From Chicago’s North Shore to the Deep South of the Delta: Our Southern Jewish Journey

Today’s post comes from Rabbi Bruce Elder, who brought congregants from his suburban-Chicago congregation down South earlier this year.

The North Shore of Chicago has a large Jewish population. To give you a sense of just how large it is, there are eight synagogues within two miles of my house in Highland Park, Illinois!

The community where I serve as rabbi, Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe, has engaged congregants of all ages. Our congregation’s 10-11 grade curriculum this year is an exploration of the questions “Who is a Jew?” and “What is my Jewish story?” Our students have been studying various aspects of Judaism and then going to houses of worship of other faiths and denominations, in order to compare how those aspects are expressed in different ways. Our unit on “Judaism as a religion” took us to a Catholic church. We discussed “Judaism as a faith,” and attended a service at an Evangelical mega-church. “Judaism as a culture” took us to a Sikh Temple, and we worshipped with Buddhists after discussing “Judaism as a way of life.” We visited both an Orthodox and an African American synagogue as well in order to learn about diversity of practice within the Jewish community.

12642685_462904007227602_8384313955943698850_nGiven the nature of our curriculum, we wanted another way for our students to experience other forms of religious practice, both Jewish and not, completely different from their own. Most of our students have travelled to different places in the United States and beyond, but none had ever been to small-town America or the Deep South. When the region came up, many of them held ideas about the South that were based on conjecture and hearsay. So, we contacted the ISJL to see if they could help us plan a weekend of learning and doing– and they put together a wonderful Southern Jewish experience for us.

On the last weekend in January of this year, my co-teacher and I drove seven students down to the Mississippi Delta, stopping in Memphis for lunch on Beale Street. We arrived in Greenwood, Mississippi in time for Shabbat. There we were welcomed by Gail Goldberg and her family to a wonderful evening of worship, friendship, gracious hospitality, and delicious food.

At Hakafa, ours is a congregation that is intentionally without walls. Our students were both moved by and impressed with the way the members of Gail’s congregation in Greenwood, Ahavath Rayim, care for and maintain their synagogue and community – despite their small numbers. Their commitment and joy in Judaism is evident.

12647469_10206697476373398_3997726031754216398_nOur Shabbat was spent learning about the rich, cultural history of the region at Delta University; hearing firsthand accounts about the struggle for civil rights at the court house where the murderers of Chicago’s Emmett Till were acquitted of their crime; weeding a community garden with children who attend the school where the garden is located; and eating some traditional southern cuisine at an authentic blues restaurant.  A highlight of our trip for our students was when we went into a field in the countryside after dark. Shabbat is officially over when three stars can be seen in the evening sky. They had never seen so many stars in their lives! Havdallah back at the hotel following that starry spectacle was particularly poignant.

Sunday was another packed day. We attended Bible study and energizing services at a Baptist church in Greenwood. We learned about the history of the region through the life of blues great B.B. King. And, we were hosted by Benjy Nelkin of Hebrew Union Temple in Greenville, Mississippi (not far from Greenwood) as he shared the rich history of the Jewish community there. Monday, we returned home.

What did we learn in Mississippi? We learned that the Jews of the Delta might be small in number, but their pride in their small Jewish communities is larger than life. That religious practice, both Jewish and non-Jewish, can be particular to a region and universal at the same time. That big city life really is very different from rural life, even as the people who live in each are not. And, that the best way to form ideas of people is to spend time with them instead of assuming who and what they might be.

Thank you, Gail, Benjy, and all the Jews of the Delta who welcomed us into your lives. And, thank you, Rachel Myers and the ISJL, for planning such an important experience for us. L’hitraot – We look forward to our next time together. Our Jewish stories are richer because of you!

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