Tikkun olam: Transform the World – Institute of Southern Jewish Life

Portico Jackson Magazine March 2013Portico Jackson Magazine
March 2013

Turn on any country radio station and you’ll likely hear at least a dozen songs describing what it means to be Southern. Family, food, friends, and love of country always seem to be a common thread. And frequently God is included right at the top of that list. But as you begin to peel back the layers of what it means to be Southern, you may discover something surprising – a Jewish community that, while small, has played an active role in the towns they live in, built businesses from the ground up, and worked tirelessly to preserve their heritage for future generations.

Jews have had a presence in Mississippi since the mid-1800’s. Because European laws once prohibited Jews from owning property, many Jewish immigrants that settled in America arrived with no agricultural experience. Therefore, they drew on their knowledge of business to support themselves and their families. Many began as traveling salesmen, often buying goods from wholesalers in Memphis or New Orleans and traveling from small town to small town to sell their wares. Once they saved enough money, frequently, they would buy a storefront in one of the very same small towns they traveled through.

While Jewish communities have existed in Mississippi for over 150 years, they statistically only make up about 1% percent of the population. Early on, this made adhering to some Jewish traditions difficult. Kosher food was impossible to come by and many had no choice but to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. A lot of small towns did not have their own synagogue, so many families traveled sometimes hundreds of miles in one day in order to attend services.

Winona-native Macy Hart grew up at the height of the Civil Rights movement. While pockets of anti-Semitism were being reported across the state, Hart recalls an idyllic childhood growing up in small-town Mississippi during the 1950’s and 60’s. His parents were prominent community members as owners of the largest department store in Winona. He admits that he and his three siblings were the only Jewish children in their school. Because there was no local synagogue, Hart’s parents would load the family in the car every Sunday morning for the 160-mile round trip to the nearest synagogue in Cleveland, MS.

Even though Mississippi Jews assimilated to their new culture, they also recognized a need to maintain their heritage by teaching younger generations about their religion and its practices. However, because the population was so spread out, finding other Jewish children to form relationships with was a challenge. Several state and regional “social networks” developed, and during his youth Hart was an active member of organization such as National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and the Southern Federation of Temple Youth (SOFTY), which would come to encompass Memphis, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

In 1970, congregations in these states came together to establish a camp in Utica, Mississippi, which was centrally located between the two largest cities in the camp’s footprint – Memphis and New Orleans. The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named in honor of an early camp advocate, set out to not only teach Jewish values to young Jewish children, but instill a pride in their heritage. Still in operation today, the camp has also sought to provide Jewish role models and create opportunities for social contact with other Jewish kids, something that many Jewish children from small towns have never experienced.

In 1970, Hart had just graduated from the University of Texas. America was in the middle several major social changes stemming from Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The climate of change and opportunity inspired a desire in Hart to spend the next two years giving back to the Jewish organizations that had done so much to shape his future. One of Hart’s mentors suggested that he go to work at the newly opened camp in Utica. He arrived planning to stay only two years, was named camp director in his second year at the age of 23, and would remain there for the next 30 years.

Along the way, Hart began observing some of the national issues taking place within Jewish communities. For instance, there is as a growing number of congregations, not just in the South, but nationwide, operating without a full time rabbi. In 2000, Hart stepped down as camp director to found the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), named after two prominent Southern Jewish businessmen and philanthropists. An expansion of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience founded in 1986, Hart hoped to be able to provide smaller congregations with the components and support they were missing.

Today, the Institute encompasses six departments – History, Cultural Programs, The Museum of Southern Jewish Experience, Community Engagement, Rabbinic Services, and Education. Together, these departments serve 13 states – Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Northern Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.

History and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Jewish communities in the South were much larger. People naturally gravitated to where the jobs were and small towns that saw a surge in population during the heyday of cotton production would later see their economies change after The Great Depression and WWII. The same is true among many Jewish communities in the rural South. Younger members have moved to more urban areas, leaving behind congregations that dwindle as members pass away.

Despite their small size, these congregations still have deep historical roots within their communities. In many cases, they serve as the only link to a long Jewish lineage for many families. The ISJL History Department and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, directed by Stewart Rockoff, Ph.D, work to preserve this legacy through actively collecting and compiling information about Southern Jewish communities and sharing them with both Jewish and Christian audiences. Its programs include an Oral History Project, which currently boasts over 700 firsthand accounts of life as a Jew living in the Deep South. It also helps to preserve synagogues and cemeteries that face an uncertain future once their congregation ceases to exist.

Probably one of the most impactful projects to date is the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. This online repository provides state-by-state history about the Jewish presence in each community. Currently, 10 of the 13 states served by the ISJL have been documented, with work actively underway to bring the remaining two states online.

The Museum also hosts several traveling exhibits nationally as well as the Traveling Truck exhibit geared towards school-aged children in Mississippi. The Traveling Trunk is a handson educational opportunity designed to teach both Christian and Jewish children about Jewish religion and culture. The trunk contains artifacts, photographs, maps and lessons focusing on Jewish immigration from Europe to the South and how these immigrants left a lasting influence on their communities.

Cultural Programs

The cultural programming department partners with artists, singers, performers, authors, and musicians nationwide to bring Jewish arts and entertainment to communities all over the Deep South. Their projects include Jewish Cinema South – which showcases Israeli and Jewishthemed cinema, the Southern States Jewish Literary Series, and the Southern States Music Series.

Rabbinic Services

If you were to look at a map of all the Jewish congregations spread out across the Southeast, you may be surprised to find quite a few. The majority of these congregations a very small, numbering only a handful of members, and many cannot afford to employ a full-time rabbi to lead services. In Mississippi, only two out of the fifteen congregations have a full-time rabbi. In the 13-state footprint that the Institute serves, the number is less than half.

The mission of ISJL Rabbinic Department, headed by Rabbi Marshal Klaven, is to travel to these under-served congregations. The rabbinic department coordinates these visits through their “Rabbis on the Road” program, which works in conjunction with other rabbis all across the country to lead services, give sermons, teach, and officiate at important events. In 2012, the rabbinic department made 90 visits in 50 communities spanning from Texas, to Virginia, to the Florida panhandle. Through these efforts, it is estimated that they served over 4,000 Jews.


In the Christian church, children are bought up being taught the same Biblical stories and lessons. According to Hart, this is not necessarily the case among Jewish congregations.

“The Jewish community does not have a secular approach to education. Every single congregation in the United States has to come up with their own Sunday cchool lessons. There is no similarity between one congregation to the next,” he explains. “We wanted to change that, therefore we created a secular-world approach to Jewish education called ‘A Common Body of Jewish Knowledge.’”

The program provides age-appropriate curriculum for each child based on grade level. It covers topics such as Jewish community, culture and symbols; God; Hebrew and prayer; Israel; history, holidays; life events; Mitzvot and values, and Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Writings).

The curriculum also provides teacher support through an annual education conference and site visits to the congregation three times a year by education fellows who provide teacher workshops, community programs, or lead services.

Community Engagement

There is a Hebrew saying, “Tikkun olam,” which translates to “repair the world.” It describes what many Jewish people believe is man’s responsibility – no matter their religious affiliation – to transform the world into a better place.

The ISJL is doing their part to make the Jackson-metro area a better place by piloting programs in literacy and leadership in addition to peer mediation and conflict resolution. Eventually, the Institute plans to roll these programs out to other communities.

“A lot of the emphasis of our work is to celebrate everyone’s differences. I’m comfortable in my beliefs just as people of other religions are comfortable in their beliefs,” says Hart. “We should be able to live in the same world without telling each other we’re wrong. We ought to be able to respect the differences and be able to work together.

He adds, “The myth that there aren’t a lot of Jews in the South is a myth. Numbers-wise, no there are not a lot of Jews in the South. But their impact on their communities is far greater.”