Jewish Journal

Saving the South

Southern Jews decline in numbers, but efforts are under way to preserve history and keep faith alive.

by Andrew Muchin

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Temple Mishkan Israel graces the historic main street of Selma, Ala. Photo by Andrew Muchin/JTA

Temple Mishkan Israel graces the historic main street of Selma, Ala. Photo by Andrew Muchin/JTA

The huge sanctuary of Temple Mishkan Israel, a red brick architectural treasure that graces the main street of historic Selma, Ala., is used only on the High Holidays or for special occasions.

The 20-family Reform congregation usually worships in a multipurpose room past the dais. The services, conducted by congregants, take place every two months. One of the leaders, Ed Ember, shows visitors through the 103-year-old synagogue.

"My title is last president and shammas," he said with a chuckle, referring to the person who takes care of the synagogue. Told that his statement seems more somber than amusing, he doesn't argue. "Yeah, it's sad," he acknowledged.

In 1960, there were 167 Jewish communities in the South, 98 of which had Jewish populations of between 100 and 500 people. By 1997, that number had dropped to 141, with only 62 communities averaging between 100 and 500 Jews. Like many of the century-old congregations that dot small cities throughout the Deep South, Mishkan Israel is preparing for its own demise. But all is not lost.

Congregants plan to transfer ownership of the building, with its three prominent arches, two square turrets and large central dome, to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life, based in Jackson, Miss. The nonprofit institute evolved two years ago from the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, founded in 1986 outside Utica, Miss. It seeks to preserve Southern Jewish history as it provides Jewish cultural, educational and religious opportunities for Jews across 12 states. The institute's founding executive director is Macy Hart. Charming and loquacious, he proclaims his ideas with the tenacity of the Jewish immigrants from the French Alsatian region who, beginning 170 years ago, hiked through the Southern countryside as peddlers. They eventually established stores, raised families and built Jewish communities.

Borrowing a bit from these ancestors, Hart said the institute's "highest priority right now is to create our itinerant educator system."

With the exception of a few larger cities such as Jackson, Miss.; Memphis; Montgomery, Ala.; and New Orleans, most Southern Jewish congregations lack a rabbi or trained educator. Jewish education depends on the knowledge and availability of congregants. Hart is looking to hire an experienced educator and two younger educational fellows to introduce a common curriculum in 40 or 50 scattered places. The program is scheduled to begin next fall in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

First his educators will present the curriculum, developed in partnership with the Greater Chicago Foundation for Jewish Education, to a gathering of religious school teachers this summer. The material will include basic Jewish skills and concepts, concentrating on pan-Jewish needs for Hebrew competence, love of Israel and the understanding and practice of Jewish principles, Hart explained.

"Mine is more of a desire to participate in a Jewish lifestyle," he said. "I want the Jewish community to quit fighting among itself" and develop a common curriculum, "like in the secular educational system."

During the school year, the educator and fellows will travel to congregations two weekends per month to lead worship, read Torah, advise teachers and teach children and adults. Ideally, 54 congregations will be covered in a nine-month school year.

"At the end of the first year, you begin a climb. At the end of 10 years, you have Jewish literacy," Hart said.

He hopes ultimately to hire four educators, each supervising three to four fellows, to cover 12 Southern states. He also is looking to hire a rabbi, probably in 2003, to travel a circuit of synagogues to lead worship and provide educational and pastoral services. Many of the congregations no longer are large enough to warrant a monthly visit by a student from one of the major rabbinical seminaries.

Meanwhile, Hart and his staff are busy with other programming. For the past two autumns, the institute has sponsored a traveling festival of Jewish films that are screened at festivals in larger communities. Six communities participated this fall, and Hart hopes to build to 25 communities within five years. Additionally, the institute sponsors concerts of Jewish music and visits by Jewish authors in the larger communities.

The institute also operates its predecessor organization, the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, located at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp outside Utica, Miss. Visitors from throughout the United States stop in to view the permanent exhibit on Alsatian Jewish immigration and settlement, examine Bill Aron's black-and-white photographs of Southern Jewry and view a dais that contains ritual objects gathered from defunct Southern synagogues.

The institute has set up a smaller museum at Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez, Miss., and is looking to establish museums and cultural centers in the synagogues it inherits from other declining Jewish communities. The organization's resident historian directs research, including oral history interviewing.

Most of Hart's time is occupied with fundraising. He has secured more than $5 million of the $13.5 million in endowment money that the institute wants to operate the full range of its programs. He said he has secured an additional $1.5 million in operational funding to ensure institute staffing and programming for at least the next three years.

If the museum and institute were all that Hart, a Winona, Miss., native, had done for his people, dayenu. But he also is the founder and former director of the Jacobs camp, the other acknowledged community builder for Jews in the Deep South.

The camp, which sprawls around an artificial lake outside Utica, began in part to serve small-town Southern Jewish kids like Jonathan Cohen, a Tupelo, Miss., native who succeeded Hart as camp director in 2000.

Twenty five years ago, "you could look to 20-25 percent of the campers as small-town kids," Cohen said. "These days, the campers are more likely to be from Memphis, New Orleans and other Deep South cities, but that's not because the camp has lost the small-town kids. The kids don't live there anymore."

The camp's 400 participants each summer come primarily from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and western Tennessee, according to Cohen. Rabbi Bob Loewy of the 500-family Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, La., said 40 children from his congregation attended the camp last summer.

The congregation provides scholarships to Jacobs because, he said, the camp "promotes continuity, Jewish identity and learning. It think it's pivotal. I've always been a believer in camp. It provides kids with certain skills and [the lesson] of what it means to be part of an entire Jewish community."

Jared Saks, a New Jersey native and rabbinic student who worked at Jacobs last summer, lauds the campers' devotion to Judaism. "I think to them Judaism is more important because it's not at their fingertips [at home]," he said. "Going to Jacobs is more important here than anything Jewish is in the north."

And it continues across generations. Roger Kamenetz, author of "The Jew and the Lotus" (Harper, 1995) and a professor at Louisiana State University, said he knows people who met at Jacobs "as teens, married and send their kids there."

Kamenetz's daughters attend Jacobs and -- keenly aware of their minority status as Jews in Baton Rouge --"find a lot of joy being with other Jewish kids in a concentrated group," he said.

Yet, Louisiana's capital is far more Jewishly vibrant than Selma, where the shrinking congregation is looking to raise $1 million to repair Mishkan Israel's leaky roof, patch and paint stained sanctuary walls, and "return the building to pristine condition, which Macy requires to take over the building for a museum," Ember said.

Hart is helping to find funds, convinced that a local Jewish historical museum in the synagogue "could play an important role in Selma tourism-wise, history-wise and culture-wise, and bring Jews and non-Jews to the table for dialogue about tikkun olam (healing the world)."

Mishkan Israel's sanctuary stretches up 50 feet to a dome that sits on an octagonal frame. A rare, 1920s-era Skinner pipe organ is installed above the carved wooden ark. When the synagogue was built, there were 145 Jews in the city. The total dropped to 40 by 1975, when Ember came to town to run a clothing store.

Most congregants now are in their 70s and retired, Ember said.

"The members are getting older and they know there aren't any young Jewish people moving to Selma. There aren't any older Jewish people moving to Selma either," he said. "At one time, the whole downtown was Jewish merchants. Today they're all in Live Oaks Cemetery."

Ember's children have moved away to larger Jewish communities in the South, as many parents in the small-town South wish.

George Copin, a leader of Temple B'nai Israel in Tupelo, Miss., said he wants his son Elliott, 15, "to be happy and to marry a Jewish girl."

Asked if that's likely to happen in Tupelo, Copin hesitates. But his wife, Alice, quickly declares: "In order for him to sustain his Jewish identity, he'll probably have to move."

Then again, if the institute can bring sufficient Jewish resources to the Deep South quickly enough, he may not have to.

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