Founded in 1986 as the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (MSJE), the Jackson-based Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) works to preserve and document the practice, culture, and legacy of Judaism in the southern United States. The original idea for the museum came from Macy B. Hart, a longtime director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. Hart recognized that many of the region’s smaller Jewish communities were experiencing population decline, forcing synagogues to close their doors. The MSJE began as an effort to preserve the artifacts and history of these communities. The MSJE completed its first building in 1989 on the grounds of Jacobs Camp. Three years later the museum entered into a preservation agreement with Temple B’nai Israel in Natchez, with the congregation deeding its historic 1906 building to the museum. The museum has created several award-winning exhibits, including From Alsace to America: Discovering a Southern Jewish Heritage, and Bagels and Grits: Images of Southern Jewish Life. The MSJE’s History Department worked to gather information about every southern Jewish community. The museum also worked to restore and preserve historic Jewish cemeteries in communities that no longer had a Jewish presence.
In 2000, under Hart’s leadership, the museum expanded its mission to become the ISJL and to provide Judaic services and cultural programs in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Incorporating the research and historic preservation work of the museum, the ISJL created new departments of rabbinic services, education, and cultural programs. Many small congregations around the country do not have full-time rabbinic leadership, so in 2003 the ISJL revived the practice of circuit-riding rabbis. The ISJL’s first itinerant rabbi served more than two dozen small congregations in a four-state region. In 2015 ISJL rabbis visited twenty-nine congregations in eleven states (all of the targeted states except Oklahoma and Virginia). The ISJL also sought to raise the level of Jewish education in small cities and towns. The ISJL Education Department developed a complete and detailed nondenominational religious school curriculum administered by a team of Jewish educators who travel across the region making site visits. In 2015–16, fifty-nine congregations used the ISJL curriculum. The ISJL also brings cultural programs to small communities through its Jewish Cinema South film series and its Southern States Jewish Literary Series.
Funded by both large foundations and individual members, the ISJL represents an innovative attempt to fulfill the spiritual, educational, and cultural needs of isolated and underserved Jewish communities. Working outside the national institutions of American Judaism, the ISJL envisions the Jews of the thirteen southern states as one community and synagogue.
The problems of isolated and underserved Jewish communities are not limited to the South. In every region, small congregations lack the resources to support full-time rabbis or Jewish educators. The ISJL is shaping a model of living Judaism and Jewish preservation that can be replicated in other parts of the country.
- Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, Preservation (July–August 2000)
- Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life website, www.isjl.org; Brenda Goodman, New York Times (26 November 2005)
- Lewis Lord, US News & World Report (25 May 1998); Michael Schuman, Philadelphia Inquirer (14 April 2002)