Sometimes, Benjamin Rosenthal thinks about leaving the small town of Indianola, Miss., pop. 11,000, where he spent most of his life.
He wants to go somewhere bigger, with more Jews.
“It’s very easy to lose your identity in the Bible Belt in a town when you are the religious minority,” said Rosenthal, 25.
In the Bible Belt, religion rules and Jesus is king, particularly in the small towns and cities that make up the region in the U.S. South. Jews comprise less than 1 percent of the population in the South, according to Louis Schmier, a professor of history at Valdosta State University in Georgia, with most living in large cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. Some so-called circuit rabbis travel hundreds of miles to different congregations, often with fewer than 50 members. One of the first questions a newcomer in the South is typically asked is “What church do y’all go to?”
A self-described “displaced New Yorker” from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Schmier, 70, moved South in 1962 with his own stereotypes. “My image was that on Saturday night every Southerner got himself liquored up, put on his sheet and went out looking for – ” he said, using two unquotable terms for Jews and blacks. In reality, he said, “They’re a nice people down here.”
Nice, and often curious, says Rosie Perlstein, whose husband, Shaul, is rabbi of Chabad Lubavitch of Chattanooga.
“People are always calling and always want to learn about” Judaism, she said. “People ask in a nice way. They’re polite. They’ll ask about different holidays.”
The Perlsteins moved to Chattanooga from Brooklyn in 2009.
While many people have a respectful curiosity about Judaism, others think it’s their duty to spread the word of Jesus, the rabbi said. “It’s impossible to stop in the South,” he said.
The Perlsteins say that drive is not born of malice, but simple ignorance of other beliefs. This is a common sentiment expressed by Southern Jews.