Jewish in the Bible Belt

Tiny Communities Manage To Thrive in Christian Heartland

By JTA

Published September 01, 2012.
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Still, she said, she has not experienced bigotry or anti-Semitism during her time in Dothan. Likewise, said Kassoff, many of her congregants in Greenville have told her they have encountered confusion, but not cruelty.

Rosenthal, however, said he has experienced some mild instances of anti-Semitism. “As a child, “I got told I was going to Hell because I killed Jesus. It frustrated me to no end,” he said.

One time, he added, a colleague asked him what he was doing for Easter. “You know,” she said, “because that’s the day y’all killed our lord and savior.”

The Perlsteins’ experience has been a little different. They say their family’s devotion to their religion evokes a certain respect, particularly in an area where faith has such a stronghold.

“I think people see that we’re Jewish, and that we’re proud of our religion and we hold it strong, and I feel like people have a strong respect for that,” Rosie Perlstein said. “Maybe it’s because they’re so religious. The idea of being proud of who you are instead of working on assimilating, I’ve found people to really respect that.”

She said her family is in Chattanooga to stay – on a mission to enrich the Jewish community in a small city in the Bible Belt.

Rosenthal, on the other hand, says he’s not certain he’ll remain in his small town. He had left Indianola for the University of Memphis, where he was active in Hillel and surrounded himself with Jewish friends – an experience that differed greatly from the private, Christian-based school he had attended growing up, where students prayed in Jesus’ name daily. After college, he moved back to Indianola, where he works as assistant director of information services at South Sunflower County Hospital.

“It is a lot better than it was when I was a child,” he said. “Coming back and being more mature helped.”

He says he doesn’t associate with the people from his childhood who tried to use his religion against him and he has a serious girlfriend who is in the process of converting to Judaism. Sometimes, he says, he struggles with a feeling of responsibility he feels toward his tiny community.

“I don’t want the Jewish culture and the Jewish community to die off in the Bible Belt,” he said. “But then, a part of me wants to get out.”


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