Four years ago, I spent a Shabbat with the last Jews of Helena, Ark. — all six of them. They were a good-natured bunch, gathered in the living room of the community patriarch David Solomon, sipping on scotch and reminiscing.
The story I was writing was about the winding down of nearly two centuries of Southern Jewish life in a small Mississippi River town. But the folks in Solomon’s living room kept telling me I had to talk to the one person who challenged (if not wholly reversed) the narrative of decline: Doug Friedlander, a then-33-year-old New York transplant brought to the Delta for a two-year stint with Teach for America.
Turns out, Friedlander is still there, one among a number of big city transplants The New York Times credits with breathing new life into down-on-their-luck Southern towns:
Born in New York City and reared on Long Island, Mr. Friedlander is Jewish and vegetarian and has a physics degree from Duke.
But here he is, at 37, living in a roomy white house in this hard-luck Delta town of 12,000. Mr. Friedlander and his wife, Anna Skorupa, are part of a gradual flow of young, university-trained outsiders into the Delta’s shrinking communities, many of whom arrived through Teach for America and stayed beyond their two-year commitment.
Mr. Friedlander is now the ambitious director of the county’s Chamber of Commerce. He frets over the kudzu that is devouring abandoned buildings. He attends Rotary Club meetings, where he sidesteps the lunch offerings for carnivores. He organizes workshops to modernize small businesses and pushes tourism and the development of a decimated downtown along the banks of the Mississippi.
And it’s not just Friedlander: Matty Bengloff runs a yogurt shop in Cleveland, Miss., and hires a rabbi to lead services for his “church family.”
Check out video of what the last Jews of Helena did to save their old synagogue building. Miriam Solomon, David’s wife, who you can glimpse in the video sitting on the stage, died in 2011. But David is still kicking, so far as I know.