|The Long History and Strong Spirit of Jews in the Deep South
Institutions old and new help remote communities live meaningful Jewish lives
By CINDY SlIER Associate Managing Editor
After visiting Medgar Ever's home in Tougaloo, Mississippi, Gary Shapiro, CFJE director of Jewish learning, led the group in Tehillim (Psalms).
Growing up in Winona, Mississippi, Macy B. Hart was a member of the only Jewish family in town. His father, a merchant, kept late store hours on Saturday nights. But early every Sunday morning, he would drive Hart and his siblings 160 miles to Hebrew school. He would read the Hebrew lesson with one hand and drive with the other, remembered Hart.
His story is typical of Jewish kids growing up in small towns in the deep South. Jewish families in these little towns are few and far between-especially today-but what they lack in numbers and resources they make up for in spirit.
Living Jewish in the South
Being Jewish in Southern small towns takes a lot of effort. But an institute founded by Hart has helped to make being Jewish in some unlikely places a little easier. Almost 20 years ago, Hart noticed the demographics of the Jewish South shifting, as Jews were moving in mass exodus toward metropolitan centers away from smaller towns.
Twenty-nine of Chicago's leading Jewish educational professionals visit Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi.
Hart created the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience to capture a Jewish story that was dying. Over the past two decades, the museum-devoted to documenting and preserving the historical legacy of Southern Jews - has amassed ritual artifacts and records from Jewish life across the South. Nearly four years ago, the museum expanded into the Goldring Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), headed by Hart and based in Jackson. In February, the institute celebrated its fourth birthday.
The institute's mission is to facilitate being Jewish in small Southern towns. "We wanted to promote and ensure Jewish life for isolated and under served Jewish folks in every possible way, from rabbinic services to Jewish education to cultural programs using to cemetery upkeep and preservation to preservation of historic synagogues:' said Hart.
Jews in the South are considered a "double minority:' according to ISJL historian Stuart Rockoff. Today, Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the South (excluding Florida); Southern Jews make up less than 5 percent of the American Jewish population. But despite their small numbers, most Jews in the South feel very much at home today, according to Rockoff.
Southern Jews embrace both their Southern-ness and Jewishness simultaneously. They cover their succahs with cotton. They take their bagels with grits. And they pepper their vocabulary with the occasional Yiddish word here and there, but always with a Southern twang.
Living in the Bible Belt - where evangelical Christianity predominates - Southerners are expected to practice a religion, any religion. "It's very important to belong to a church," said Rabbi Debra Kassoff, spiritual leader for the ISJL, "but a Jewish church is okay."
Racism has been more prevalent in the South than anti-Semitism, according to Rockoff. Historically, the region operated under a strict social hierarchy where Jews occupied a place between African-Americans and white gentiles. There is one lynching of a Jewish person 'Leo Frank' on record in the South, in Atlanta in 1915, according to Rockoff.
During the civil rights movement, most-but not all-Jews leaned toward the progressive side, observed Rockoff. "Most Jews supported the goals of the civil rights movement, but some did support a culture of segregation," he said.
At least half of the Northern volunteers who assisted in the civil rights movement were Jewish, perhaps because they were familiar with their own history of persecution in Europe, according to Rockoff. The Ku Klux Klan bombed two Mississippi synagogues in 1967 and 1968 because of Jewish civil rights support.
A Family in Every Town
Jews have a long history of living in the South. The first Jews settled there in the late
1700's, peddlers from the Northeast and Europe. Drawn by family and the Mississippi River trade, Jews flocked to Southern ports including Galveston, New Orleans, and Charleston. By the eve of the Civil War, 13 percent of the Jewish population had settled in the South, according to Rockoff. Jews embedded themselves in the fabric of society, becoming merchants who set up stores throughout the region and active participants in Southern civic life. At one time, at least one Jewish family lived in every Southern town, and synagogues dotted the Bible Belt.
Despite a strong Jewish identity, Southern Jews rarely were or are observant. The first Jews in the South practiced Classical Reform Judaism, a liberal brand of Judaism. Their livelihood depended on their being open for business on Saturdays, and there had never been a large enough Jewish presence to attract traditional Jews. Today, most Jews living in the deep South are Reform Jews. Jackson's nearest kosher meat purveyor, for instance, is New Orleans, a three-hour trip by car each way.
The l930's to the 1950's proved the golden age of Jewish Southern life, according to Rockoff. The rural South started its decline around the time when African-Americans-the majority of whom had worked as agricultural laborers-began migrating to seek industrial jobs in Northern cities like Chicago. Because of their migration, economic opportunity for Jewish merchants-who had relied on African-Americans as customers-diminished too, and
Jews started migrating to big cities as well.
During its Jewish heyday, Mississippi was home to 6,000 Jews. Today, only 1,400 remain, according to Rockoff.
"Do-if -yourself Judaism"
As the population falls, Southern Jews struggle to hold onto organized Jewish life in their towns. There is a huge rabbinic shortage in the deep South.
About a third of the congregations, approximately 115 shuls served by the ISJL, operate without rabbinic services. In the state of Mississippi, there are only three rabbis including Rabbi Kassoff, a Maryland native, who acts as an "itinerant rabbi" for the institute.
As implied in the word "itinerant," Kassoff is sort of a wanderer. She travels from congregation to congregation within the 12 states served by the ISJL, teaching congregants "do-it- yourself Judaism. Kassoff strives to improve the lives of the congregants, an uphill battle considering the jack of resources, rabbis, and numbers in most of the synagogues. Overall, the congregations are shrinking and aging, with median ages from 50 or 60 on up, and often congregants must travel great distances to get to synagogue. Kassoff pairs larger, stronger congregations with those in smaller communities through a process called "geographic coalitions."
Some of the congregations boast enough children and enough funds for supplementary Jewish education. Last summer, the institute recruited two educational fellows named Amanda Abrams, originally from Mississippi, and Beth Kander, born in Skokie, Ill. The fellows, who recently had been living in Manhattan and Boston respectively, will be based in Jackson for a total of two years. During their fellowship, they have been traveling to small Southern towns to help teach Jewish curriculum to Jewish educators, many of whom are volunteers with no formal training.
Through the institute, the fellows have helped to create an efficiency curriculum, a common body of Jewish knowledge so that Jewish children in one Southern town are learning the same material as their peers in the next town over. The curriculum is unaffiliated with any particular religious movement.
Abrams and Kander are rarities-Jewish 20-something singles living in the deep South-an almost unheard-of demographic these days. Young Jewish singles are the "hole in the bagel:' according to Kander. Overwhelmingly, small-town Southern Jews express a desire for their Jewish offspring to grow up and move away from their hometowns and gravitate toward big Northern cities or Southern cities with large Jewish populations like Memphis, Atlanta, or New Orleans, so that they can meet and many other Jews. Those who stay in town usually marry out of the faith.
Heart of Jewish Survival
Abrams grew up until age 9 in a small town called Brookhaven, just outside of Jackson. She and her older brother were the only Jewish children in town. Being the token Jewish kid, she was the student who would teach her classmates about Chanukah and invite them over for seder every year. For many years, Abrams's mother would display both a Christmas tree and a menorah in their home so that her children wouldn't feel ostracized. Abrarns said she rarely felt victimized for being Jewish in her community. For many summers, Abrams attended Christian Bible camp with her friends because that was the thing to do in town. But at age 8, she sampled Jewish camp for the first time at Henry S. Jacobs Camp-affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC)-in Utica, Miss., otherwise known as Camp Jacobs. Abrams continued to attend the camp for 11 summers. There, she connected to other young Jews for the first time.
"It was important to be around other Jewish people, to know that you're not the only one:' said Abrams. "If you grow up isolated in a town, you don't realize that there are all of these other Jews out in the world.
Camp Jacobs fulfills a vital community function. "Jacobs really is the heart of Jewish survival in the South' according to Jonathan Cohen, the camp's director. Jacobs is the only camp that specifically serves young Jews in the deep South. About 25 percent of the Reform Jewish children in the deep South attend Camp Jacobs, according to Cohen. That's a relatively large percentage, he said, compared with the 25 percent national average of camp attendance (Jewish or secular) by Jewish children.
"When you live in a place where there are not a lot of Jews and someone has built into you the value that being Jewish is important and meaningful, the opportunity to be with other Jews is so inspiring and exciting that it is unsurpassed by anything else," said Cohen.
The Southern Jewish Spirit
The majority of small-town Southern Jews today don't face rampant anti-Semitism. They
don't struggle to be viewed as Jewish by their non-Jewish neighbors, according to Hart. Overall, they are accepted and even admired as Jews, say many Jews in town. Rather, the challenge for Jews in the South lies in their desire to hold onto their Jewish identity as the Jewish population and resources slip away.
Despite small numbers, consider this big number - 1,000. That's the number of corned-beef sandwiches that Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge sells in one day to Jews and gentiles in the community for its annual fundraiser. There are charming stories like this one unfolding in small towns across the Southern Jewish landscape, evidence that the Southern Jewish spirit perseveres.