Historic Bnai Israel in Thomasville, GA

A “Mah Tovu” Moment in Small-Town Georgia

With help from a modern Jacob

Two months ago, before coronavirus and social distancing came into our lives, I attended the Bar Mitzvah of a student named Jacob. His family is a member of my congregation, Temple Israel in Tallahassee, Florida—but they live in Thomasville, Georgia, about thirty miles to the north.

The family is involved in our more active community, but they also maintain their connection to the small synagogue that still sits in Thomasville, Georgia. In fact, they elected to celebrate Jacob’s bar mitzvah ceremony at B’nai Israel of Thomasville.

B’nai Israel is one of the dozens of congregations that used to dot small and medium-size towns throughout the South. Sadly, like many of these small Jewish gems, B’nai Israel – founded in 1913 but never larger than 100 individuals – found itself in decline, as younger Jews moved away and established themselves elsewhere. The classic building – designated as National Historic Landmark – still stands, showing a century’s worth of age.

The Saturday morning arrived, and the small sanctuary was crammed to capacity. We began the service with this classic opening blessing:

!מה-טּבו אהליך יעקב, משכּנתיך  ישראל

Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-places, O Israel!

This signature blessing is from Numbers 25:4, the story of Balak and Balaam. The Rabbis tell us that these are the first words we are to say upon entering the synagogue. With those words still echoing in my ears, I began to read the pamphlet produced for the service, which in our congregation always includes a short background on the Bar or Bat Mitzvah student. A sentence about Jacob jumped out at me: “His mitzvah project is to help beautify the 107-year-old synagogue in Thomasville, B’nai Israel.”

Then it hit me: The Ma Tovu!

After Jacob completed his service, I was called to the bima to present him with his certificate and kiddush cup. I used that opportunity to tell the congregation about his desire to help beautify and refurbish the B’nai Israel building, and pointed out how perfectly this fit with the opening prayer of that morning:

!מה-טּבו אהל’ך ‘עקב, משכּנת’ך  ישראל

Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!

Even his name – Jacob – was the right fit for the occasion, since the original Jacob is referenced in these ancient words!

One of the strengths of Judaism is the enduring truth of its texts, from the Torah to the Talmud and all of our rich teachings. The beauty and power of the words, stories and passages of the Torah endure centuries – even millennia – after they were written. And just as importantly, the meaning endures. This has sustained the Jewish people through the highs and lows of our history.

Who would have imagined that the Ma Tovu passage would be relevant, now, in the early years of the 21st century in small-town Georgia? Surely if the words apply here, they apply everywhere; they applied back then, and they apply now. Our dwelling-places are goodly, as long as we make them so—and with youth like Jacob stepping in to this chain of tradition, I have faith that no matter what, the beauty of our heritage will endure.

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