August 5th marked twenty years since I arrived in Charlotte. By sheer coincidence, I spent my twentieth anniversary of becoming a Southerner immersed in a Hebrew Union College intensive graduate course on Southern Jewry. I spent the week learning from scholars in Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Savannah about the critical role Southern Jews played in the development of America since Colonial times.
Though it took me many years to embrace my new identity as a Southern Jew, I recommend that those of you who are transplants embrace that identity far sooner — for there is much of which to be proud.
From the time of landing on Southern ports, Jews contributed medically. Dr. Samuel Nunez was the first practicing physician in Georgia, having arrived to Savannah in 1733, just in time to stop a violent epidemic of dysentery. Virtually every Atlanta hospital had Jews involved in its creation.
Jews contributed economically. While at first, James Oglethorpe, the founder of the Georgia colony, was instructed by the British Trustees not to deed any land to Jews, their success in farming, trade, wine-making and as soldiers convinced him to grant them property.
Jews contributed religiously. Among the houses of worship in Savannah, Mickve Israel stands as an historic and impressive building. Having just celebrated its 285th anniversary, the congregation is valued. Throughout nearly three centuries, they have stood not alone but worked collaboratively with interfaith partners. Similarly, The Temple in Atlanta in its 158 year history and our Temple Beth El in its 75 years have become known as beacons of interfaith partnership.
Jews of the South have provided moral leadership. Dr. Gary Zola, Executive Director of the American Jewish Archives (the largest free standing archives documenting the American Jewish experience in the world) shared recordings of Southern Rabbis’ clear words of courage.
In response to the 1958 bombing of Nashville’s JCC, Rabbi William Silverman spoke out strongly against violence aimed at intimidation: “I believe that any spiritual leader who does not speak forth and lead his congregation on moral issues is not worthy of being the Rabbi of this or any other congregation, — and I speak clearly and without equivocation that all may understand: together with the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, I favor integration — not only because I am a Jew, not only because my religious faith teaches that God is our universal Father, that all men are brothers, created in the divine image; that all men regardless of their faith or their race are endowed by God with equal rights.”
Just four days after the 16th Street Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Rabbi Milton Grafman included the four girls killed there and others into his Kaddish recitation at Rosh Hashanah services, “Let us bow our heads in silence. In memory of Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, James Robinson, Virgil Ware wantonly killed, insanely slain, brutally murdered, whose deaths we mourn, whose families we would comfort and the shame of whose murders we would and we must have our city [Birmingham] atone.”
As Southern Jews, we contributed civically, socially, politically, and morally. We helped build cemeteries and benevolent societies, and the field of social work. We built social clubs and became freemasons, mayors, and state legislators.
Most of all, as Southern Jews, we were crafters of American Judaism. Of the first six Colonial Jewish congregations (in Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Richmond, Savannah and Charleston), the Northern remained Sephardic and traditional and the Southern became Reform. Our predecessors saw a need for innovation and modernization of worship and religious practice and thrived as a result. We supported American-trained rabbis who would become leaders of our anciently rooted people adapting to realities in new land.
There are parts of our Southern Jewish past which cause us shame. There were Jews who were slave owners. There were Jews who supported segregation. Jews have always been part of the fabric of American society – for good and for bad. While some of our predecessors stood on the wrong side of history, far more contributed to creating a more just South as we continue to do today. Our Reform predecessors were partners in strengthening our country every step of the way.
Whether we have lived in Charlotte one year or our family has been here one hundred years, we should be proud of the community roles we have played and contribute strongly to our community as proud Jews and as proud Americans.