By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Unlike some of the larger religious groups in Mississippi such as Southern Baptists and United Methodists, whose sheer numbers make their histories and culture more accessible, the story of Jews in the state is a little harder to uncover. That’s exactly what a Jackson-based organization is in the process of doing.
Wednesday evening Macy Hart, president of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, visited Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo. He talked about the importance of keeping alive Jewish culture and learning throughout the South.
Hart understands the story of Mississippi’s small, widely scattered Jewish communities. He grew up as part of Jewish community in the Delta, and during the 1970s he was co-owner of Riley’s Jewelry in Tupelo, a business that was located where The Main Attraction is today.
“Raise your hand if you were born and raised here,” said Hart, to a group of 20 temple members, and only one raised a hand. Tupelo’s Jewish community is among the newer in the state, and like other communities, most of its members are transplants from other parts of the country.
Hart asked the congregation how many had taught Jewish Sunday school, and by a show of hands almost all indicated that they had. Few, however, had credentials. Providing resources for Jewish education, Hart said, including sending out nine itinerant teachers, is a service the institute is proud to offer.
“We think of it as a mythical congregation,” he said, explaining the institute’s mission of creating networks of connectivity among Southern Jews.
Since its founding in 2000, the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute has provided not only a repository for Jewish culture but rabbinical services and most recently a town-by-town history of the Jews throughout the South.
From Gulfport to Tupelo, the stories of Jews in 28 Mississippi towns are available to read on the institute’s website.
“So many of the stories follow a remarkably similar path. There really is a kind of universal narrative,” said Dr. Stuart Rockoff, who came on board eight years ago to head the institute’s history department.
Rockoff is currently collecting oral histories, stories of small-town, Mississippi Jews and their experiences of living in an area of the country where they comprise only a tiny fraction of the population.
As in many towns throughout the South, the story of Jews in Tupelo includes opening businesses and working as merchants.
Since most Jews had been legally prevented from owning land in the Europe, they had no experience with farming. When they arrived in the South they had to rely on their entrepreneurial acumen.
Simon Wolf and Emil Strauss were among the first Jews to arrive in Tupelo. They came in the latter part of the 19th century, soon after the railroad was completed linking Memphis and Birmingham. A century later there were around 200 Jews living in Lee County, many of them operating stores, like the Gage and Well Junk Company, Peltz’s Dry Goods Store and Weiner’s Department Store.
According to Rockoff, Jews’ commercial endeavors in towns like Tupelo gave them a great entree into civic life, and as the years passed they became important parts of the business and social fabric of their communities.
Temple B’Nai Israel dedicated its building in 1957, and on the booklet printed for the occasion nearly half of the 88 individual donors listed are non-Jewish. Twelve local businesses, including nine banks, donated money or purchased adds, including one rather humorous add from Bryan Brothers Packing Company in West Point. It advertises – of all things – “Prairie Belt Bacon.”
According to Rockoff, while Southern Jews’ entrepreneurial spirit and emphasis on education has provided opportunity, it’s also siphoned away younger members.
Around the turn of the century, he said, you could have expected to see a thriving Jewish community in most any growing, Southern town. According to the Mississippi Historical Society, the state reached its highest Jewish population in 1927 with just fewer than 6,500. Robust commerce usually coincided with a robust Jewish presence.
As the decades passed, fewer Jews chose to become merchants and more began entering the professions. Since then, young Jews have increasingly left small towns, like Tupelo, and gravitated more toward major metropolitan centers. As of 2001, there were only around 1,500 Jews in the state.
Most of the folks attending services at Temple B’Nai Israel for Sabbath services are 50 or older.
One thing remains constant, just as it has through numerous historical diasporas. When Jews arrive somewhere, they seek out other Jews and establish community.
That’s been the case for Dr. Richard Gershon, who in July became dean of the school of law at the University of Mississippi.
Gershon moved to Oxford from South Carolina, where his mother was a member of an Orthodox community. Along with his wife and two children, Gershon is settling nicely into his new surroundings, and the family has recently started meeting with a small Reform Jewish group in the Paris-Yeats Chapel.
“My experience of being Jewish in the South has been very positive. People have been genuinely welcoming,” said Gershon. He missed a couple of law classes at the University of Tennessee so he could observe the High Holy Days, but other than that life as a practicing Jew in the Bible Belt has been pretty seamless for Gershon.
According to Hart, Mississippi has between 11 Jewish communities, and only three full-time rabbis. Most, including Temple B’Nai Israel, rely either on an itinerant rabbi or a student or lay rabbi to lead services. That’s another reason why the resources the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute offers are so important.
Dr. Seth Oppenheimer is the student rabbi at Congregation B’Nai Israel in Columbus, a community that dates to the 1870s. Oppenheimer, a 50-year-old professor of mathematics and statistics at Mississippi State University, is taking classes part-time to be officially ordained. He’s been performing rabbinic duties, like lecturing on the Torah and presiding at Bar Mitzvahs, for a several years.
Much as the railroad and the advent of the Tennessee Valley Authority once brought Jews to Tupelo, so Columbus Air Force Base and the nearby Mississippi State University and Mississippi University for Women are bringing a continual flow of young, new members to Congregation B’Nai.
Oppenheimer is happy to have them. He’s also grateful for their patience, as he works his way toward “simcha,” or ordination.
“I started doing this because I wanted to have prayer in the community more often,” he said. “The community has been incredibly supportive and forgiving as I work my way to increasing skill as a prayer leader.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org