Have you seen the John Wayne film “True Grit”? It’s set in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
This is how I explain my annual holiday vacation destination to anyone who asks. My wife and I have been coming here every Christmas for the past eight years to visit her family. In all the years of visiting this town in Northwestern Arkansas, I have not met a single Jewish person. This year, since Hanukkah and Christmas fell on the same dates, I finally had an opportunity to meet the Jews of Fort Smith.
I wanted to know — what is it like to be Jewish down here? And how does it feel to be such a tiny minority in the middle of the Bible Belt? I felt these questions were even more relevant in light of the recent election results.
On the morning of the third day of Hanukkah I met Jack Goodman. The only place with latkes on the menu was closed, so we drove across the road to Panera Bread. Goodman had an everything bagel with cream cheese. “I’m the president emeritus, plumber, electrician or anything else needed at United Hebrew Congregation, Fort Smith”, he told me. Born in Brooklyn to first-generation Americans, Goodman moved to Hawaii after his bar mitzvah, and later to Florida. He enlisted in the Air Force and worked on the B2 Spirit Bomber, living wherever Uncle Sam needed him. When the Cold War ended, he was reassigned to be a recruiter in Fort Smith. “Being in the Air Force, I didn’t really have a home, or property, anywhere else, so this became my home,” he said. When he retired from the Air Force, Goodman settled in Fort Smith, staying close to his two daughters and their families.
“I started attending the congregation here; they were very aged, very small, weren’t very active. They asked me to become a lay leader. I said sure, I’ve done it before so I’m glad to do it.” Goodman taught and held sermons at the Air Force base. As time passed, he was given more responsibilities in the congregation until he became president for a term that lasted 10 years. United Hebrew Congregation is a Reform congregation with about 50 members. There is no rabbi. The service is held by members of the community, student rabbis or visiting rabbis. Goodman teaches often, but he is not ordained. “If I become ordained I’ll have to have a pulpit somewhere, and it’s usually in big cities that can support you. Well, that’s not where I think I’m needed.”
We drove to the congregation house. It’s a modern building, built in the 1950s, located in a residential area on a dead-end street. It’s an odd location, almost hidden in a dark corner of the town. The house is surprisingly large for such a small community. “It’s always a challenge to keep up with maintenance,” Goodman said, and told me that the roof needs fixing. Despite several vandalism attacks on the house, Goodman does not feel threatened. “Over the years there have been swastikas painted on the sidewalk, but nothing that was ongoing. Some we thought were mainly juveniles, just pranks,” he said. He seemed completely at ease, even when he told me about the last attack, in 2010, when the beautiful stained-glass windows were shattered by bricks. After that, security cameras were installed, and since then no more incidents have occurred. Thinking about the location of the building, I realized that someone would really have to seek out the place to harm it. I tried to question Goodman more about it, but instead of elaborating, he chose to highlight how helpful the community was when the attacks happened. The Catholic Diocese and other churches reached out, wanting to help. “A newly opened Target close by had an overstock of Hanukkah merchandise,” he said. “When they heard about what happened, they donated all of it to us. We have been using it for the past five years!” He smiled and handed me several packages of colorful Hanukkah napkins, letting me know, “We are trying to get rid of these.”
With the spike in hate crimes in New York after the elections, many Jews have expressed worry about the president-elect and his Cabinet. I asked Goodman how his community feels about Trump.
“We probably embrace him more here,” he said carefully. I could sense that Goodman did not want to discuss politics.
“You know,” he said, “we’ve had several industries. Whirlpool for one, big refrigerator manufacturer, closed and moved to Mexico. You take a town of, what, 80,000-something now, and Whirlpool employed several thousands of people and suddenly they are out of work. It’s a big hit, and it affects the rest of the economy of the area. So you really feel it in these kind of communities versus New York or other major metropolitan areas. And then here is a candidate that’s telling us he’s gonna bring jobs, build us back up, and keep them here.”
The Jewish community of Fort Smith was established in 1856. Some of the Fort Smith pioneers were Jewish, and before the congregation moved to the new building, they had a synagogue downtown. Unfortunately it was leveled in the 1970s. I wanted to hear more about the old days, so I turned to Fort Smith’s oldest Jew, Irvin Sternberg. At 95 years old, Sternberg is still active in the community. He even writes the monthly newsletter. “How I got roped into that I’ll never know,” he told me. I sat down with him and his nephew Jerry, who also grew up in Fort Smith.
“When I was growing up, there were 60 families, 75 kids in Hebrew school. We had a choir on Friday night. The congregation never sang. If there was any singing, it was the choir. We could afford a full-time rabbi who gave a sermon,” Sternberg told me. He left Fort Smith in 1947 for San Francisco, and after 40 years he moved with his family to Tucson, Arizona. When he came back to Fort Smith in the late 1990s the congregation had totally changed: “When I first came back here 17 years ago there were maybe six or seven people; we would meet in the library of the temple.”
Since then, the congregation has grown. Still, Sternberg and his nephew are not too optimistic about its future. “If Jack were to leave town tomorrow, is there anyone to pick up the mantle?” Jerry asked his uncle. In silence, they shook their heads. “I still go every Friday, I don’t know why,” Sternberg concluded.
On the seventh night of Hanukkah I joined the holiday celebration at the synagogue. Outside the building sat a red truck with a hay bale in the pickup and another 20 parked cars. Goodman held the Hanukkah/Shabbat service, reading in Hebrew and English from Mishkan Tfila. There were about a dozen children in the room, singing, dancing and lighting the hanukiot. After the service, everyone joined the Oneg. Homemade latkes, matzo ball soup, kugel, jelly doughnuts and some Mexican food was served. People sat around the tables, eating and talking, while the kids played outside.
I was introduced to Selina Rosen. She walked around the tables, chatting with the community members. Everyone seemed to know her. “At one point the community has almost died out. We used to have services in the library, and we were lucky to get a minyan,” she told me. Rosen is an author and publisher of fantasy books. “We publish the stuff that New York won’t publish,” she said. She lives on a small “hippie farm” 20 minutes outside of town. She is a longtime member. “I have been going to this shul for 30 years. My son was 6 and he decided he wanted to go to shul,” she said. She looked for a synagogue in the phone book and found this place: “When I first started attending we had a student rabbi who came here every two weeks. We had an organist who came in every week. She was drunk most of the time. She would mangle the songs. It was great. I was a secretary answering the phone, I did the newsletter, I taught Hebrew school, I did services at least once a month.” She found her place in the community, but then things went downhill. “Members were going around telling parents of the children that I shouldn’t be teaching Hebrew school because I was gay. I just… my son has just lost his first child,” she said, choking up. “It was kind of the perfect storm. It’s like, I need you guys to be here for me, and instead you’re attacking me.” It was too much for her to handle. She left her post in the congregation and attended sporadically: “I was in and out for about 10 years. Jack kept saying, ‘Selina, come on, it’s all so silly; we need you, we don’t have enough leaders,’ so I came back. But I still refuse to be on the board.”
I asked Rosen about her thoughts regarding the political environment. “I don’t think we knew just how bigoted this area was until the recent thing with the rebel flag happened,” she said. “The whole area was flying rebel flags. With the recent election it’s getting even worse, they are emboldened now…. The university a few weeks ago was covered in Nazi propaganda. You put a bigot in office, it gives all the bigots a chance to go, ‘Hey, we can do whatever we want now!’” She spoke very openly on these issues, and in a tone very different from Goodman’s. “We had our temple vandalized several times,” she said. “One time they painted giant swastikas all over the windows and doors. Some members in the community want to brush these things away and pretend it doesn’t happen. You can’t do that, that is why it happens.”
Rosen doesn’t like talking about this to other members of the congregation: “In Perkei Avot it says, ‘Where there is Torah there should be no government, and where there is talk of government there will be no Torah.’ It’s just so divisive. I think the congregation is about fifty-fifty split on being horrified by the election and being okay with it.”
We got interrupted by a teenager with a yarmulke on his head and a talit bag in his hand. “See you tomorrow at 1:30!” he said to Rosen. “Okay, 1:30. Be there or be square. Don’t forget to bring your prayer book,” she answered, turning to me. “I’m getting him ready for his bar mitzvah. He’s never had a bar mitzvah. He’s 16 now, so we’re just now bar mitzva-ing him.
“It’s not an easy area to be Jewish, but this community makes it a little easier. A community that is friendly and open and honest.”
Rosen seems to have resolved most of her personal issues with the community. Maybe she didn’t have a choice. In order to keep this community alive, everyone has to find a way to work together. Goodman puts it this way: “If you belong to a church and you don’t like the way the music is, then you go to a different church…. You don’t want to be Lutheran? You can be Baptist. We don’t have that choice. So we have to accept each other with all our differences. Our biggest challenge is to survive. It just comes down to that.”
“It’s not easy to be Jewish here; you have to work at it,” he added, a heavy emphasis on the word “work.”