Rabbi Rick Jacobs Travels to the Deep South
Summers in New York City are blisteringly hot. To escape, some people head to the Jersey Shore or to other beaches to cool off; others head to the mountains to get away from the humidity. Me? This July, I headed to the Deep South – Tennessee and Mississippi, to be exact – and although I didn’t beat the heat, I found my trip to be refreshing in another kind of way: the spiritual kind.
I started my trip in Memphis, Tenn., the home of soul music, gospel, and rhythm and blues, where my colleague Rabbi Micah Greenstein served as my guide. Together we toured the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was brutally murdered in 1968. We spent an afternoon immersed in civil rights history, understanding where we’ve come from as well as how far we have yet to go.
I joined Rabbi Greenstein for Friday night services at Temple Israel Memphis, where he serves as the senior rabbi. With more than 1,400 families among its members, Temple Israel is one of the largest Reform synagogues in North America, and certainly among the largest in the Deep South. As we made our way around the community I had the opportunity to give a sermon at T’filah services and to join the Temple Israel community for Shabbat dinner, where I spent time with members Rudi and Honey Scheidt, the Memphis couple who graciously underwrites the URJ’s Scheidt Seminar, an annual training institute for congregational presidents. Through these conversations and experiences, I came to understand Temple Israel as a congregation with a deep history and strength, upheld by an unwavering sense of purpose and mission that leads their work.
Early Saturday morning, I drove to Greenville, Miss., for Shabbat morning services with Hebrew Union Congregation, which is led by the gifted Rabbi Debra Kassoff. Hebrew Union Congregation is the spiritual home to about 50 Jewish families in the area, including those who drive in from communities almost 100 miles away. We were joined not only by congregants and by the mayor of a neighboring city, but also by religious leaders of other faiths, including Catholic priests and a Methodist minister who attended to show their support and friendship. It felt natural and comfortable for these leaders to pray together, and it became evident that this Southern religious community is committed to shaping relationships built on respect and tolerance. Given the Deep South’s history of intolerance and division, it was an especially beautiful and reassuring experience.
Later that afternoon, I made the two-hour drive to Jackson, Miss., home to Beth Israel Congregation, led by the fantastic Rabbi Valerie Cohen. After having spent Shabbat with a very large congregation and a very small one, visiting the medium-sized Beth Israel Congregation felt like the completion of a trifecta – the perfect URJ day!
Beth Israel Congregation represents a beautiful mosaic of our Movement. The synagogue is a magnet for Mississippians, representing a variety of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, who are spiritually hungry. They come to the congregation as individuals seeking a spiritual path and overwhelmingly find great nourishment and acceptance there. Like Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, Jackson’s Israel Congregation is home to Reform Jews from across a wider demographic area; one young woman told me her family drives more than an hour to attend services and programs. Boasting a real sense of Southern Jewish heritage and pride, Beth Israel is also deeply connected to URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp, located just 45 minutes away, and to ensuring that their youth have the opportunity to be a part of this immersive Jewish camping experience.
It was at Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss., that I ended Shabbat by making Havdalah with campers, counselors, and faculty. Looking out over the camp as the light of that twisted candle flickered in our eyes, I was able to appreciate what a unique and powerful experience camp is for the members of this community. For many Jewish kids from the South, camp is a lifeline – their first immersion into Jewish life. In an area where many students spend the school year as the only Jew in their classes or even in their cities, camp represents a powerful, life-changing experience.
I spent all day Sunday at Jacobs, touring the camp and meeting with counselors-in-training about youth engagement and the Jewish future. At a late-night campfire with musician Dan Nichols (who performed for us earlier that day), I shared some words of appreciation for the great work that our counselors and program staff do and the difference they make in the lives of Jacobs’ kids. I reminded them that what we do at camp changes lives. I know it changed mine! My life was Jewishly awakened by my years at URJ Camp Swig, where I learned what it means to be connected not just to the community but to prayer, Shabbat, social justice, and the Holy One. Dan told a similar story about camp guiding his Jewish passions, and we agreed: Camp changes lives.
Indeed, Reform Judaism changes lives. My trip to the south was an incredible opportunity to meet with dedicated, passionate Reform Jews in areas of the U.S. not known for its numeric strength. In Tennessee and Mississippi, at Temple Israel Memphis, Hebrew Union Congregation, Beth Israel Congregation, Henry S. Jacobs Camp, I was honored to meet so many people who are committed to maintaining a vibrant Jewish life in the Deep South and to ensuring similar connections and experiences for future generations of Jewish southerners.