As small towns in the American South get even smaller, there is a pervasive pessimism about the future of small-town Judaism. Even companies with corporate strength find it difficult to recruit college graduates to work in these communities, despite their affordability and charm. But a spirited optimism emanates from the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, the brainchild of an old friend of mine, Macy Hart.
Consultants like Richard Florida say that the future of a city can be predicated by the state of its creative community (likely meaning the LGBT community); for the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, which hosted its annual conference this week, it is the Jewish community that has the capability of determining the future of a city. And an educated Jewish community is a strong one, which is why the ISJL has pioneered a core curriculum for all of the religious schools in its orbit.
Besides size and a certain shared culture, intermarriage is the common thread that runs through these communities in the deep south. But unlike some other groups that I have been privileged to address—this was my second opportunity to meet with the participants of this conference—they take it all in stride. They accept that intermarriage is part of their reality, and look towards the growth and survival of their communities within this framework. The rest of North America clearly has something to learn from these forward-thinking Southerners.