Giving a boost to Jewish life in the South

As Allie Goldman’s plane was making its descent on the blazing 97-degree Midland/Odessa airport in west Texas, the landscape dotted with oil dykes looked foreign to the Dallas native even though it was the same state.

But Goldman’s work schedule for the weekend was familiar: Leading Sabbath eve services with the small youth group at Temple Beth El Midland, running an Israel education program with the religious school and holding a meeting with the congregation’s education board to discuss how to utilize its new full-time rabbi.

“I’m sitting with 50- and 60-year-olds in this room, and for me, at 23 years old, it’s amazing,” Goldman told JTA. “I’m the expert because I’ve worked with many other congregations.”

Goldman is one of nine fellows from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life trolling the South to provide professional Jewish educational resources to small Jewish communities that don’t have them.

The two-year fellowship program started nine years ago to reach out to isolated Jewish communities in the American South. Without the Jewish population and knowledge base of larger urban areas, the communities often have religious schools run by all-volunteer staffs, including parents with little or no formal educational training.

The fellows, who work with communities on a standard curriculum of Jewish learning, split their time among 72 congregations and 59 schools in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The program works with adults and students at Conservative, Reform and Orthodox synagogues, as well as unaffiliated. The fellows lead youth group events, children’s services, yoga Havdalah services and confirmation classes.

The Institute for Southern Jewish Life also employs a circuit-riding rabbi for small congregations.

Though about half of the nine fellows grew up in the South, they say working with small communities has been an eye-opening experience—in some cases, exposing them to Jewish cultural rarities like matzah ball gumbo.

For Lauren Fredman, who grew up in the small Jewish community of Salt Lake City, Utah, before moving to Denver, Colo., the small communities have a familiar feel. Among the things she’s done on the fellowship has been to design an adult education program for Temple Sinai in New Orleans, La.

“People came up to me after and said, ‘I can’t believe I never knew this. I learned so much,’ ” Fredman said.

In Jackson, where the Institute for Southern Jewish Life is located, the fellows also are involved in local Jewish and civic life. Many teach in the city’s synagogue and volunteer in an afterschool tutoring program. They attend the institute’s annual conference to train Southern volunteer religious educators, and they use each other for support and advice.

Sarah Silverman of Houston, Texas, became a fellow because she always knew she wanted to be a teacher but believed she was too young and inexperienced coming out of college. The program hasn’t been all easy, she said.

“I gave a d’var Torah on the power of sight and how seeing can make you feel a certain way,” Silverman said. “A blind congregant didn’t appreciate what I was saying. I still get upset when I talk about it. It was challenging to know I had upset someone.”

But she turned it into a learning opportunity to better figure out how to give presentations.

At Temple B’nai Israel in Hattiesburg, Miss., the local fellow leads programs for the youth group, the religious school and tots.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Uri Barnea, said that “She brings new ideas, new programs, and new methods of teaching that enhance our own activities and perspectives on Jewish education.”

Traveling rabbi serves tiny Southern congregations


NATCHEZ, Miss. — As the sun inched below the horizon in this Mississippi River town, people arrived alone or in small groups and walked up the steps of Temple B’nai Israel on Shabbat.

Only about a dozen Jewish residents remain in Natchez, a city of about 16,400 best known for its elaborate plantation homes. As younger generations moved away, the congregation hasn’t had its own full-time rabbi since 1976.

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Civil War Jews Who Weren’t Just Whistlin’ Dixie

At the Passover seder next Wednesday evening, our children will recite the traditional question, “How is this night different from all other nights?” But the adults at the table are the ones who appreciate how this night really is different — not only from the rest of the year, but from the Passover seders of the past. As I started writing my third novel about Jewish spies during the Civil War, I began to wonder if American Jews had ever sat down at a seder where every part of the meal was served by slaves. As I discovered in my research, they did.

“All Other Nights,” released this week, is the story of Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union army who has relatives in New Orleans — including an uncle involved in a plot to kill Lincoln. When his commanders discover his connections, he is sent to New Orleans to assassinate his uncle at the Passover seder before the plot can progress. After this mission, he is offered another “opportunity,” this time involving the daughter of a Virginia family friend. But this time, his assignment isn’t to murder the spy, but to marry her — and then turn her in. Suffice it to say that this marriage doesn’t turn out the way anyone expected.

There were about 130,000 Jews in America at the time of the Civil War, and while the largest American Jewish community was, unsurprisingly, in New York, the second largest was in New Orleans. Like American Jews today, these Americans generally felt the passionate patriotism of those most grateful for the freedoms that no other country had ever offered them. They expressed that patriotism, whether they lived in the North or the South, by supporting and defending their home and its values — even when those values included keeping others enslaved. But the response of American Jews to the war differed from that of other Americans in one significant way. Many American religious denominations split at the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are “Southern” Baptists and “Southern” Methodists. But while there were already national Jewish organizations in America in the mid-1800s, including B’nai B’rith, none of them split during the Civil War. In the 19th century, most Americans didn’t have friends or relatives in other parts of the country, but many American Jews did — and could identify with people on the other side.

My novel is a work of fiction, but it was inspired by many real historical figures, including Judah Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Jewish secretary of state, who also served as a spymaster (and who appears as a character in the book), as well as several Jewish spies who served the North and the South. One such spy, Issachar Zacharie of New York City, was sent on a mission to the Southern capital in 1863 to secretly confer with Judah Benjamin about a potential peace treaty. It seems that Zacharie’s connection to Benjamin prior to their meeting, which President Lincoln authorized, consisted of nothing more than their both being members of the tribe.

Among other Jewish figures from the period, one particular couple caught my attention. Eugenia Levy Phillips, a Jewish woman from South Carolina who was imprisoned for spying for the Confederacy, was married to Philip Phillips, a Jewish congressman from Alabama who was a political moderate and opposed the South’s secession from the Union. One can only imagine the arguments at their seder table — and the tensions unveiled as the husband used his political connections to try to free his wife from prison. I was intrigued by the way a marriage can transcend a historic moment, and how Jewish identity can transcend a historic moment as well.

The theme of Passover, with its story of emancipation, brought both the differences and commonalities of these American Jews to the fore. There are stories of hatreds and painful debates between pro-slavery and anti-slavery rabbis — and also stories of Northern Jews bringing matzah to military prison camps so that captured Southern Jewish soldiers could celebrate Passover.

Historical novels are often much more about the time in which they are written than about the time in which they take place. I was drawn to this period in history because of how polarized America has become in the past 10 years and because of how polarized the American Jewish community has become as well — over politics, over Israel, over religion, over almost everything that matters — to the point where it is impossible to discuss current events without knowing in advance the other person’s point of view. And I wondered what kind of new thinking we might need to transcend the divisions among ourselves as our ancestors once did.

The central theme of Passover is freedom from bondage, but it is clear from Jewish tradition that slavery is considered not only a physical but also a mental state. The question, “How is this night different from all other nights?” is not only about the rituals of the seder, but about the essential change that the children of Israel had to undergo to become free people, which is the ability to take responsibility for one’s own life and choices. In this sense, each of us must regard ourselves individually as if we, too, were freed from Egypt — not only by remembering the suffering of slavery, but by remembering that we share our ancestors’ ability to change.

The Civil War was at its heart a battle within a family, and that is something that any family who sits down at the same table year after year can appreciate. After many years of family gatherings in such a house divided, it may seem impossible for tonight to be different from all other nights — and this year, as Jewish communities around the world face some of the greatest political, financial and existential challenges in generations, with no consensus about how to meet them, many of us desperately need this night to be different. All of us wish we knew how to make it so. But recalling our Passovers past, in both the most shameful and most triumphant moments in our history, will always remind us of the greatest gift of our freedom: our capacity to change. And perhaps this year, that will be enough for us.

Dara Horn’s third novel, “All Other Nights,” has just been published by W.W. Norton. Read the first chapter on her Web site at

Lowcountry Leisure — Southern Escape Steeped in History

So you’ve seen “Big Fish,” “Forrest Gump” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” and now you think you know what the South is all about — old mansions, moss-draped oaks, steamy swamps. Think again.

The South is a vibrant tapestry of culture, and its Jewish communities are important threads. Atlanta, Miami and Nashville are thriving tourism destinations, but Charleston, S.C., featuring luxuriant gardens, long porches and rocking chairs filled with laughing guests sipping sweet tea, is also flush with Jewish history that dates back to the 17th century.

It’s a city founded and steeped in religious tolerance. In 1669, an elaborate charter for the Carolina colony drawn up by English philosopher John Locke granted liberty of consciousness to “Jews, heathens and dissenters.” Sephardic Jews made this Atlantic port city the largest Jewish community in North America prior to the Revolutionary War, sharing the Lowcountry streets with Catholics and Protestants from France, Scotland, Ireland and Germany.

A popular winter destination for wealthy colonial Bostonians, Charleston also became a haven for religious colonists fleeing harsh policies in Georgia from 1740 to 1741. A substantial Jewish population founded Charleston’s first synagogue a decade later, followed by the Jewish Coming Street Cemetery in 1762.

More than 6,000 Jews currently make their home in Charleston, a community that features three synagogues, a day school and a Jewish community center, as well as a Jewish studies program at a local university. For observant tourists who want to feel transported back to the 18th century, a downtown kosher bed and breakfast is located a short walk from the city’s Orthodox synagogue.

Charleston not only features America’s first museum (The Charleston Museum) and its first Anglican church, but it is also home to the first Reform congregation established in the United States. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim on Hasell Street is the oldest Jewish building in Charleston and the second oldest synagogue in the United States.

Established in 1749, the congregation completed its current Greek revival-style synagogue in 1840, after a fire devastated its original site in 1838. During construction, the synagogue became the first in America to install an organ, a change that came 17 years after congregant Isaac Harby first lead 47 Jews to petition for English-language Shabbat services and prayers that reflected contemporary American life. A weathered plaque hangs outside, listing the site on the National Register of Historic Places, and the synagogue remains the oldest in continuous use in the United States and the oldest surviving Reform synagogue in the world.

Congregation Brith Sholom Beth Israel is an Orthodox synagogue located on Rutledge Avenue in the Medical district. Founded in 1854 under the name Berith Shalome by Polish and Prussian Jews, the shul was the first Ashkenazi Orthodox congregation in the city and is the oldest of its kind in the South. The congregation’s Web site features a list of city’s kosher amenities.

Synagogue Emanu-El on Windsor Drive is Charleston’s newest kid on the block, having been founded in 1947. The Conservative congregation is the first in the state and is located on five wooded acres in the West Ashley area.

Two books are available to help you unearth the Jewish history of Charleston during your stay, “A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life ” by Theodore and Dale Rosengarten (University of South Carolina, 2002) and “Explorations in Charleston’s Jewish History” by Solmon Breibart (History, 2005). But who better to bring the rich story of Charleston’s Jewish community to life than a tour guide?

Janice Kahn of Chai Y’all Tours has more than 30 years experience as a licensed tour guide. While certain elements of her Jewish heritage tour always remain the same, she customizes each tour based on the interests of the participants.

Also available is Rhetta Mendelsohn, who has been conducting tours of Charleston as a licensed guide for more than 25 years. Her tours average two to three hours and focus on Jewish history, with many stories about Jewish families in the Charleston area and its surrounding plantations.

There is no shortage of historic lodgings, like the John Rutledge House, the Wentworth Mansion or the Francis Marion Hotel. After all, who wouldn’t want to sleep in a comfortable four-poster bed, surrounded by antique furniture with an ornate fireplace and luxurious carpets?

But you don’t have to sacrifice if you keep kosher. The Broad Street Guest House is a bed and breakfast set in a three-and-a-half-story home constructed in 1884. Located in the South of Broad neighborhood, the home is a short walk from Congregation Brith Sholom Beth Israel, as well as the harbor, shops and other Charleston attractions. The Orthodox shul’s Rabbi Ari Sytner oversees kashrut for Broad Street, which serves three glatt kosher meals a day, as well as a special Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. Rooms at the house feature kitchenettes.

“[Guests] always tell me how courteous the people of Charleston have been to them as they tour the city,” said Broad Street’s innkeeper, Hadassah Rothenberg, who added that the best season to visit is either spring or fall.

There is always enough to see and do in Charleston’s Historic district. Occupy half a day shopping on King Street, where many of the shops started by Jewish proprietors still exist today. Berlin’s for Men (and now Berlin’s for Women), Bluestein’s Men’s Wear and Read Brothers Fabrics recall a time when King Street was once called “Little Jerusalem,” an area featuring jewelry stores, dry goods establishments, groceries and delicatessens all owned by Jewish merchants.

When it comes to dining, King Street features Pita King, a kosher Mediterranean restaurant run by expat Israelis Moshe and Talia Cohen. Customers can choose to dine in or take out.

Just east of King Street is Jestine’s Kitchen at 215 Meeting St., where a friendly wait staff serves up traditional Southern cooking — fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, collards and key lime pie. The restaurant is owned by Dana Berlin (niece of Henry Berlin) and named for Jestine Matthews, who worked for the Berlin family for many years and stayed with the family for generations.

Hyman’s Seafood Company at 215 Meeting St. is a popular local restaurant, as is Aaron’s Deli, located next door at 213 Meeting St. The brothers, Hyman and Aaron continue to operate this family restaurant, which first opened its doors in 1890.

Roslyn Farhi is the author of two children’s books, “Molly’s Cupboard” and “Molly’s Century.”

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim — ” TARGET=”_blank”>

Synagogue Emanu-El —

Rhetta Mendelsohn
(843) 577-5277

The Broad Street Guest House
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Aaron’s Deli

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!

Like any good Southerner, Brian Bain eats moon pies and punctuates his sentences with “y’all.” But Bain is also Jewish, which colors his experience as a third-generation Southerner in a unique way.

In his documentary film, “Shalom Y’all,” Bain set out to explore exactly what being both Jewish and Southern actually means. Bain travels through the buckle of the Bible Belt, stopping in small towns where once-thriving Jewish communities have now dwindled to single-digit populations, and he juxtaposes these with flourishing communities in places like Atlanta. He visits genteel mansions still occupied by aging Jewish Southern belles and explores the legacy and the part Jews played in historical Southern milestones, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights era.

“Truthfully, my grandfather really was the catalyst for the journey,” Bain said in a phone conversation from Dallas, where he relocated after his New Orleans home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He was referring to Leonard Bain, a retired traveling hat salesman and silent film editor who was 99, in 2002, when the film was made. The elder Bain has since died at the age of 101.

“Growing up, I remember him telling us stories about his travels through the South and spending the Sabbath away from home with Jewish merchants, and how he had this interesting connection with other Jews from the South. I really wanted to get my grandfather on film and just talking to him reminded me of the bigger story of the Jewish South.”

“Shalom Y’all” explores issues of identity and submersion into a larger culture. It is, in many respects, a quirky documentary filled with characters and incidents that might be at home in a Christopher Guest film. In Natchez, Miss., there is Zelda Millstein, who still dresses in Antebellum hoop skirts, and Jay Lehman, a grocery store owner who sells pickled pigs feet and who, as a younger man, participated proudly in the Natchez Confederate Pageant — a homage to the pre-Civil War era. Then there is the older Natchez couple whom Bain interviews sitting in the pews of their synagogue, which once boasted 200 families. Now they get five people for Friday night services.

“Except when the student rabbi comes,” says the husband. “Then we get eight.”

Bain hopes to return to New Orleans as soon as his home is habitable, and he says he has high hopes for the future of the Southern Jewish community.

“Young people have left and found new opportunities, and my parents’ generation is pushing toward retirement, but I think it is going to be interesting period of rebuilding for the Jewish community” in the South, he said. “I am optimistic because the community is strong and tight knit, so I have no doubt that it will persevere.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is screening “Shalom Y’all” on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007, or visit

Wild Ride With Wildlife in Miami


Stretching along the popular beachfront area of Miami, approximately 650,000 Jewish residents support more than 100 synagogues, several Jewish community centers and abundant kosher restaurants, including authentic Thai food. The South Florida city even employs a full-time kashrut supervision department.

So on a recent trip to Miami, I indulged in Thai food and a few other favorites. Along with spotting baby alligators in the wild, viewing ancient art and other treasures, that meal was one of many memorable highlights.

We couldn’t skip the Everglades, one of the most well-known sites in Florida. Since we were on limited time over a long weekend, a friend and I opted for an airboat ride in the Everglades Alligator Farm.

With 10 other passengers, our craft launched from a canal filled with adult and adolescent alligators swimming just feet away. Their amphibious compadres, soft-shelled turtles, resemble snakes swimming with their heads above water.

As we took off, the boat’s engine roared so loudly that our driver instructed us to stuff our ears with complimentary cotton balls. We floated along as he pointed out the wildlife, alligator tracks and a breeding den. He spoke so loud, we could hear him even with the cotton.

When we neared an expansive glade he warned us to hold on. Suddenly, as if levitating on a flying carpet, we were airborne. The sensation was remarkable; the moment magical. We were weightless, skimming along gentle curves, skirting above the water and the abundant grasses. As far as the eye could see, there were only the Everglades: a clear blue sky, water and grasses spreading in every direction.

Then suddenly, the driver changed course, taking us in a 180-degree turn. He immediately accelerated again, then spun us in full circle. After a handful of more wild spins that created giant splashes and left us laughing for more, we headed back to an open stretch that led to the mainland.

There we took in a snake show, where we handled a magnificent albino python with striking yellow and white skin that was cool to the touch. We also toured the breeding ponds on a nature trail. Covered with a bright green moss, the alligators lay still, many of them just visible with their scales skimming the surface and their beady eyes staring above the water.

On our return trip, we dropped anchor at Robert Is Here, which specializes in exotic fruits. With delicacies such as monstera deliciosa, which looks like a giant green ear of corn but tastes like banana-pineapple pudding, you could easily say the blessing for tasting new fruits again and again. Mamey, atemoya, longan, canestel, anon, sapodilla, sapote and many other natural treats all qualify at this “Shehecheyanu store.”

Our next unique destination was Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a majestic bay-front villa established between 1914 and 1916 by American farm equipment manufacturer James Deering as his winter home. Designed in the style of Italian Renaissance villas, the estate originally spanned 180 acres and resembled a typical northern Italian village with a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, greenhouse, machine shop, paint and carpentry workshop and staff residences.

The fully restored mansion was made to look as if a family had lived in it for 400 years, adding its own period furnishings, neoclassical, rococo and much more. As a result, Vizcaya contains one of the finest collections of European decorative arts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Vizcaya was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1952 and now functions as an art house museum.

We capped off our Florida adventure at Thai Treat & Sushi, located just a few minutes drive from The Shul at Bal Harbour, where we spent Shabbat. Opened two years ago by a Thai and Indian couple, June and Naresh Choudhury, the kosher restaurant’s extensive menu features truly authentic Thai specialties.

We were sold on two superb dishes. Rich and flavorful Tom Kha Kai soup featured chicken in coconut milk, fresh mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice. The exceptional Thai Basil Special featured chicken (or tofu or beef) sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, chili paste and fresh herbs.

We were so taken by the captivating Thai flavors, we gave the sushi only a taste. The yummy vegetable combo, like all the sushi platters and bento boxes, was beautifully presented (and available with brown rice instead of white). We washed it all down with refreshing Thai iced tea.

The chef also recommended chicken and beef satay, montod — fries made from sweet potato and coconut — and spring rolls. We were far too stuffed for more. At least we know what we’ll try when we return — as if we really needed a reason.

Thai Treat & Sushi. Sans Souci Plaza, 2176 N.E. 123rd St., North Miami. (305) 892-1118.

The Everglades Alligator Farm. 40351 S.W. 192 Ave., Homestead. (305) 247-2628;

Robert Is Here. 19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead. (305) 246-1592;

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami. (305) 250-9133;