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Inspiring ‘Em Way Down in Dixie

It’s easy to look at the struggle for justice in the Deep South through the lens of Hollywood dramas like ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ or ‘Selma.’

Things are a bit trickier when the battles are real — but that’s exactly what Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar faces every day at Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville, Alabama.

Whether it’s standing up to bullying in schools (imagine your classmates leaving Holocaust jokes on your cell phone) or for immigration reform (who knew that could affect Jews in a small Southern city?), Bahar has made a rabbinic career out of standing up for the “strangers in our midst,” those who are isolated or in danger.

“It’s not an easy job, but tikkun olam isn’t supposed to be easy,” she said. “I’m not expecting a pat on the back for just doing my job.

That’s what makes her so inspiring.

And guess what? When couples found themselves locked out of the marriage clerk’s office across Alabama as a judicial fight over gay marriage raged, fellow leaders of faith knew just where to turn.

Bahar’s temple opened its doors to Wedding Week so all couples — gay or straight, religious or otherwise — could join in matrimony.

“Our leadership was united: it was just the right thing to do,” said Bahar, 34. “That’s my job as rabbi.”

Rabbi Elizabeth Behar discusses plans to hold ‘Wedding Week’ with Rev. Lynne Abbott

Raised in Pittsburgh, Bahar attended Brandeis and Hebrew Union College. She is married with two toddlers, and a third child on the way this summer.

Most newly-ordained rabbis don’t get the chance at a solo pulpit as their first position, but B’nai Sholom, the only Reform congregation in Huntsville, took a chance on Bahar.

“Southern Jews know about risk, and my congregation took a risk when they hired me. I’m so grateful,” she said. “That first year was a learning experience for all of us, and the congregation was there supporting me and helping me succeed.”

The Temple membership has voted twice to extend her contract, a vote of confidence that Bahar appreciates.

Encouragement also came from more unexpected sources in Huntsville, a conservative city of 186,000 halfway between Birmingham and Nashville, Tennessee.

Rabbi Bahar quickly bonded with a small local group of female Christian religious leaders who understood the challenges she faced. That sisterhood gave her the confidence to reach out and build bridges to other religious and community groups. Classroom bullying was one of the first issues she took on.

“What do you say to a teen whose so-called friends leave ‘jokes’ about ashes and the Holocaust on his cell phone? How is that ever OK?” she asked. The community’s Jewish population is small, and some children are the only Jewish students in their entire school. “Tolerance” isn’t just a concept for them, she noted, it’s a survival strategy.

The leaders soon realized that bullying was endemic to the local school system, and LGBT students were even more at risk than Jewish students.

Bahar connected with James Robinson, founder of North Alabama’s only gay community center and resource for LGBT youth (Free2Be.org). Her position as a clergymember helped gain access to the city school administration, he explained. “We joined together to work for Jewish and LGBTQ youth,” Robinson said.

The local Jewish Federation partnered with the Anti-Defamation League to provide funding for an anti-bulling initiative at one particular school. Eventually, the effort went city-wide as the “No Place for Hate” initiative. program.

Bahar has advocated for undocumented families targeted by Alabama’s notorious anti-immigration bill (which was subsequently declared unconstitutional).

Not everybody in the temple saw it as a Jewish problem to stand up for immigrants’ rights.

“Some in our congregation were surprised that we had members who were hurt by this law: it was a wake-up call.”

She also serves as a leader in interfaith cooperation as a board member for the Madison County Interfaith Mission Service and the Southeast Clergy Association.

All of those struggles gave Bahar confidence to stand up and be counted. But none of them prepared her for the outpouring of support for Wedding Week, a possible sign of the deep wellspring of support for marriage equality, even in the most unlikely of places.

“The credit goes to the congregation who supports me and works for justice with me,” she said. “We’ve all learned from Pirkei Avot that we may not complete the work, but we can’t turn away from it.”

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