The Special Role of the Southern Synagogue

Our small but mighty meeting place is my spiritual oasis

I had a lucky Southern Jewish break: Soon after moving to North Florida from California, I was hired as the 5th grade teacher at the Block Family Religious School at Temple Israel in Tallahassee. I adapted quickly to my new congregation and fully embraced all aspects of Temple life. I figured Jewish life in the South would basically be like Jewish life anywhere. And in some ways, it is; but in other ways, it has a special nature all its own.

I didn’t put my finger on it right away; but one morning during Sunday school, it struck me.

We start each Religious School morning with a t’filah (prayer) service in the sanctuary. As the song-leader led us through the service, I watched a father in the first row, his arm around his kindergarten-age daughter. They were sharing the prayer book; intensely focused on the page. The dad was pointing out each word to his little girl, and they were reciting the prayers and songs together.

The sight of a Jewish father holding his young daughter close to him as they both participated in the children’s service was something I rarely saw in my old San Francisco Bay Area synagogue. At that larger religious school, a few parents did stay for t’filah, but those who did mostly sat in the back of the sanctuary, away from their children.

Don’t get me wrong; the parents at our synagogue in California were of course devoted and caring. But there was an important difference, I believe—the surrounding environment, and how that culture brings us together.

The Jewish population in the San Francisco Bay Area is in the hundreds of thousands. Where we lived in the East Bay alone, there were four established Reform-affiliated synagogues. People had plenty of Jewish choices, and it was not uncommon for families to leave one synagogue and join another.

The situation could not be more different in Tallahassee, with our Jewish population somewhere in the range of 4,000–5,000, and only one Reform synagogue. In Southern towns and cities with smaller Jewish communities, I believe that the synagogue plays a more central role than it does in areas with a large Jewish population with multiple synagogues.

The synagogue is often the only Jewish organization in a small Southern town. As a result, Southern Jewish life in these communities is more concentrated and focused. The Jewish community is concentrated in terms of where we gather to pray, worship, learn, socialize and send our kids to school. The synagogue is where you see your “family.”

“I’ll see you at synagogue,” we say to each other.

No need to specify which one: Everyone knows where you are talking about.

In Tallahassee, Temple Israel is my oasis of Judaism. Like an oasis, it is a welcoming sight; indeed, life-giving. You linger there, dwell there, meet and relax with others there. You feel safe, and comfortable.
In Tallahassee, we Jews are fortunate to enjoy an excellent relationship with the community at large, and do not feel threatened or excluded; Temple Israel is valued as cherished pillar of the community. This is due in large measure to the efforts of our rabbi, Jack Romberg, who for the last 18 years has made outreach to the non-Jewish community a core value of our synagogue. To our own membership and our neighbors, our synagogue is welcoming and friendly.

This, then, is the special nature of my small town Southern synagogue, and what sets it apart from bigger metropolitan congregations. It is my outpost, my safe harbor where my spirit is set free. I believe that we embrace our synagogue more fervently here than elsewhere because, frankly, there is nowhere else to go for Jewish life; so the one uniting place we have is a space we all cherish, support, and sustain. Our Southern synagogue is our lifeline to all things Jewish – our oasis of Judaism – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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