During the summer of my junior year in high-school (2002), I, and another friend, departed from the sweltering heat of Mobile, Al and ventured to an even hotter local, Israel. For six weeks, we hiked through the Negev Desert, up Masada, a historical site in which 960 Jews chose death over surrendering to the Roman Empire, and even through the Golan Heights. We lounged in the Dead Sea, covered ourselves in the deep green mud of its waters, sun-bathed on the shores of the Kinneret and the Tiberias, placed our special prayer in the Western Wall, and even spent several nights working on a kibbutz (a self-governing community, similar to a commune).
We formed adeeper sense of what it meant to be Jewish. Our group of sixteen formed an identity of one Jewish unit, yet even as we waved our goodbyes and hopped aboard a plane, we could hear our friends shout, ‘Bye Bama.’You see, from the moment we arrived in Israel to the moment we left, we were linked to our location. The revelation of Jews in Alabama was a shock, followed by incessant teasing. It appeared that news regarding our presence had never been transmitted up north or out west. Southern Jews were a myth and debunking it was almost impossible. I have used this to my advantage while residing in Washington D.C. and during my many efforts to find an NJB online, (Southern Belle looking for her Union Soldier). Sadly, this fact may truly become fiction, because as the rate of Jews in United States rapidly declines, as does the rate of Jews in the South, and more specifically my state of Alabama.
Presently, I reside in Northern Virginia but my heart belongs to Alabama. It sounds cheesy, yes, but similar to my friends in Israel who could not and would not separate myself from my state, I too, cannot detach myself from Bama, and although I do not know whether a return is a part of my unpredictable future, I would like to know that if this be the case there are Jews to return to. I am not alone with this feeling. In September of last year Jews in the South and around the States were surprised to learn that the problem in one small southern town, Dothan, Alabama, had escalated, leading one yarmulke wearing Jew to whip out his wallet and offer monetary incentive as bait. Larry Blumberg, a member of Temple Emanu El, extended $1 million over the next 10 years ($50, 000 to each family) to help relocate 20 young Jewish families to the small city of Dothan. His announcement came with much excitement and within several weeks the Temple’s website had accumulated over 275,000 hits, but as is usually the case, the quantity was massive, but the quality was lacking. And let’s be honest, quality is what Jews are looking for, listing a number of stipulations that accompany the $50,000. They include: the family must remain in Dothan for at least 5 years, pass background and credit checks, submit written and personal Rabbinic references, host an in-home visit at their current residence, and travel to Dothan to meet the dwindling Jewish community. After reading this I wonder if uprooting your family for five years and inviting someone to investigate your entire life is worth the $50,000. Is the fine print worth the reward? 400 families thought so, but as of February 2009, only one had made the move. The Temple assures that ten more are to follow, but I wonder if money is the only way to solve the problem, especially in this harrowing economy?
My own Synagogue, Ahavas Chesed, struggled with a similar story in which the old are dying, while the young are leaving and never coming back.
The prospects of the big-cities and more burgeoning Jewish populations are causing young Jews like me to question whether there is any opportunity in Mobile. For myself, I wonder why I would want to return to a city in which options to write and edit appear dismal and only in the forms of a small local newspaper and local magazines. Unlike Temple Emanu El, Ahavas Chesed chose another way to recruit members. Last year my father, as well as several other congregation members met to discuss the possibility of allowing non-Jewish spouses to become members of the synagogue. Opinions regarding this idea were countless; how could one become a member without wanting to commit them to the religion? How could a congregation allow a discrepancy between the two? In the past, non Jews were not considered full members unless they were willing to undergo religious conversion. In the conservative sect of Judaism, Rabbi’s will not officiate at interfaith marriages; therefore, how could my synagogue, one of the conservative sect, allow those already married to pray where they could not be blessed? Questions like these were debated, but eventually, the fact that our congregation had dwindled to only 175 families trumped them. Is this a way to bring more families to Mobile or assure that those growing up do not leave never to return? I do not know. I am myself am still struggling with the knowledge that my Jewish heritage is impossible to escape, while questioning whether I believe in the importance of marrying a Jewish Bocher. Does this news affect my ultimate return? It does not hurt, nor help, because truthfully the only thing bringing me back is family, and sometimes, this overrides possible opportunities elsewhere. My future is unknown, my beliefs still forming, but my family has always been there and it is with them that I continuously long to be.