On the Other Side of the Mountain

Having opted to leave the Interstate and take the shortest route, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find myself traveling over mountains and across the Tennessee River on a winding State Highway. But I had no idea what mountains traversed the Georgia-Alabama border. I silently chided myself for my inadequate study of local geography and vowed to consult a map when I returned home.

I’d spent some weeks preparing for my first visit to Huntsville. I practiced the Torah reading, perused the materials sent by the synagogue’s lay leader and photocopied texts for our Saturday afternoon study session.  I thought about what wisdom to share with the community of Etz Chayim and how to encourage their questions, to allow their interests to guide our conversations.

In Huntsville, I met engineers, professors and, of course, rocket scientists. I also met artists, farmers, teachers, writers and retirees who volunteer in the community.  The Jews of Etz Chayim are an eclectic group; the one thing they share is a concern for the future of their synagogue.

The demographic reality in Huntsville, like that of many smaller cities across the southeast, is that its Jewish population is aging as the younger generation migrates to larger cities following graduation from college. Huntsville’s young adult to middle aged population, employed predominantly by high-tech industry and manufacturing sectors, may be especially transient because of the fast-paced, changing nature of their work.

Etz Chayim hosts a visiting rabbi on a monthly basis. “When the rabbi’s in town,” they tell me, “there is a good turnout for Friday night and Saturday morning services. On other weekends, only a few people attend on Saturdays.” This was difficult to imagine, because the group that gathered to study Torah was comprised of highly educated and engaged Jews, who posed challenging questions about the text and made connections between Exodus, African rituals, Kabbalah and Moby Dick.


etz chayim bldg

We spent much of Saturday dinner and Sunday breakfast confronting challenging questions related to the sustainability of this community. I told them that I have no answers, yet I possess an abiding optimism that they will find creative solutions. This congregation is both devoted to preserving the synagogue’s heritage and committed to exploring new ways of flourishing in the 21st century.

I’m grateful to these wise people, who not only offered me Southern Jewish hospitality in Huntsville, but also an opportunity to fulfill the mission of Rabbis Without Borders, “to make Jewish wisdom an accessible resource to help people enrich their lives.” My life was enriched through studying with and serving them.

I extended my studies through Monday: Checking an atlas when I arrived home, I learned Huntsville is on the other side of the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains.

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