From the moment I started researching my trip to the Deep South, a veil of sadness has hovered over my reporting. In town after town, the Jewish population has been in steady decline for years and often the remainder is but a handful of older people bearing witness to the final chapter of nearly two centuries of Jewish life.
But in Helena, Ark., at least, what I found was not only the absence of any real sadness, but a sense of satisfaction at what they had built and what they were struggling, even in its final stages, to maintain.
Perhaps it says more about me and my vulnerability to nostalgia that I found this incredibly hard to understand. Where was the regret that sons and daughters had elected to build lives elsewhere? That a once proud and vital community was reduced to a handful of elderly Jews barely able to organize themselves for occasional services? That when these final Jews fade from the scene there will be nothing left but empty synagogues and cemetery plots?
Last night, as I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham preparing for a trip to what I anticipated would be yet another sad community in decline, I finally got some insight into this question from Rabbi Debra Kassoff. I first got to know Kassoff when I worked for a year as the editor of the Jewish Journal Boston North in Salem. Kassoff is in her final year as the assistant rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, Mass., but after her ordination at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 2003, she served for three years as an itinerant rabbi across the south, ministering to declining communities like those in Helena and Selma. In 2006, she presided over the final service at Helena’s Temple Beth El.
When I asked her about the sadness thing, Kassoff said she felt much like the Jews in Helena. Sure there is some heartbreak, she said, but look at what they built there. And look at the incredible spirit that keeps it going even in its twilight hour.
"It was mostly fairly inspiring," Kassoff told me. "What set that community apart for me, from many, perhaps most of the other communities I visited, is it really did, and does continue to this day, have this amazing spirit about them and this great spark as a community. And it was always pleasant and lovely to be with them."
For nearly 200 years, the institutions of Helena’s Jewish community served its members well. They built a beautiful synagogue building, educated their children to be proudly identified Jews, and dispatched them to better lives — both as Jews and as productive, educated citizens — in other communities. David and Miriam Solomon’s three sons are all active members in more established communities — in Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
"In some ways that community is a huge success story," Kassoff said.
That was a revelation. Jewish communities are primed to judge themselves by raw metrics — affiliation rates, demographic growth, federation fundraising, and so on. It was impossible for me to see a community as successful when it was on the verge of disappearing.
But times change, cities rise and fall, and I suppose some communities are only meant to last for a limited time. Helena has also planned for its ending well. It’s synagogue is in good hands, currently undergoing a thorough renovation by the Department of Arkansas Heritage, which will ensure not only that it is maintained and put to communal use, but also that it will always stand as a testament to the Jews that filled it with life. Same with the community cemetery, which will ultimately be preserved by a local trust. Some of its ritual objects were donated to a growing community in Bentonville (I’ll be there on Thursday, so stay tuned). One of its Torah scrolls is in use in Russia.
And for whatever time that remains, it’s a source of hope, not despair, that those last half-dozen Jews have chosen to take pride in what they are and what they were, rather than expend precious resources staving off the inevitable. They are winding down their communal life with dignity, their affairs in order and their spirit intact.
"They are able to really appreciate what they’ve been a part of there and what they were able to give their children who are now successful Jewish people all over the place," Kassoff said. "Nobody there takes for granted the Jewish community. And every single one of those people knows that if they care about there being a Jewish community in their town, that every single one of them has to do something about it. Which is in such stark contrast to places like Boston, or certainly the larger metropolitan areas that we associate with the American Jewish community."
In June, Kassoff will be leaving her Marblehead pulpit and moving to … Mississippi. Her husband has taken a position as a law clerk at the state supreme court in Jackson and she told the Jewish Journal this summer that she plans to find part-time congregational work in the area and spend more time with her two children. Some places might be dying out I guess, but all is not lost for Jewish life in the south.