Having served as cantor of Temple Sinai in New Orleans since 1999, Detroit native Joel Colman knows that there is a distinct Southern Jewish culture. During his sabbatical this Spring, he is embarking on a 3,000-mile journey to “enrich my understanding of what it is like to be a Southern Jew.”
Through the Jackson-based Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life’s Rabbis on the Road program, Colman will visit six smaller Jewish communities in the region in April and May.
The inspiration came from a visit to New Orleans by author Eli Evans, who was the trailblazer in chronicling the Southern Jewish experience, about 15 years ago, shortly after Colman arrived in New Orleans. Evans inscribed a book to Colman with the words “you are now part of this rich Southern Jewish history.”
Colman said that “stuck with me, that there is something unique about being a Southern Jew” that one can not understand until one lives in the South.
He will be traveling to the communities on his motorcycle. “When you visit on a motorcycle, it becomes even more tactile,” with a heightened awareness of the surroundings. “Besides, it is a cool thing to do.”
Colman said there is no set program for the weekend visits. Each congregation “has a different dynamic on what they would like to have when they have a visiting rabbi or cantor,” he said. He will lead Shabbat services, do adult education or give a concert, or a combination.
He will visit B’nai Israel in Natchez the weekend of April 10, then Mishkan Israel in Selma on April 24, Temple Sinai in Lake Charles on May 1, B’nai Israel in Monroe on May 2, Beth Israel in Gulfport on May 8 and B’nai Israel in Galveston the weekend of May 15.
In February he did a first visit at Temple Shalom in Lafayette. There, he taught at the religious school on Sunday morning. Plans to lead a Shabbat service fell apart because the Mardi Gras parade route was one block away and it was “impossible for people to get to services.”
Before arriving in New Orleans, Colman was cantor at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, N.Y. and cantor/educator at Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Greenwich, Conn.
Colman received a Master’s degree in Sacred Music from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, School of Sacred Music where he was ordained as cantor in 1995, and graduated from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Mich.,with a degree in special education.
He is also a past regional director for the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and has taught high school in Texas and in Israel. He also visits the Henry S. Jacobs Camp each summer, teaching amateur radio to campers.
Colman has sung in concerts in New Orleans, Rochester, St. Louis, Miami, Detroit, Tulsa, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York City and Jerusalem, and has also been the featured artist at two concerts held at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Colman said ISJL was instrumental in lining up the tour — he did not have to call any congregation to find out if there was any interest. “They knew which congregations would be open to a visit,” he said.
Over the past several years, the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program has put 33 visiting clergy on the road; collectively, these clergy have conducted 75 community visits.