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December 16, 2009

Winding down Jewish life in an Arkansas town

http://www.jewishjournal.com/wandering_jew/article/winding_down_jewish_life_in_an_arkansas_town_20091216

As the setting sun cast the Western sky in a pastel shade of pink, the last Jews of Helena gathered on a recent Friday night at the home of Miriam and David Solomon to welcome the Sabbath.

Six elderly Jews—nearly all in their 90s—took their seats in the Solomons’ living room as David, a Harvard-trained lawyer and dapper Southern gentleman, led a short, mostly English service. When it was over, cocktails were mixed—“a libation,” he called it—and the group passed around a tray of cheese straws, a local specialty.

Until three years ago, Friday night services were held in the stately Temple Beth El synagogue at the corner of Pecan and Perry streets in the center of town. But a declining membership forced the community to part with its beloved building in 2006, gifting it to the state of Arkansas for use as a theater and community center.

Now the remaining Jews gather for services in private homes, just as the first Jewish settlers in Helena did nearly two centuries ago.

“We’re just going back to the cycle,” Miriam said. “We’ve come full circle.”

The plight of Helena’s Jews is mirrored in scores of communities across the Bible Belt, where Jews first migrated in the early 19th century, generally as peddlers. Those that stuck around opened small businesses, which for a long time provided an ample livelihood.

But the rise of big box retailers such as Wal-Mart—headquartered on the opposite side of the state, in Bentonville—helped to undermine the economic foundation of many Southern towns and accelerated an economic downturn that took its toll on the entire population, Jews and gentiles alike.

In Selma, Ala., a tiny community is today struggling to save its historic synagogue, which is located just blocks from one of the seminal sites of the civil rights struggle, the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In Clarksdale, Miss., a century-old synagogue was sold to a church some years ago. And in Dothan, Ala., the community drew national attention when it offered $50,000 cash incentives to attract young Jewish families.

“In some ways Helena is really typical,” said Debra Kassoff, who served Southern communities for several years as an itinerant rabbi after her ordination in 2003. “You’ve got all these communities in a fairly long demographic and economic decline.”

At its peak in the mid-20th century, more than 100 Jewish families lived in Helena, a historic town nestled in a crook of the Mississippi River 75 miles southwest of Memphis. Helena then was an important port town, its strategic location attracting both commercial and leisure traffic from the river.

Its main commercial strip, Cherry Street, once was dotted with saloons and hotels. Jews owned many of the retail shops. Helena elected a Jewish mayor in 1878, and several Jews served in prominent civic positions, on the school board and City Council, and as local judges.

Cherry Street today is but a shadow of its former self. Though the city has tried to play up its history as a tourist attraction—Helena had a significant role in the Civil War and in the evolution of American blues music—many of the shopfronts are shuttered and the town is enduring a continuing economic depression.

The downturn has exacted a substantial toll on Helena, and not least on its Jewish community. Barely a dozen Jews remain.

“It makes me very sad, extremely sad,” said Mary Lou Kahn, at 82 the youngest of the Friday night worshipers. “It’s heartbreaking.”

But neither Miriam nor David Solomon are particularly troubled by the impending conclusion of nearly two centuries of Jewish life. Both describe themselves as “realists”; the world has changed, they say, and Helena has changed with it. Their three sons have built lives for themselves in stable Jewish communities in the North.

“I relate everything to economics,” said David Solomon, who at 93 still drives himself nearly every day to his law office on Cherry Street, the same location where his uncle ran Solmon’s Shoe Store. “People are going where they can make a living. That’s it.”

Solomon is something of a legend in eastern Arkansas. He has held countless civic offices, and all the downtown storekeepers know when he’s around. One of them ticked off the list of legal matters with which he had helped her, including a divorce and a real estate issue.

“He is an astonishing man,” said Doug Friedlander, 33, who arrived in Helena for a two-year stint with Teach for America that turned into five years and counting. “I used to call him the ‘Godfather of Helena.’ “

Friedlander’s arrival in 2004 provided an unexpected boost to the community. He is the first new Jewish arrival in memory, and while no one is under the illusion that his presence fundamentally alters the community’s fate, his facility as a worship leader has injected a new energy into their gatherings.

Friedlander now spends many Friday nights praying and drinking with people nearly triple his age. The relocation from Temple Beth El to the Solomons’ living room and the institution of the post-prayer cocktail have had an unforeseen benefit, he said: Worshipers used to disperse when the prayers ended, but now they stick around to socialize.

“There’s something so magically Southern about it,” he said. “I just feel like I hit the lottery.”

The Solomons’ benign resignation over the impending end of Jewish life in Helena derives, at least in part, from the success they have had in winding down their affairs and ensuring the continued maintenance of their synagogue and cemetery, which dates to 1875.

Their ritual objects have been donated to other communities and a trust has been established to ensure the cemetery’s upkeep. And with the synagogue and its glass-domed ceiling turned over to the Arkansas Department of Public Heritage, the building will not only be preserved, it will be put to good use.

By the building’s entrance is a quote from Isiaiah, “Thy Gates Shall be Open Continually,” and the last Jews of Helena can be reasonably certain that will hold true for a long time to come.

“Why wouldn’t I be proud?” Miriam asks. “As long as that temple stands, there will be a Jewish presence in Helena, Ark.”

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