Playing Jewish Geography in the Deep South

Jewish geography is a game often played when Jews meet each other for the first time and try to identify people they know in common. (“Oh, you grew up in Springfield? Do you know ____?!”) I have long considered myself to be an MVP in this long-running competition, but moving to the South has opened up a whole new frontier, and I’m a relative rookie in the Southern division! Here are some of the funnier Jewish Geography encounters that have happened in my first year as an Education Fellow.

On a visit to a synagogue in Atlanta, the three ISJL Education Fellows on the road were staying with three different families. I was staying with a wonderful family that had two kids, one of whom recently returned from a BBYO summer program. (BBYO is a nondenominational Jewish youth group.) I was very active in BBYO in High School (shout out to Oakland BBG #2 and Central Region West #45!), so sitting down with this high schooler was bound to be fruitful. I told her the name of my chapter, and she smiled. Two of my friends from BBYO had staffed her summer program, and some of her best friends from the program were younger kids who knew me as their baby-sitter. We took a selfie and sent it off to a few other teens who were highly entertained by this small-world connection.

A few days later, a group of three Fellows found themselves at a synagogue in Greensboro, North Carolina. The rabbi had a picture of one of my friends from my summer camp in California on his wall — turns out, my friend is the rabbi’s niece (shout out to the Havivi family — they are everywhere, and they know everyone).

I was running a teacher training in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and one of the teachers looked strangely familiar. We started talking, trying to figure out where we knew each other from. I mentioned Camp Ramah (a network of Conservative movement Jewish summer camps), and she asked if I knew her aunt –who worked there for 10 years and happened to be my best friend’s mom. I had gone to her aunt’s house for High Holidays and Passover seders in college. Turns out this teacher and I had attended the same Passover seder in Los Angeles a few years ago.

What a small Jewish world.

The highest volume of connections came in Fayetteville, Georgia. They recently hired a new rabbi. He and I graduated from the same college, Claremont McKenna College (formerly Claremont Men’s College), albeit 40 years apart. Beyond that, my childhood rabbi in Oakland, California, had worked in Fayetteville as a rabbinical student a few decades ago. On top of that, I met a congregant who attended middle school where I went to high school (Head Royce in Oakland). Beyond that, he worked as a sound engineer at a jazz club when my high school jazz band played there (Yoshis). Now, he works as a pilot and often does the flights from Jackson to Charlotte, Dallas, and Atlanta. Without a doubt, he has flown my fellow Fellows and me around as we’ve traveled to various communities in the South!

If my time down here keeps going like this, I’ll be a Southern League Jewish Geography MVP in no time. For now, I’ve finished my travel for the first year of the Fellowship, and as my second year of travels kicks off this July, I’m excited to see what new connections the year ahead will bring me!

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