A Former Seminarian in Seminary, Mississippi

As a Mississippi transplant, Rabbi Matt Dreffin loves sharing his Jewish story—even when it's sometimes misunderstood.

When I meet new acquaintances and tell them about my life path, I always mention how I was ordained right before moving to Mississippi in 2013. “I spent my first year of rabbinical school in Israel, and then I lived in Los Angeles for the subsequent five years before moving here.” Almost without fail, they respond with, “You went to medical school in Israel?! What was that like? Do you speak Hebrew?” I repeat the word “rabbinical,” and explain how rabbis go to rabbinical school for their training. Inevitably, during the course of the conversation, that new acquaintance will also ask me why the heck I would move from Los Angeles to Jackson. (Most of the people who ask this question have never been to Los Angeles, which means they’ve never sat in L.A. traffic!)

On my way home from a colleague’s wedding several years ago, I noticed a sign north of Hattiesburg that said “Seminary.” At the time I didn’t think much of where the sign led, but I did wonder about using that word in describing my journey to people I would meet. One of the definitions of a seminary, of course, is “an institute of learning that trains priests, minsters, or rabbis.”

The next time I had this get-to-know-you-conversation, I tried out the phrase, “I went to seminary for six years before moving to Jackson.” Little did I know, this would elicit a repeated but different response. “You lived in Seminary for SIX YEARS? What was that like? I’ve always passed the sign on the way to the beach.” In this instance, everyone was thinking that I’d lived in this town of approximately 314 people. The next time the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) sent me southwards on the Passover Pilgrimage, I decided to make a stop and see the town. I saw a hardware store and a small strip of shops, much like many small towns across the South.

I decided to get a little more information about the town. Presbyterian minister A.R. Graves founded a boarding school there in the 1800s, and a 1930s-era governor of the state grew up there. I was curious if any sort of Jewish connection might exist in the town, so I surfed the web to get to the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. It appears that any Judaic presence has been miniscule, although the nearby cities of Laurel and Hattiesburg have encyclopedia entries that document a rich Jewish history in that part of the state.

In the end, I’ve returned to my original explanation of my life’s path. As a Jewish ambassador in the South, I find it’s important to educate our neighbors on the small but strong presence of Jewish communities. People are genuinely curious, and now I almost always follow the words “rabbinical school” with “it’s the name for a Jewish seminary” (not to be confused with a cemetery).

If you are a transplant, do you ever experience something like this situation? Do people with knowledge of the local area make assumptions that lead to humorous conversations?

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