Celebrating Macy Hart, the Maestro of the Southern Jewish Experience

With Macy Hart at the April 6 gala were Michele Schipper, Jackson; Joel Ashner,  Memphis; Patti Micklin, Louisville, Col.; Rachel Reagler Schulman, Highland Park, Ill.

In a career going back to the 1960s, Macy Hart has been the face of the Southern Jewish experience.

On April 6, his numerous roles toward that end were celebrated in a tribute event coordinated by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson. Hart founded the Institute in 2000, stepping down as executive director last year.

Over 250 crowded the Mississippi Museum of Art on April 6 for the tribute and sometimes-roast, including individuals from numerous — and often overlapping — phases of Hart’s career.

Hart was purposely kept in the dark about the event’s details, from the speakers to the Southern style menu that ended with banana pudding, the presence of his ubiquitous popcorn machine with designer popcorn bags that carried his likeness, and a performance by his favorite local band.

It being Mississippi, seersucker was encouraged.

Hart commented that he was figuring there might be three tables of 10 at the event, a comment nobody took seriously.

Over the years, his back story became part of the pitch for his endeavors. As part of the only Jewish family in Winona, Miss., Hart was schlepped 160 miles round-trip each weekend for religious school. Being involved with the Southern Federation of Temple Youth and then the National Federation of Temple Youth was a way to meet Jewish peers from around the region and country — which he did with a passion that drove him to the national presidency of NFTY in 1967.

During those years there was a major push to establish a Jewish summer camp in Mississippi so Jewish youth from small communities could experience an entirely-Jewish atmosphere. After the camp’s first summer in 1970, Hart became the camp director.

As small community synagogues closed down or downsized, the camp became a repository for religious items and historical artifacts, leading to the establishment of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience in 1986.

Israeli Journalist Ze’ev Chafets, who met Hart at a NFTY camp in 1964 in New York, was on that initial “barnstorming” tour in 1986 and immortalized the early parts of Hart’s vision in his book, “Members of the Tribe: On The Road in Jewish America.”

Hart felt a need to go beyond the camp fences and assist the small communities, preserving the history and providing services. That led him to form the Institute in 1999. The Institute now covers 13 states with a range of rabbinic, educational, cultural and historical services.

Current Institute Chair Rachel Reagler Schulman said everyone has a Macy story, but a common thread is how he brings together people who want to serve and be part of something bigger than themselves. “After he told us about his dreams, we wanted to be part of them.”

Rabbi Harry Danziger, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Memphis, led Havdalah, comparing the implements to Hart and comparing the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week to Hart’s transition from one role to another.

He said the candle represents Hart’ vision, and the flame his “passion for making his vision a reality.” The varied spices represent the “vast number of people and communities” to which Hart has brought “a new vigor, a new sweetness.”

Wine, being a symbol of joy, stands for sharing “in the joy of saying to Macy and Susan, you have brought the sweetness of Judaism into the lives of so many.”

Many of the Institute’s lay and professional leaders are Hart’s former campers or counselors.

Among them is Michele Schipper, now chief executive officer of the Institute, who said she was hired as a teen to babysit the Hart children. “I’ve blocked a lot of that… it was the hardest job I’ve ever had.”

The Hart children, Leah Hart Tennen, Micah Hart and Hannah Hart Martin, long since grown, got in their share of jabs during the evening with a plea to those assembled, “please, give this man something to do!”

They marveled at his vision of standardizing Jewish education, wondering why he did not take on something easier, “like the two-state solution or Electoral College reform?”

They also spoke of Jacobs Camp, where they grew up, as “cult-like, but a benevolent cult.”

Stuart Rockoff, former historian at the Institute, said when he first met Hart in Waco while interviewing for the position, Hart did 90 percent of the talking. “I got the charts, the maps, the stories,” he said. But most important, he got to understand the vision.

Calling Hart an “incredible recruiter and booster,” Rockoff, who now heads the Mississippi Humanities Council, said Hart is “the personification of the best of the South.”

Gary Zola, head of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, was a keynote speaker, saying it was a “professional and personal pleasure” to attend and represent Hebrew Union College, because of Hart’s role in “preserving the noble heritage of American Judaism, particularly in the American South.”

He saluted the Harts “for decades of service, not only to the Jewish South, but the strengthening of Reform Judaism throughout the nation.”

Saying Hart was “arguably one of the 10 best known sons of the Jewish South,” Zola provided documentation of when they met. Zola was on a 1968 NFTY trip to HUC, and the national president greeted each of them with a handshake and a Southern-accented “Hi, I’m Macy B.”

He then showed where both of them were in the group photo from that event.

A year after that photo, Susan Hart recalled, she and Macy met at a sorority house party at the University of Texas. The following summer, he was camp administrator for the opening year of Jacobs Camp. She was a counselor, and they married the following year.

“Macy and Jacobs Camp began a love affair that lasted 30 years,” she said. Their children grew up there, and camp supporter Lou Ginsberg of Hattiesburg became “a second mom to them.”

After the museum opened, the three children had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs there.

After 30 years, she said, “Macy was ready for a new challenge,” and started the Institute.

In 48 years “there has never been a dull moment,” she concluded.

Micah Hart recalled being on a stage 20 years ago for the Institute’s launch. “We knew it would get this big, because historically speaking, Macy gets what he wants.”

Toward the end of the program, Schipper said Hart “does get two minutes” to respond.

Saying it was difficult to think of what to say, he thanked those who “allowed me to work toward the dreams and those visions of what this world can be like,” and to “delve into areas where others had not been before.”

He felt it important to ensure Jewish education for all youth, no matter the size of their community, so they will continue to be involved, and that it needs to be a grassroots effort. “We can’t be sideline sitters. It is part of our ethic to be part of the change.”

As part of the evening, the Susan and Macy B. Hart Fund for the ISJL was announced.