Uncovering Roots

Uncovering Roots

The New Museum of Southern Jewish Experience

Words by Zack Grossenbacher
Images and artifacts courtesy of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

In 1904, in Lexington, Mississippi, Morris Lewis—who would later become a successful grocer, a business that helped grow both the Jewish population and its standing in the area—helped buy a plot of land that was to be the site of Temple Beth El, or the “House of God.”

Construction was funded in part by a theatrical performance, with a cast composed almost entirely of members of the local Baptist congregation. Though it had 30 congregants at the time of its dedication, Temple Beth El bore no outward mark of its connection to Judaism until 2004, when a Star of David was hung above the entrance. Each of the sanctuary’s interior walls was decorated with tiffany-style stained glass windows. After over 100 years of services, the synagogue closed in 2009.

Morris Lewis IV, the great grandson of the Lexington grocer, grew up in Mississippi and now lives in New Jersey. In some ways, he is illustrative of the southern Jewish experience, which is to say that though he no longer resides in the South, he is deeply connected with his roots. “I consider myself a child of the South,” he said. “[I’m an] advocate for what it meant and what it means to be Jewish in the South.”

It is in the spirit of advocacy that the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE) seeks to chronicle the reality of Jews in the South, in all of its detail. Born from an earlier and more modest museum attached to Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi, the new MSJE will be located in New Orleans on Howard Avenue, just around the corner from The National WWII Museum. Jay Tanenbaum, the chairman of the board of the new MSJE, said he thinks the Museum will serve two purposes: providing a sense of Jewish continuity and increasing Jewish safety and security in the way that only education can achieve.

The Museum will be structured in three main exhibits. The first and third exhibits will be the history of the southern Jewish experience in the 19th and 20th centuries. The middle exhibit will be an introduction to Judaism, its practices, and the importance of its observances. Jay hopes that the Museum will show “what happens when people live together, accept each other, and learn from each other.”

There is a lot to learn, considering the long and often overlooked history of Jewish communities across the South. Jewish immigrants entered the United States mostly through major coastal hubs: New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. But pioneering Jews saw opportunity in the South. In particular, German born Jews found success in the South as traveling dry goods merchants. When they found communities in need of more permanent stores, they would set up shop and build communities in places such as Canton, Mississippi, Odessa, Texas, and Atlanta—Atlanta remaining one of the largest such communities in the South. Over the years, as is so often the case with small Southern towns, subsequent generations of Jews left their family homes in search of more opportunity.

In his 2016 Oxford American magazine piece titled, “South Towards Israel,” New Orleans based author Andrew Paul depicts the shrinking of Jewish communities in the South. He writes, “The smaller communities are diluted, if not evaporated completely; few Southern Jews choose to stay in their rural hometowns, while fewer practice their faith with any regularity. In Mississippi, where I’m from, Natchez’s beautiful historic synagogue opens only intermittently for Shabbat.”

The MSJE got its start as a collection of artifacts at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Henry S. Jacobs Camp, which was founded in 1970 as a summer camp for Jewish children in response to the shrinking Jewish communities. Jacobs Camp was part of a movement to bring together children so they could experience, even if just for a few months, what a full, Southern Jewish life could be.

Cara Greenstein, a Memphis-based lifestyle blogger and PR manager, grew up going to Jacobs Camp. The daughter of Senior Rabbi Micah Greenstein at Temple Israel in Memphis, Cara grew up feeling the importance of Jewish community in her day-to-day life. Her parents, after all, met at a Jewish summer camp in Georgia. She recalls attending Shabbat services in the Museum facilities at Jacobs Camp, and seeing black and white photos of southern Jews holding Challa, traditional Jewish bread, and smiling. It gave her a sense of belonging. She returned to Memphis after college and continues to work in the spirit of the lessons she learned at the original MSJE, organizing a program that introduces new Jewish transplants to the larger community. “[It’s] over 300 twenty-somethings who are meeting each other, getting married, and planting roots,” she said. Cara met her husband at Jacobs Camp.

The new MSJE is looking to open in the first quarter of 2021, having delayed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitors can expect to find 9,000 square feet of world-class exhibitions designed by the firm Gallagher & Associates, which has done work at the National Archives and at the National WWII Museum. Though the exhibits are still under construction, they will be filled with selections from a collection of over 4,000 artifacts representative of the Southern Jewish experience. The collection includes store ledgers, everyday photographs of southern Jews, and other personalia. Thanks to a recent donation, it now houses the stained glass windows from the Temple Beth El in Lexington.

“We Southerners like to think we’ve got something special,” said Tanenbaum. “You hope the lessons you draw from it are the lessons other people draw from it, too.”