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 is the third installment in my three-part series on “becoming Southern and Jewish.”
After “coming out” as Jewish in the rural Mississippi Delta and joining a congregation four years later, my life as a Southern Jew was progressing beautifully. I looked forward to attending services every-other week, started to explore studying Hebrew again, actually enjoyed High Holiday services, presented to some classes at the school I worked at, answer questions and dispelled myths, and bought a house to set roots; and then I got the call…
I was invited to join the President and founder of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), Macy B. Hart, for a Passover seder. This was the beginning of the journey that brought me to Jackson and the ISJL, the next large leap in my Southern Jewish journey. Shortly after meeting Macy, I was given the opportunity to run the Community Engagement Department at the ISJL, and spend a significant amount of time focusing on programs that help students in schools and support congregations with their social justice efforts. I couldn’t have asked for a better job, but, that wasn’t the zenith of my Southern Jewish actualization process, that came almost a year later.
I was sitting in my office on a random day and was screening a documentary about Jews in America and the struggle of the dwindling presence in small towns. Something caught my eye: Two of the congregations that were highlighted and struggling had congregation membership numbers hovering around 130 family units, and I thought to myself, “Wow, wouldn’t that be nice, to have 130 members!”
I felt this urge to stand up and speak on behalf of those congregations that we work with every day with only 10 or 20 congregants. We often joke that Southern Jews are the best Jews because we have to work harder at it, but there is a substantial amount of truth in that statement.
When I went to Friday night services in the Delta, if three quarters of the congregation didn’t show up, there was no service, if the majority of the congregation didn’t speak or sing during the service it was silent, and if relationships were not built beyond the service there was no community. I have found that sometimes, when times seem the bleakest, they can be the most beautiful too. Now, I’m not suggesting that every congregation should shrink their membership or that large congregations are bad but at that moment, I felt like I was an advocate for Jews in the South because I was a Southern Jew; I wasn’t speaking on behalf of a group but as part of a group. I felt the need to highlight the great things we have going on here and wanted to call those struggling congregations and put them in touch with our synagogues so they could exchange best practices.
It’s funny how life throws curveballs at you. The moment when I felt most attached to my new roots didn’t come from a powerful service, a moment of divine insight, or during a meaningful exchange; it came while I was sitting in my office watching a video and wanting to remind the world that Southern Jews are not gone, we are not desolate, we are not forgotten, and we are not without hope. We are proud, we are vocal in our communities, we are a meaningful part of the fabric that makes up American Jewry, and we are here to stay.
We, not they. We. I am proud to be a Southern Jew… and I am a better Jew here than I ever was anywhere else.