Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Late this past fall, I received a special invitation in my inbox. Surrounded by bright pink, blue and yellow polka dots, the blue scripted letters read “Let’s Celebrate Bethany’s Brilliant Bat Mitzvah.” I immediately replied that I would attend, along with a series of exclamation points. After all, it’s not every day you get to celebrate your former colleague’s “coming of age” ceremony!
Y’all might remember Bethany Berger from her blog posts here when she was an ISJL Education Fellow. After finishing her fellowship, Bethany moved just a little north of here… to the Mississippi Delta, for her next Southern adventure. She now lives in Indianola, Mississippi, and is an active congregant at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville. Originally from Pennsylvania, she invited friends and family from near and far to celebrate with her.
After a few years down here, and having never had a ceremony back when she was 13, she and Rabbi Matt Dreffin worked together to prepare for this occasion. And a brilliant bat mitzvah it was!
When I walked into the historic sanctuary, I joined a group of excited and proud participants. Rather than the sometimes awkward, timid and nervous children standing up on the bimah (the platform from which the Torah is read and services led), Bethany skillfully led us through the service, taking moments to reflect on certain prayers and readings and what they meant to her along the way of her Jewish journey. The ceremony felt casual, friendly, and was the most meaningful and sincere Jewish lifecycle events that I have ever been privileged to witness.
There was laughter – especially when Rabbi Dreffin invited the ISJL staff up for an aliyah (an honor in which one stands on the bimah for a section of the Torah reading) and six Jewish professionals all had stage fright at the same time, forgetting our lines. There were tears, when Bethany gave her d’var Torah (sermon), reflecting on her Jewish journey and the meaning behind having this ceremony in Greenville and the community she now calls home.
I may have cried a little too. Bethany was a participant on the very first Alternative Spring Break I planned. She was part of the American University Hillel trip that spent a week in Mississippi back in March 2014. It was during that week that she was first welcomed by the congregants of Hebrew Union Congregation, celebrating Shabbat and sharing a meal together. She then went on to serve as their Education Fellow, and now is a full time congregant. She explained how this was a place, in this small Delta town, where she solidified her Jewish identity.
I fondly call her “my prize,” my shining example of how having an experience in Mississippi can be transformative– so transformative that she chose to make this place her home! I’m so proud not only for the work she put into learning to chant Torah, but for the community she has created around her and the celebration she inspired in an authentically Southern and Jewish space. Congratulations on your brilliant Bat Mitzvah, Bethany!
Pronounced: BEE-muh, Origin: Hebrew, literally “stage,” this is the raised platform in a synagogue from which services are led and the the Torah is read.
Pronounced: shuh-BAHT or shah-BAHT, Origin: Hebrew, the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.