Editor’s Note: Below is my response to the Nov. 3 piece that appeared in Israel Hayom, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, entitled “Sweet Home Alabama.” In it, the author has a different take on the well-publicized incentive package offered to Jewish newcomers by Dothan’s Jewish community, relates it to a talk he gave 30 years ago in Birmingham and concludes that his warnings about assimilation were not heeded by Alabama’s disappearing Jews.
The Nov. 3 piece by Haim Shine, “Sweet Home Alabama,” is a condescending, ill-informed piece that is riddled with factual errors. As publisher of Southern Jewish Life, which has covered Alabama for 23 years, allow me to fill in some background.
He spoke of the Dothan initiative to bring Jewish families to the area with a $50,000 incentives package, and then spun that into decrying the assimilationist ways of Alabama’s Jewish community based on a presentation he gave 30 years ago in Birmingham, three hours away from Dothan and a community over 30 times the size.
Dothan is a community of a few dozen Jewish families. Throughout the South — and really, the rest of the country — small isolated communities are seeing their numbers decline. While assimilation may be a part of the problem, it isn’t that the children and grandchildren are staying in those communities and not identifying as Jews. The children are moving to larger cities with bigger Jewish communities (and bigger pools from which to find a spouse), places where the economic opportunities are much greater.
A lot of my classmates are now in places like Atlanta. They’re doctors, lawyers and educators, and not coming back to run the family store, which is endangered in the age of WalMart anyway.
Dothan is trying to buck that trend and remain viable, having seen places like Gadsden and Jasper, Ala., Brookhaven and Clarksdale, Miss., join the ranks of communities that have closed the synagogues in the last 20 years because all the young folks have moved away and the older members have died off.
Birmingham, where he spoke, is a community of 5500 Jews, stable and active. Rabbi Rosen, who he mentions, was one of my teachers, his wife taught me at the Jewish Day School, which 30 years ago was still a new institution.
I don’t personally remember the conference where Shine spoke, but know for certain that his characterization of it is wrong. Yes, the Reform synagogue here is impressive, but at no time has that or any other Birmingham congregation purchased a building that used to be a church. All our synagogues were built to be synagogues.
I am familiar with all past and present synagogues in Alabama, the only one that comes close to his statement over the last century is the small congregation in Auburn, whose building used to be the Christian Science reading room.
Oh, and the Auburn congregation didn’t even exist 30 years ago, when Shine visited. So much for the dire state of Alabama’s disappearing Jews.
Many old synagogue buildings have eventually become churches after the synagogues built new facilities, and the Reform congregation in Birmingham has allowed numerous churches to use their facilities over the years when in need.
Shine said he urged Alabama’s Jews to work hard to maintain a Jewish identity. That is precisely what we have to do, unlike those in large communities like New York, or one could say, Israel. Here, to have any Jewish life, you have to work at it and be involved. It is no accident that communities here have affiliation rates that far outpace the big communities. You can’t be Jewish by osmosis as in big communities, you have to participate.
So 30 years after Shine’s visit, what is the landscape? That Reform congregation did a complete renovation, a $15 million project, while Birmingham continues to have one of the highest per-capita Federation campaigns in the country. The Conservative (Masorti) congregation also expanded its facilities, the Jewish Community Center added on to its campus, the Day School got a new building.
The Orthodox congregation Rosen headed has a new building in a different neighborhood, near a Chabad center that did not exist 30 years ago, all inside the city’s first eruv. We no longer have to rely on Atlanta for kosher meat, there is far more availability here than there used to be.
Just down the road, Tuscaloosa’s one congregation has a new building on campus at the University of Alabama, next door to the new Hillel building, and Jewish enrollment has tripled.
With the partnership of our Christian neighbors, Alabama continues to be one of the strongest pro-Israel states in the country, dating back to 1943 when Alabama was the first state to officially endorse the idea of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
The state’s Jewish population continues to be between 9,000 and 10,000, not far from what it was 30 years ago.
So yes, a generation later there are Jewish communities in Alabama, Dr. Shine. We look forward to your return visit so you can see us for yourself, rather than issuing an “I told you so” based on faulty assumptions.
The author, Larry Brook, is a Birmingham native and publishes the monthly glossy magazine Southern Jewish Life (www.sjlmag.com), which serves the Jewish communities of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and northwest Florida.