Keeping the faith: As Jewish population in the South declines, local Jews bond to maintain traditions

March 25, 2013 10:17:28 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


Sunday afternoon, Dr. Seth Oppenheimer drove from his home in Starkville to Tuscaloosa, armed with a very special grocery list -- the items he will need for tonight's Passover meal. 


The hour-long trek is not unusual. It is an undertaking Jews in small communities across Mississippi will make as they prepare for the holiday, which begins tonight at sundown and marks the exodus from Egypt and their liberation from slavery more than 3,300 years ago. At the turn of the century, Oppenheimer could have simply strolled down Main Street to gather his supplies. Jewish life was a prominent part of Columbus, and downtown was filled with the evidence of their prosperity and the contributions they made to the commerce and culture of the area.  


But times have changed in Mississippi, and as numbers continue to dwindle, Jews across the South find themselves faced with a formidable task -- how to maintain their religion in the region. Aging congregations, an economic slump and a nation that increasingly is struggling to keep young people engaged in the religious traditions of their parents and grandparents present serious obstacles.  


At its peak, approximately 6,420 Jews lived in Mississippi, but the North American Jewish Data Bank estimates that in 2011, only around 1,575 continued to call the Magnolia State their home. The population was only slightly larger in Alabama -- 8,850 Jews lost in a sea of Protestants.  


It's not easy, admitted Oppenheimer, who officially became the lay rabbi at B'Nai Israel in Columbus in 2007.  


Oppenheimer, who teaches mathematics and is the director of undergraduate research at Mississippi State University's Shackouls Honors College, is one of roughly 20 families who worship here, and though the numbers have risen and fallen throughout the years, he has never seen more than around 30 families in any given year. 




The heyday 


In 1905, the temple boasted 75 Jews, and their influence was evident through shops like Simon Loeb and Brothers Department Store, Kaufman Brothers, L. Rosenzweig and Co., Isenberg Brothers, Feinsteins, Loeb's Furniture Company, Hirshman's Dry Goods and others. In 1940, Ruth's Department Store opened, anchoring Fifth and Main and providing the first job for many a young Columbian.  


As the Jewish population continues to decline across the South, some innovative congregations have started paying big bucks to lure new families to their areas. Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services offered $50,000 to families willing to move to Dothan, Ala. In Birmingham, Ala., the Birmingham Jewish Federation actively recruits young Jews, trying to keep them in the South.  


But the big cities are a big lure. Decades ago, young people would go to college, then return to take over the family business, but these days, opportunity lies elsewhere, Oppenheimer says. His own children now live in Chicago.  


For him, and the families who continue to support B'Nai Israel, there is nowhere else they would rather be than at the little temple on Second Avenue North, across the street from Memorial Funeral Home. 


People often pass the synagogue unaware of its presence, says Dr. Carolyn Adams-Price, associate professor of psychology at MSU and B'Nai Israel's board president. And yet, Jews have been praying together in Columbus since the 1840s and have had a temple on the site for more than a century.  


Like Oppenheimer, and many other members, she drives from Starkville for services every other week or as Oppenheimer's schedule permits. Others drive from Aberdeen, Brooksville and even West Alabama. 


Ordinarily, services would be held Friday night and Saturday morning, but people aren't going to make the drive two days in a row, Oppenheimer says. They make do with what they have.  


But being small has its advantages.  


In a big city, the temple might have 1,000 members, but only 30-40 people might show up for a service, he says. At B'Nai Israel, participation is closer to 100 percent. Nothing is taken for granted.  


"You have to be committed and really put forth the effort to be part of the community," Oppenheimer says. "If you want to raise your kids here, you have to be conscious of who you are. You can be lackadaisical about it if you're living in New York City. You can't if you live in Starkville." 


That fact isn't lost on visitors, Adams-Price says. People from larger Jewish communities are often surprised that when they come to B'Nai Israel, they are given a more central role than they would ever experience in their home congregations. They can light the candles at the beginning of the service -- a big honor, she says. There are intimate home gatherings, small-scale affairs filled with the laughter and warmth often lacking in mega-temples. 


She estimates that around 45 people will attend tonight's Passover seder, a special meal during which specific food items will be eaten at specific times as the scripture is read and they work their way through the Exodus story. She's hoping to see some young families present.  




University impact 


The temple benefits both from its proximity to MSU and Mississippi University for Women and the influx of international industry in the area. A new Jewish student group at MSU is also infusing new life into the congregation. Every once in a while, there is a wedding. Recently, there was a baby naming ceremony. Years pass and the faces change, but the temple goes on. 


B'Nai Israel has become very much a "21st century" congregation, Oppenheimer says. They have a blog which he keeps updated with service times, and they maintain a Facebook page.  


He finds recruitment programs like that in Dothan appealing but admits it's unlikely B'Nai Israel would ever have the money for such a thing.  


"We're saving up money to buy a new roof," he says, laughing.  


He is well aware that in order to attract -- and keep -- families, the temple has to offer something else. Here, in the heart of the Bible Belt, that often amounts to Southern hospitality. Among the families, there is a warm, close-knit geniality and a strong sense of what it means to be Jewish in the South.  


"You have to be conscious of what you're doing," he says. "In this area, to be Jewish, you can't just do nothing about it. If you want something to be there for you, you have to build it." 


And so, as the congregation ages, they look toward the future. Adams-Price will sell handmade jewelry at the Market Street Festival to raise funds for the $10,000 roof. Oppenheimer will drive as far as necessary to gather matzo, gefilte fish and macaroons for tonight's meal. And even though the members get tired, responsible for so much of the temple's upkeep and operations, they will continue to fight burnout to maintain the community that sustains them.  


When Oppenheimer's children were small, he allowed them to go to church with their Protestant friends, but he also taught them that although there is value and holiness in other traditions, these are their practices, and this is who they are.  


Tonight, on Second Avenue North, as they celebrate their people's freedom, they will also honor the traditions that have held B'Nai Israel together for more than a century and, hopefully they say, will continue in Columbus well into the next.

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.