Pros bring know-how to bolster Jewish life in the South

jackson, miss.  |  As Allie Goldman’s airplane was making its descent into the blazing 97-degree Midland airport in west Texas, the landscape dotted with oil dikes 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 the tiny Temple Beth El in 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 said. “I’m the expert because I’ve worked with many other congregations.”

Goldman was until recently one of nine fellows from the Goldring/

Woldenberg Institute of 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.

Michelle Blumenthal, an education fellow with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, leads a Chanukah exercise for preschoolers in Bentonville, Ark. photo/jta/courtesy of isjl

The fellows, who work with communities on a standard curriculum of Jewish learning, split their time among 78 congregations and 63 schools in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

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

The Institute of 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.

In Jackson, Miss., where the Institute of Southern Jewish Life is located, the fellows also are involved in local Jewish and civic life. Many teach in the 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.

Sara Silverman of Houston 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.

For Lauren Fredman, who grew up in the small Jewish community of Salt Lake City before moving to Denver, 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.

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