches and hot dogs. The synagogue was packed with enthusiastic interfaith conversations and full bellies, which is my personal favorite type of cultural exchange experience.
As a I Fellow, I remember learning so much from Rabbi Silberman, and the way he interacted with his small but mighty congregation during service, stopping to explain and elaborate on what the prayers and Hebrew means. He always encouraged participation. On one Saturday morning during my visit, Rabbi Silberman was leading morning prayers and focusing particularly on the tefillin. Most of the older boys began wrapping and he asked if I had ever worn tefillin, and invited me to participate. I’ll always fondly remember that morning lesson, assisted by skilled and thoughtful students who were so excited to show me their technique.
Fond Fellow memories… I’m looking forward to reliving them with my fellow Fellow alumni in just a few short weeks!
Pronounced: shool (oo as in cool), Origin: Yiddish, synagogue.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.