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Southern Jewish Life 101

MCS 2012 at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham

by Sarah “Taco” Fanwick
Participant, Mitzvah Corps of the South 2012

When our staff informed us that we would be taking a break from working with Habitat for Humanity in Birmingham just to tour Temple Emanu-El, I didn’t at first “get” why we were visiting a congregation without evening staying for services. However upon meeting Rabbi Haas, I quickly understood why.

My main stereotype of Birmingham was that the people there were not going to be accepting of Jews. Martin Luther King Jr. focused his energy there because it was supposed to be the most racist place in the South, leading me to believe that they were not very accepting of anyone who was different. However, the exact opposite was true. Temple Emanu-El has been standing for 100 years, has 750 families there, and are very much accepted within the greater Birmingham community.

For all the feelings of tolerance, there have been bumps along the way. Rabbi Haas told a story of a boy who became a bar mitzvahand was very happy. That night, he asked the Rabbi to call him. When she did, she found out that someone had told him that since he was Jewish, they couldn’t be friends anymore. The rumor spread, and lots of people said they too couldn’t be his

MCS 2012 at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham

MCS 2012 at Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham

friend anymore.

Another surprising thing was that the rabbi we met with was a woman. That might seem weird for me to say, but since Jews aren’t always completely accepted in their communities, they might not have accepted a female rabbi. Reform Jews, however, really seem to be accepting of everyone and everything, no matter their color, or their gender.

Relating this back to me and my Jewish identity, I realized how strong our community is. In the Torah portion of the week we were in Birmingham, we read about Balak and how when an obstacle is in your way, it might be there for a reason. Prejudice in the South has, in my opinion, made that community stronger. The people there have had to deal with hate and hardship, and have continued to survive. Birmingham has changed since the time of Martin Luther King Jr., and while prejudice may still exist, we have the strength to overcome it.