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Radical Inclusivity In The Red States: A Look Inside Hilton Head’s Small But Thriving Jewish Community

Image by Courtesy Brad Bloom

Hilton Head, South Carolina has earned a worldwide reputation for its top flight golf courses and as a paradise for spectacular beaches. Yet, this community, commonly referred to as the Low Country, has a history that goes back to the Civil War period. Hilton Head Island became the Union’s southern headquarters during the war, and a military supply depot as well. Former slaves took refuge inside Union Camps here, and in late 1862 Union forces established the town of Mitchelville as a refuge for them. By November 1865 they numbered 1500 souls.

Today the town of Hilton Head is a thriving tourist center. Many tourists have come to settle down as full time residents and live together with the indigenous population of native islanders. Hilton Head also has an active Jewish community with one synagogue, Congregation Beth Yam. It is unique because this congregation serves a diverse Jewish community of residents who came from larger East Coast and Mid-West metropolitan areas, and consequently, consists of Jews from Reform, Conservative and secular backgrounds. Most of the residents are retirees, but also quite a few young families in the region live here, serving in the professions, retail business, the hospitality industry and education.

South Carolina is undoubtedly a red state and the politics on Hilton Head are decidedly conservative. For Jews that means most of the synagogue community represents a socially liberal and fiscally moderate- to- conservative enclave. However, our congregation is flexible and even elastic in its religious orientation in order to serve a diverse set of religious and spiritual backgrounds. This makes it all the more interesting and challenging in what I call a “new age” congregation, where denominational labels mean less than they did in their previous communities. Obviously it is an ongoing balancing act, not only in dealing with diverse and sometimes conflicting political perspectives on American social and political issues, but also on Israel as well.

Recently we had a Shabbat morning program addressing different perspectives on the idea of the stranger in the Bible and in Judaism. This played into a larger discussion on the immigration issue, while on the same day the Immigration and Customs service was carrying out major round ups of illegal residents in Beaufort County. Needless to say, there were different opinions like everywhere else on the need to show Judaism’s values of treating the stranger in our communities with compassion and hospitality versus the current legitimate concerns for national security. Within the Jewish community one of the most important challenges we face is how to listen to each other and be respectful of our divergent viewpoints.

The irony of living in a Red State is that, for those Jews who hold Conservative views, it is uncomfortable for them to speak about their political perspectives with other members of the Jewish community because of what they believe will be the hostile reaction from their more liberal- leaning fellow congregants towards their views. Yet they represent the majority opinion in the community at large. The more politically liberal Jews, on the other hand, feel hesitant and cautious about expressing themselves in the community at large, but also see the synagogue as the only safe place to share their viewpoints.

Social Justice and volunteerism is also of prime interest, particularly when it comes to community service. The Jewish community, for example, sponsors an ecumenical program called Backpack Buddies, which raises funds to supply children with food supplies over the weekend. Recently our temple joined with three African American pastors and their congregations and hosted the annual Martin Luther King Jr. service where almost 350 people attended. Choirs and speeches along with robust singing brought all religions and racial groups together to celebrate the teachings of Dr. King.

Image by Courtesy Brad Bloom

Our next project is called Project Safe, which is a community wide effort with the Town Council, Community Foundation of the Low Country and the religious community to raise funds to provide sewer line hookups to almost five hundred families living on the island. There is a stark contrast between prosperous families and the working poor on Hilton Head, which is why this project aims to provide families and their homes with the dignity of living in a healthy and respectable environment.

The upshot is that there many opportunities for folks, regardless of their politics, to join together to engage in tikkun olam and to work ecumenically with church groups and service organizations.

Hilton Head really does represent the “New South,” even though there aren’t that many true southerners living here. People have learned how to live together and enjoy the wonderful climate and surroundings. When Hurricane Matthew swept through our community, it didn’t distinguish between red and blue houses. People worked together and didn’t worry about politics. The role of religion in our society, as well as in the Jewish community, plays a critical role: not only to advocate on issues of social importance in the larger society but also to foster ecumenical dialogue within the Jewish community itself.

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