Jewish in the Bible Belt

Tiny Communities Manage To Thrive in Christian Heartland

By JTA

Published September 01, 2012.
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“The rank-and-file citizenry here knows Judaism and respects Judaism, but doesn’t understand Judaism, doesn’t understand why we don’t accept Christ into our heart as our savior,” said Robert Goldsmith, executive director of the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan, Ala.

His wife, Lynne, is one of the traveling rabbis, as is Debra Kassoff. Based in Jackson, Miss., Kassoff makes a nearly 450-mile round-trip to Greenville, Miss., every other weekend. Rosenthal is among her congregants, traveling 30 miles to Greenville’s Hebrew Union Temple.

Kassoff previously had been director of rabbinic studies at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, which runs the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, from 2003 to 2006. While there, she traveled a six-state region, conducting services in different cities that did not have a full-time rabbi.

“There’s a world of difference between a Boston sensibility and a Jackson or Greenville sensibility,” said Kassoff, who served as the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Mass., from 2006 to 2010.

“In Boston there is a large Jewish community. People can be Jewish, but not really show up,” she said. “In a place like Greenville, that is not as possible. It’s not possible to take for granted that there will continue to be services. We don’t have the same critical mass.”

It is the lack of critical mass that led Kassoff to suggest holding services only every other week at Hebrew Union, and also led the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services to launch the Family Relocation Project in Dothan, which offers up to $50,000 financial assistance to Jewish families willing to relocate to Dothan for at least five years.

Stephanie Butler, 34, her husband Ken, also 34, were one of less than five families to take up the offer. In 2010, they left St. Petersburg, Fla. for Dothan. The Jewish community in their new home, she said, is close-knit, but very small indeed. Of more than 66,000 residents, only 65 families in the area are Jewish.

“Here there are people who have never met someone who is Jewish,” she said. “Whether or not I feel responsible for educating them, they always have a lot of questions. They have an interesting perspective about Jews being the chosen people. They’re like, ‘Oh, I respect you so much.’ And I’m like, ‘you don’t know me.’ They have preconceived notions about who and what Jews are.”


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