The author, Rabbi Tanya, and congregant in Poland

My Roots: Southern, Jewish, Small Town

From Florida to Poland to Mississippi, my big soft spot is for small communities.

At the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), we talk a lot about “roots.” Specifically, we talk about Southern and Jewish roots: what members of our staff claim them, how we help community members connect with theirs, and how to teach others about this unique intersection of identities.

I am proud of my own Southern and Jewish roots. I grew up in Florida—not in Miami or anywhere you might think of as “Jewish Florida,” but further up, in northern Florida… not exactly known for its large Jewish community. But recently I’ve been thinking about other roots: the roots not of my personal life, but of my professional life, and how I came to be a Southern Jewish professional.

I began thinking about what led me to the ISJL after a recent department head meeting, during which we were all given a chance to share what personally inspires us about our work. I was able to answer easily, sharing that my biggest passion is working with the small, often underserved communities in our region. I love working together with dedicated individuals, committed to ensuring that Judaism will continue to thrive in their community, even if the community is only a few families. In the hustle and bustle of our work, it is sometimes easy to forget what brought me here, so I after the meeting, I took some time to reflect on the origin of my passion.

My enthusiasm for working with small Jewish communities all started with a newspaper article. I was 17, and a headline about Tanya Segal, the first female rabbi in Poland, caught my eye. I had recently returned from spending a semester in Israel, where the program took us on a trip to Poland. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much to speak of in terms of contemporary Jewish life. But then I read about Rabbi Tanya Segal, who wasn’t Polish herself (she was from Russia and had spent the last 20 years in Israel before moving to Poland) but had committed to help the small contemporary Jewish communities of Poland. Why was she working there?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the article or Rabbi Tanya. The idea of someone working to reignite Jewish life in Poland was strange—and also so compelling. I sat down at our family computer, and wrote an email that would change the course of my life. At the end of the email, I asked if I could come and work with her. In a few days, I got a phone call.

“Come to Poland!”

Needless to say, I went.

Rabbi Tanya and I worked together with a number of other Polish Jewish in Krakow facilitating educational programming, religious services, and holiday celebrations. We found a sponsor for our efforts, formed a congregation, and registered our congregation with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Today, Beit Krakow is thriving, and I enjoy going back to visit to see how it continues to grow and change. The relationships I developed continue to this day, and I have been fortunate enough to participate in Beit Krakow weddings, and invited Rabbi Tanya and Beit Krakow members to participate in mine.

Often, when I tell people about my time in Poland, the response is, “Wait…there are Jews in Poland?” This response should sound familiar to anyone who has ever described themselves as a Southern Jew, or mentioned living or working down South, and then heard: “Wait…there are Jews in the South?”

It has always filled me with such joy to respond, whether the inquiry is about the Polish or Southern Jewish community: “Yes! There ARE Jews in Poland/the South. And they’re doing such amazing things!”

I am so appreciative that I was able to reflect on what brought me to the ISJL, and so grateful that I get to fulfill my passion for serving small Jewish communities every day.

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