When Running Out of Prayer Books Is A Good Thing

Recently I had the privilege of participating in the Southern Jewish Historical Society Conference in Natchez, MS, organized by the ISJL’s own Rachel Myers. My role was pretty simple: lead Shabbat services the opening night of the conference. Having led services many times in that sanctuary, I had what I soon realized was a false sense of complacency. Less than two weeks before the conference I realized what I had overlooked: I’m used to the building and the congregation, but not the crowd. We were expecting 150 people. That’s about 138 more than the typical Friday night. “Do they have books for 150 people?!” – That’s a question I’d never had to worry about until now. A few phone calls later and the answer became clear: not even close. I knew where I could find more than enough: Henry S. Jacobs Camp, a scant 45 minutes away. The problem was, they’d been in the ground since July. And it seemed like such a good idea at the time!

I started calling colleagues in the region and eventually was able to find a collection in Memphis, three hours away. That’s an indication of the reality of Southern Jewish life: driving 200 miles to get what you need is good luck.

But the real takeaway from the experience is that I actually wish it happened more often. In pretty much every community I visit, the books far outnumber the people. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Southern Jewish Historical Society made a conscious decision to hold its conference in a Southern Jewish synagogue and there’s no reason more groups can’t follow their example. Our region is filled with beautiful buildings whose seats are waiting for our tucheses. It’s quite common for people to visit synagogues on their travels, but that’s a disservice. You visit museums. Synagogues should be used. It’s through honoring God in these spaces that we truly honor the people that built them.

Running out of prayer book was certainly a problem, but it was a good problem and one I hope to one day have again.

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