After decades of decline, small-town Jewish communities in the South are seeing some new signs of Jewish life. More ▸
Helena, Ark., was down to its last half-dozen Jews before Doug Friedlander arrived as a Teach For America volunteer. Today he is the director of the county Chamber of Commerce. More ▸
Fewer than a dozen Jews remain in Helena, Ark., a majority of them in their 90s. Yet they continue to meet for Friday night services in private homes, just as the city’s first Jewish settlers there did nearly two centuries ago. More ▸
Here’s video from my weekend in Helena, Ark. More ▸
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." More ▸
After barely a week to recuperate and ingest vast quantities of turkey, I’m back on the road. Over the next ten days, I’ll be swinging through Arkansas and Alabama visiting two spots where Jewish life is nearly extinct and one where it has achieved a remarkable and unexpected birth. First stop is tiny Helena, Arkansas,… More ▸