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March 2011

On The Road to Liberty Island

Hard to believe it's our last full day in NYC - the week just flew by!  Making the most of our precious time, we started out on a morning rush hour subway ride (and you thought the CTA was crowded!) to Battery Park.

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 From there we would catch the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty.  We had plenty of opportunities to take pictures, as the security lines were long, even with reservations!

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The wait to visit Lady Liberty was worth it.  Seeing the magnificent torch, reaching into a clear, blue sky, one could only imagine what thoughts of freedom and opportunity filled the minds of the millions of immigrants as they approached, searching for the "American Dream."   My group of 7 toured the museum, climbed the 215 steps from the lobby to the top of the pedestal, caught our breath and captured breathtaking pictures!

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The visit wouldn't have been complete without a stop at Ellis Island.  Although this historic National Monument is open on a limited basis only, due to the extensive damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, it was still worth a visit to see the Great Hall, and look at a nearly one hundred year old ship's registry! An amazing piece of American history.

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As tired as we were, we forged on to meet with the entire group of 70 at the top of the Empire State Building!  Marveling in its 'art deco' style from the outside, we delighted in taking magnificent pictures from the observatory.  It was the world's tallest building from 1931 to 1973 - CHICAGO CONNECTION -  guess what building beat it out as the world's tallest in 1974?!

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To complete the day we went back to the theatre district for an 8:00 performance of "Pippin" at the Music Box Theatre.



 Too tired to pack that night - we'll deal in the morning!!


On The Road to the Jewish Deep South - Southern Mississippi

For a region filled with so-called sleepy little towns, our tour went through at rapid-fire pace!  On the bus ride to our first destination, historian/tour guide, Stuart Rockoff explained how the a Jewish population ended up in our southern states.  The first Jews came from England to South Carolina in 1690.  A hundred years later they build their first synagogue; by 1820 there were more Jewish families in Charleston than any other city in the U.S.!  The reason?  Purely economic.  They came as peddlers to farm communities.  They filled the void, in areas where there were no general stores.  Once these Jewish settlers saved enough money, they opened their own businesses.  **Interesting side note: many of these small southern towns bragged when they got they got their first Jewish-owned store, almost as a status symbol, signifying their town would now be economically vibrant! 


Our first stop on the way to Jackson was Windsor Ruins.  Once a successful cotton plantation, Windsor survived the Civil War, only to be lost in an accidental fire in 1890.  All that is left are the once beautifully ornate columns and ironwork.


We stop next in Port Gibson to visit the oldest standing synagogue in Mississippi, Temple Gemiluth Chassed.  The original congregation was made up of German-Jewish immigrants.  Over the years, as the Jewish community moved out of the town, the number of congregation members dwindled to none by the 1990's. As a result, the city wanted to tear down the building, but it was saved when the non-Jewish Lum family purchased the Temple.  The building has protected State Landmark status; Doug Lum now operates the Temple as a Messianic congregation with services once a month.  **Side note: the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) has been interested in possibly acquiring the synagogue as a museum site.




As we wind our way northeast along highway 18, the scenery is about as rural as it gets; laundry hanging on a clothes line to dry, small simple homes alongside even smaller cemeteries.  Deep within the farms and forests, our next stop emerges - Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica Mississippi. This facility serves about 450 Jewish campers in the several states that make up the deep southern region.  Camp Director Jonathan Cohen describes the lovely artwork and mosaics, all created by the campers!  There is a museum within the camp documenting a vanishing culture of Southern Jewish history.  The current exhibit, "Alsace to America" showcases the Jewish immigration experience to the south.  **Interesting fact: as many synagogues closed in small towns throughout the south, they brought their torahs to the camp; the camp would relocate the torahs to new congregations.


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Our tour heads toward Jackson - the focus shifts to civil rights.  As we step into the former home of Medgar Evers, it's as if we've stepped back in time.   The house is now a museum, owned and managed by Tougaloo College.  We were privileged to have Curator Minnie White Watson as our host; her engaging stories were filled with the emotion, racial tension and hope for change that were indicative of that difficult era in U.S history.  The house furnishings are historically accurate, from the mattresses on the floor to the street-facing windows positioned higher to protect from gunshot. One of the rooms has been converted into a chronological time line of Medgar Evers' life, from his birth in 1925 Decatur Mississippi to his assassination in 1963 in the driveway of his home. Evers was shot in the back; the bullet passed through his chest, shattered the living room window, continued through the kitchen wall, and ricocheted off the refrigerator.  You can still see the damaged kitchen tile.  It is a very moving exhibit, one that I feel fortunate to have experienced.  **Side note:  The producers of the 1996 movie "Ghosts of Mississippi" worked out an arrangement with Tougaloo College; if they'd let the producers use the house for the movie, they would let the college keep all the furnishings, plus $30-thousand dollars toward renovation.  



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Tomorrow, our tour of the Mississippi Delta communities.






On The Road to the Jewish Deep South - Natchez

Today our tour took us to Natchez Mississippi- a quaint town of 16-thousand, located in the southwestern edge of the state along the banks of Mississippi River.  The quiet streets are filled with fragrant Magnolias, Dogwoods and Azaleas, in full bloom this time of year.  Nestled in between the vibrant flora are magnificent antebellum homes and mansions - straight out of "Gone With The Wind!"  What a surprise to learn that this city has a deep Jewish history!

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Our first stop, Temple B'nai Israel.  By the mid-1800's there were enough Jewish families in Natchez to establish a congregation, but they couldn't afford to build a synagogue until after the Civil War, in 1872.




The Jewish population flourished in the late 1800's, partially due to Eastern European immigrants. While Jewish residents in Natchez only made up 5% of the community, they operated more than 1/3 of the businesses post-Civil War!  Interesting fact - Southern Jews had a dual identity - as Jews and southerners; they fought for the Confederacy, but remained true to their Jewish beliefs and traditions.  In 1906, Temple B'nai Israel had a congregation of 500.  Today, that number has dwindled to only 19. In an unusual and uplifting twist, our tour guide, Terri Tillman explains the community is "determined to keep Judaism alive in Natchez," and they've left a "will" to the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience to "inherit" the synagogue when there are no longer any members in the congregation.

Our tour now takes us back in time to Longwood.  On a property of acres, this 30-thousand square foot mansion, with 6 floors and 32 rooms was designed in 1859 for Dr. Haller Nutt, but when the Civil War broke out construction stopped.  Only the 8 rooms in the basement were completed - the rest was never built.  Various families lived at Longwood until 1968 - it is now a National Historic Landmark and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Natchez. **Little known fact - in 2010 Longwood was used for exterior shots in the vampire series "True Blood."




Our final destination takes us to Hope Farm, which is actually 2 houses!  The first was built in 1775.  The Spanish Governor of the Territory bought the home in 1789 and built the addition; but the big story comes in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression.  Katherine and Balfour Miller were owners of Hope Farm at the time, and in an attempt to save the town from economic disaster, Katherine Miller urged the women of Natchez to open their antebellum homes to the public.  These tours became such a hit, an annual Pilgrimage was formed and the town's economy improved dramatically.  Current owner Ethel Banta gives tours of Hope Farm; the Pilgrimage continues to this day; now there are two - one in the spring and one in the fall.  *Modern day fact:  The Natchez Pilgrimage Tours have their own Facebook page!


Tomorrow, on to Jackson Mississippi.


On The Road to the Jewish Deep South - New Orleans

Not surprisingly, the Jewish community in New Orleans is quite small - only 1% of the population, yet it is a tight knit group; warm and welcoming.  Our tour guide, local historian Irwin Lachoff, told engaging stories of the 3 synagogues we visited. Our first stop was Anshe Sfard in the city's Garden District.  A Sephardic congregation dating back to 1926, today has only 20 members, mostly women, in this lovely, historic synagogue. Cantor Nahun Amosi welcomed our group with open arms - giving us Mardi Gras beads as a parting gift! An interesting blend of cultures.



Our next stop, Touro Synagogue, a congregation founded in 1828 - the 6th oldest in the country.  The current structure , built in 1909, is their 3rd sanctuary and many its elements are original, from the pipe organ to the sconces on the wall.  There are nearly 600 families in the congregation, many of them young - a factor that become predominant after Katrina  Many young Jewish people were drawn to New Orleans after the flood, with the desire help rebuild and make a difference.

Again, there are many fascinating blends of culture.  Touro Synagogue is the only one on the Mardi Gras parade route!  There are kippot (head coverings) in Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold.  In the spring, the congregation holds a very special "Jazz Shabbat" in conjunction with the popular Jazz Fest!  This will be the 20th year for the event, which draws a standing room only crowd of Jews and non-Jews alike.




The joy of Touro Synagogue was followed by the tragedy of  Synagogue Beth Israel, the only one that was destroyed beyond repair by Hurricane Katrina.  You can still see the water lines, more than 10 feet high on the outer wall. The inside is barren, save for some hanging cables and pipes along with shadows of images on the wall where religious artifacts once hung. A thin strip of stained glass still border the skylight, too difficult to remove without destroying it.  Even more haunting, the bold star of David, hanging from the ceiling.  It cannot be removed, as it is part of the building's infrastructure, holding up the roof.  Yet from tragedy, this community is brought closer together, as new Torahs have been donated from around the country, new families have joined the congregation and preparations are underway to build a new synagogue.






Our final stop, and by far the most moving, was a special exhibition at the National World War II Museum.  "Ours To Fight For - American Jews In The Second World War."  The exhibit tells the story of World War II from the perspective of Jewish veterans - through personal stories, artifacts and disturbing images of Jewish American soldiers discovering and rescuing Holocaust survivors. The story I found most touching came from a Jewish vet, who was recommended to put a "P" or "C" on his dog tag instead of an "H" for Hebrew, because rumor was, Jewish soldiers who were captured were killed immediately. The soldier toiled over this decision, and ultimately kept the "H" on his tag because he couldn't bare the thought of dying and being buried under a cross.  Needless to say, a relaxing dinner back in the French Quarter with my Temple family was much in order after such an enlightening, yet emotional day!

Tomorrow, on to Natchez.




On The Road to the Jewish Deep South

It almost sounds like a contradiction - Jewish communities in the deep south.  That's what made this trip so appealing to me; I wanted to learn more!  So here I am, along with my daughter and more than a dozen members of my synagogue on a "Tour of the Jewish Deep South."  It will take us through New Orleans, Natchez, Jackson, Indianola, Greenville and wrap up in Memphis.

Sara and I came a day early to explore "The Crescent City."  We're staying in the French Quarter which really is a cultural melting pot - French, Spanish, Haitian, African and Caribbean influences everywhere...but Jewish?  Hard to find.  Even our hotel, the Bourbon Orleans was the former site of a Convent!  We did find a piece of Jewish history during our visit to one of the Louisiana State Museums. The Presbytere, ironically the former site of a Capuchin Monks' residence, has an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina - "Before (During) After."  This fascinating exhibit documents Katrina through video, stills, eye-witness accounts and items damaged in the flood. That's where we saw a menorah, tallit, shofar and Torah cover that belonged to Congregation Beth Israel, which was destroyed by more than 8 feet of water.

Before our tour with the congregation begins, I had a chance to show my daughter some of the fun things New Orleans has to offer - the incredibly fabulous jazz music at Preservation Hall, the tasty beignets at Cafe Du Monde, the French Market, the shopping on Royal Street and so many mouth-watering restaurants!

We begin our "Tour" tonight, with a presentation on the State of The New Orleans Jewish Community post Katrina.  In the meantime, here are some pictures from today's adventure.