Whenever I travel and people find out I am Jewish, living in South Carolina, I often get funny looks and a good number of questions about life here.
Granted, our state is not exactly known for being highly populated by Jews, but there is Jewish history here. The congregation of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston was founded before our country existed, in 1740. Just down the road in Savannah, Ga., Congregation Mickve Israel got its start even earlier, in 1733.
As late as 1820, there were more Jews living in Charleston than in anywhere else in the United States. While populations have shifted, there are more than a few Jewish folk living in the South, and outside of major metropolitan areas like Atlanta and Charlotte.
There have been Jews in York County since before the Civil War. The Fort Mill/Rock Hill area supports two synagogues, with members keeping the faith in their own ways. And our lives fall somewhere between the experiences of Kyle, on “South Park” and the blissful grumpiness of “Driving Miss Daisy.” We have interfaith marriages, and synagogues of all sizes and affiliations, and we find ways to come together in worship and for social action.
Many smaller Southern Jewish congregations do not have a full time rabbi. Many congregations are historic, but as their population continues to shift, they are at risk of losing their history.
But, rather like the still small voice crying out in the wilderness, there is more than one means of spiritual support available for these congregations. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life, based in Jackson, Miss., is one of those groups. It is a dedicated and passionate group. They engage with communities all around the South, providing assistance with rabbinic services and educational programming in addition to historic preservation.
Members of Temple Solel recently traveled to Jackson for three days of fellowship and learning. There, we experienced numerous educational classes and a strong network of people. Some of the most stirring moments were in worship. Three hundred people harmonizing a prayer of thanksgiving after every meal was gloriously simple, and filled with a communal joy which grew stronger throughout the conference. There were morning worship services.
Delving deep into an ancient prayer and sharing its personal messages was a morning small group service which gave fresh insights and energy to the participants.
Religious support structures are varied and all are important. Some are obvious, like buildings and board members. Other support structures are more subtle, like education, gathering in groups to share then dispersing, and carrying inside new thoughts and ideas to build upon the existing foundation of faith.
And faith, itself, is a support structure.
Reading, understanding Torah, and using its commandments to focus on the value system of Tikkun Olam, or healing the world, gives structure. This structure allows for independent thought and decision making. This structure provides the springboard for an additional layer of internal guidance. As part of making a decision, one can look in the mirror and ask “Does this action align with my religious beliefs?”
The foundations of belief we carry within our hearts and minds give us give us strength and the ability to keep to a path, even when in the minority. The Hebrew hymn, Maoz Tzur sheds light on this. It translates, “Rock of Ages, let our song praise your saving power, You amidst the raging foes were our sheltering tower…”
Faith, itself, as a support structure is there to fall back on. It provides that platform on which we can build with thought, reaching out to our world in persistent efforts of improvement. With faith, there is no end to the improvements we can make, to ourselves, our actions in betterment of our society and our environment.
Edie Yakutis works with Ritual Life at Temple Solel in Fort Mill. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org