What Jewish Life in the South Taught Me about Judaism as a Whole
The 23 Jewish teens on our Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey trip came from diverse locations. I came from California, but my peers came from Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, among others. Though we are divided in our experiences unique to our hometowns, there are at least two things we all have in common: We’re Jewish, and we’ve never experienced anything quite like the Deep South. Because of these similarities, our differences seem largely insignificant. Vibrant Jewish life exists in the south, of course, but because none of us hailed from that part of the country, we weren't sure what to expect during our time there.
Together, we traveled to Greenwood, MS, where the community at Ahavath Rayim, formerly an Orthodox synagogue, hosted us for Shabbat services. Just as we came from different places yet are united in our Judaism, so, too, did the congregants of Ahavath Rayim show just how diverse – and yet how linked – American Jews can be.
Like many other small Jewish communities, particularly in the south, the Greenwood Jewish community is slowly dying out. There were roughly 15 congregants at services on Friday, the majority of them in their 60s or older. I come from a Sacramento congregation with about 600 families, so the sight of so many empty seats in the Ahavath Rayim sanctuary was a change for me. Unsurprisingly, the service felt quite different from services back home - and yet, many of the prayers and traditions were quite familiar indeed.
Following the Shabbat service, a kind congregant named Gail invited us to her Greenwood home. Over dinner, several of us engaged in conversation with Bubba, another member of the congregation, whose views, it turned out, didn’t exactly align with our own. He was a nice guy from Greenwood with a great, identifiably Jewish sense of humor, but as the conversation turned to politics, his conservative views seemed to surprise many of the more liberal-minded members of our group.
To me, though, Bubba was an excellent representation of both our group of teens and the Jewish American experience as a whole. We live in one of the most diverse countries in the world, but despite our many differences, being Jewish serves as a common link between people from vastly different settings. Our common thread, Judaism, allowed us to connect with a conservative Southern man, despite our own liberal views. It allowed us to interact with an unfamiliar community in an unfamiliar place where Judaism struggles to simply survive.
Just the day before our Shabbat in Greenwood, we learned that many Jews in the South fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, a fact that shocked most of our Union-sympathizing group. Still, it’s crazy to think that Judaism is a common link between a group of 21st-century Jewish teens and 19th-century Confederate soldiers.
Our Mitzvah Corps group brought together diverse people of diverse backgrounds and experiences from all over the United States, and being in the South exposed us to experiences otherwise unfamiliar to all of us. Having shared the experience of a Southern Shabbat with everyone in our group, I find it comforting to know that Jewish communities like Ahavath Rayim survive in the South – and it’s just as comforting to know that our time there is one of many unique experiences we’ll cherish and bring back to our own communities.
Jonah Wiener-Brodkey is a 2016 participants in Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey, a Reform Jewish summer program in the Deep South.