Standing beneath the chuppah during his wedding in May, Doug Friedlander said he felt a “magical moment,” and it wasn’t just because of his blushing bride.
Theirs was the first Jewish wedding in Helena, Ark., in more than 20 years.
An ailing Mississippi River town of 12,000, Helena once was home to a Jewish community of 150 families. Today, fewer than a dozen Jews remain, most of them 85 or older.
By 2006, the community could no longer support a synagogue, and Temple Beth El was turned over to the state, which remade it as a community center. Friedlander rented the facility for his wedding, which still has a Star of David on the glass dome above the former sanctuary and Hebrew passages inscribed in the doorways.
“I had a feeling it was the end of young people getting married here,” said Mary Lou Kahn, whose daughter Caroline was the last person to be married in the synagogue, in 1989. “It was great that the attendance was so large that many people could see what became of our beautiful temple.”
Helena’s story is a familiar one in the South, where many once-thriving, small-town Jewish communities have all but disappeared, their young people drawn away to better opportunities in bigger cities.
But Friedlander’s recent wedding – indeed, his very presence – is among a number of signs of new Jewish life in the South, which, while perhaps not enough to reverse long-term demographic trends, has injected a dose of optimism into towns accustomed to a narrative of decline.
“We understand one family can truly make a difference for the world and certainly for these small towns,” said Rabbi Marshal Klaven, director of rabbinic services at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, which provides resources to small Jewish communities in the region. “If they participate in some sort of communal Jewish existence, then Judaism is still alive.”
In 2010, Klaven was asked to lead a holiday service by members of the Upper Cumberland Jewish Community, a small havurah of fewer than 20 people in Crossville, Tenn., a city of about 11,000 people east of Nashville. When Klaven showed up, he was surprised to find 70 people there.
The community now holds Friday night services every other week for about 20 people; up to 75 may show up for holidays services, according to Nort Goodman, the community president. An interfaith Passover seder earlier this year drew about 150.