Blog  Civil Rights Journey: Jewish Life in the South

Civil Rights Journey: Jewish Life in the South

By Jonah Wiener-Brodkey, Mitzvah Corps Civil Rights Journey 2016 Participant

The 23 teens on our Mtizvah Corps Civil Rights Journey trip came from a diverse set of places; I personally came from California, but others came from Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, among others. Though we are divided in our experiences unique to our hometowns, there are at least two things that we undoubtedly all have in common: we’re Jewish, and we’ve never experienced anything quite like the Deep South. Because of these similarities, the differences seem insignificant.

Just as we came from different places yet are united in our Judaism, the fifteen congregants of Ahavath Rayim show just how diverse, yet linked, Jews in America are. During our trip, the Greenwood, Mississippi congregation hosted us for Shabbat services. Like many Southern Jewish communities, the Greenwood Jewish community is dying. There were roughly fifteen congregants at services on Friday, the majority of them in their 60s or older. Unsurprisingly, the service felt quite different from services back home. I come from a Sacramento congregation with about 600 families. As you might guess, the sight of many empty seats in the Ahavath Rayim sanctuary was a change for me.

Following the Shabbat service, an incredibly kind congregant, Gail, invited us to her Greenwood home for dinner. Over dinner, several of us had a conversation with Bubba, a member of the congregation whose views didn’t exactly align with our own. He was a nice guy from Greenwood with a great, identifiably Jewish sense of humor, but as the conversation turned to politics, his conservative views seemed to surprise many of the more liberal-minded members of our group.

To me, Bubba is an excellent representation of both our group of 23 teens and the Jewish American experience as a whole. We live in arguably the most diverse country in the world, but being Jewish serves as a common link between people from vastly different settings. It allows us to connect with a conservative Southern, despite being liberal. It allows us to interact with a tiny, yet familiar, community in an unfamiliar place where Judaism struggles to simply survive. Just the day before our Shabbat in Greenwood, we learned that many Jews in the South fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, a fact that shocked a good part of our Union-sympathizing group. Still, it’s crazy to think that Judaism is a common link between a group of 21st century Jewish teens and 19th century Confederate soldiers.

Our Mitzvah Corp group has brought together diverse experiences from all over the country and being in the South has exposed us to experiences otherwise unfamiliar to all of us. Having shared the experience of a Southern Shabbat with everyone in our group, I find it comforting to know that Jewish communities like Ahavath Rayim survive in the South. And it’s comforting to know that our time there is one of many unique experiences we’ll cherish and bring back to our own communities.

Catch a glimpse at Mitzvah Corps’ experience at Ahavath Rayim by watching the video below.