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!
After a summer filled with long drives and weekends away for work, I finally returned home to Jackson, Mississippi. But just two days later, I was on the road again—and this time, I wasn’t hitting the road for my job. What might merit yet another packed suitcase and six-hour drive, you may ask? The answer is simple: A quick trip to hang out with some of my Jewish friends.
I met three of my closest friends from college because we were the four freshman girls who kept showing up to Friday night services. We quickly began meeting up for dinners at the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, home to Duke University’s best macaroni and cheese. We began studying, snuggling and laughing together. Before I knew it, I had found my Jewish home away from home—through friendships with Jewish girls my own age.
When Rosh Hashanah rolled around and we were far from home for the first time, we joined each other for post-services naps and struggled through our homesickness together. Together, throughout the year, we introduced our non-Jewish friends to delicacies like hamentaschen and challah. We went to a few Passover seders before finally deciding to create our own. We became leaders in the Jewish community, encouraged each other to hold strong in our values, and spent late nights studying together.
We graduated from college in May 2016, and this get-together was the first time that we had all been together since then. I was reminded of just how lucky I am to have friends who understand my family, because their families are similar to mine. They understand the values that drive me, because they share the same ones. They understand the experiences that shape me, because they were there for so many of them.
Some of my closest friends are Jewish, and some are not. As with all friendships, they each fulfil me in different ways. I grew up in an area saturated with Jewish life, went to a college with a sizeable population in a big Southern city, and thus never really understood why my parents and other Jewish adults made such a big deal about how important it was to “have Jewish friends.” After all, I could make Jewish friends without even trying!
But when I moved from North Carolina to Mississippi, I stopped being able to meet Jews by accident. Even with my staff community at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the Jewish presence here simply feels small relative to what I’d always known. For the first time, I understood just what Jewish adults had been talking about all those years.
I find comfort I knowing I have friends who miss their families during the same holidays as I do, who also struggle to find food they’re allowed to eat on Passover, who were shaped by summer camp. Being Jewish is a core part of my identity, and I need people who can share that with me. So too do the children that we serve, as traveling Education Fellows. When we work to serve religious schools across the south, providing each child with access to an excellent Jewish education, we are also creating opportunities for Jewish friendships to form. We are enabling children to build deep relationships with other Jews, to create their own traditions, and strengthen their own faith through community. Just as my friends help to guide me through life and Judaism, these friendships will guide the next generation.