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Out of Mississippi: Struggling To Revive the Dixie Diaspora

As long as there has been a Diaspora, the fate of struggling communities has mobilized Jewish philanthropists and planners, who pour in resources and personnel everywhere, from the former Soviet Union to North Africa.

For Macy Hart, those kinds of efforts are needed closer to home, in places such as Selma, Ala., and Natchez, Miss.

For Jewish life in the Deep South to overcome the twin plagues of attrition and assimilation, argues Hart, executive director of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., rabbinical seminaries, large congregations and established Jewish communities with rabbis and other Jewish professionals must “think outside the box” and offer resources to Jews with fewer opportunities.

As he engages in what at times seems like a one-man mission to improve cultural, educational and religious offerings to Jews in 12 Southern states, Hart is asking national rabbinic leaders to be generous with their resources in the short term, in hopes of making long-term gains.

Specifically, he urges:

• The posting of newly ordained rabbis, not as assistants in large urban congregations but “in small clusters of congregations that we call geographic coalitions,” Hart said. The novice rabbis would receive competitive salaries and reduce their student loans for each year served in a geographic coalition. Just as important, Hart contends, these rabbis “would touch Jewish life in a way a third or fourth assistant rabbi in a large congregation somewhere doesn’t often get the opportunity to do.”

• Urge senior rabbis and large congregations to stop hiring newly ordained rabbis as assistants and encourage novices to serve isolated congregations. If more children in outlying areas are exposed to rabbis, Hart said, all Jews will benefit. “Invariably some kid is going to grow up and be a rabbi because he was exposed to one of these rabbis,” he said. And if these rabbis eventually moved on to big-city congregations, they would arrive with experience, Hart said.

• Develop partnerships between large urban congregations and smaller congregations in outlying areas, akin to the linkages between Diaspora and Israeli communities. “How hard would it be twice a year for a rabbi from a large congregation to go to two or three communities and be a Jewish presence?” Hart asked.

Hart just might get a sympathetic ear for his partnership proposal. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called such linkages “a great idea.”

“Those kinds of things can be helpful. There have been in our movement a number of congregations that have been helpful in that way and have said, ‘We’ll provide a rabbi to go visit some smaller congregations,’ ” Epstein said. “Some of them have let their assistant or associate do those kinds of things.”

As in the Reform movement, the Conservative seminaries “send rabbinic students in their last few years to visit some of these smaller congregations and provide help on a weekend basis — not only to lead services, but to work with religious schools on Sunday morning, to provide adult education on Saturday night,” Epstein said.

But Epstein is less receptive to Hart’s other proposals.

“I’m not certain that I would argue that the small congregation is better training” for a new rabbi, he said. “If the mentor is right, it may be helpful for many rabbis to learn from someone who is a good mentor in a large congregation.”

Large congregations need two full-time rabbis, he added. Epstein’s solution, then, is “to produce more rabbis.”

Epstein’s counterpart at the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, was not available for comment.

Though Jews in the South, and in small communities throughout North America, make up less than a sixth of the Jewish population, they deserve an infusion of communal resources, Hart said.

“We say every Jewish life counts. We say, ‘Clal Yisrael,’” or all Jews are a people, Hart said. “We’re trying to save people in Europe, Argentina, elsewhere in the world. Why wouldn’t we want to save Jews here?”

Hart’s idea of Jewish outreach is to “put some dollars back in the small communities,” where many urban Jews were born and raised, attended religious school and began their Jewish lives.

“For us simple country folk,” he said, “it’s just common sense.”

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