Joe Buchanon performs at the conference.

Caring for the Southern Jewish Community

Why a uniquely Southern and Jewish organization resonates for this Jewish musician.

In the years since I joined the Tribe, I’ve toured around the US, released an album, and prayed with folks from almost every branch of Judaism.  Never in that time, or my time before the change, did I ever see anything quite like the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL).

Like the South itself, the ISJL is all about people. Their Education Fellows are always on the road, building relationships through hand in hand connection with the synagogues and organizations who partner with them. Through shared resources and one on one care, they are a thread that ties together so many communities throughout the thirteen states.

I had already performed many times for the ISJL as one of their traveling Jewish cultural performers. Then when they recently held their annual Education Conference in Jackson, Mississippi, I was invited to be the guest entertainment. Spending three days with the ISJL team and the people they serve took my respect for them to a whole new place.

From the opening speech to the final farewell, the ISJL’s conference is something to experience. There is an incredible feeling of welcoming and excitement from the Staff and Fellows you meet. You feel valued as an attendee and what drives this feeling the most is how genuine it is. These folks absolutely love the members of their community. And the ISJL Fellows? Amazing. They embody the spirit of the organization and their enthusiasm is contagious.

From amazing keynote speakers, like Eliana Light, to creative programming opportunities and discussions on the needs of communities, the ISJL held a conference that completely blew me away. They have really built a reputation as a lasting partner with their communities. As one of their artists, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few of the communities they serve and those places, sometimes incredibly small, have made a lasting impression on me.

I will never forget walking into a small historic synagogue and feeling like I took step back in time. The President gave me a tour of the building and his love for that place was clear in the description of every room. He talked about members of the community and the celebrations they held when we walked through the small social hall. He talked about the student they had left when we toured the school and when it came time to get ready for the concert, I started shaking hands with the folks who came in. Their total number was about 12. According to my host, that was close to the entirety of the congregation. That’s when the importance of being there went to a whole new level.

With support from the ISJL, communities throughout the south have access to more than just Judaic resources. They are partnered with real folks who want to do the work it takes to really people they serve. The work it takes to strengthen. They are bridge builders and I’m beyond honored to have the opportunity to place my brick in that bridge and do my part as well.

I wasn’t born Jewish. Growing up, I never knew anyone who was Jewish. I didn’t even know my wife was of Jewish descent until 13 years into our marriage. When I found out and we started our journey to Judaism, I realized that my wife had been teaching me about Jewish values the whole time through her actions and the way she engages the world around her. She was truly being a light and it’s one of the things I love most about her, and about the ISJL. The good folks there are always engaged in that holy and sacred act, shining as a lighthouse to others and helping them to shine as well.

I grew up with one foot in a Texas town and one foot in the Frio River. I’m a southerner at heart. The culture of kindness and courtesy resonates deeply with me. The scenery in the south has always been its own song, but even more – it’s the people. Good folks everywhere you look and a handshake means as much as a smile. After being involved in the work they do and meeting the folks behind it all, I can tell you that the ISJL is the real deal and their way of bringing folks to the table is built on the kind of goodness that makes the South such a warm place.

If you’ve not been to an ISJL conference, I urge you to go. If you are reading this and outside of their coverage area, check out their website and just take a look at the good work they do. I hope they inspire you as much as they’ve inspired me and I hope your week is wonderful.

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