The Bible Belt: Jewish life in Mississippi

Posted on Jun 17 2014 - 9:52am by Taylor Lust
Temple B'Nai Israel in Tupelo.

Temple B’Nai Israel in Tupelo. (Courtesy

According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics, along with Evangelical and Mainline Protestants, make up a total of 67 percent of Mississippi’s religious population. Denominations of Christianity and Catholicism are fairly dominant in the Deep South, especially in the state of Mississippi. Judaism, on the other hand, makes up only two percent of the state’s religious population. Even though Judaism is fairly small, there are synagogues, rabbis and people all over the state doing their best to live and be Jewish in the state of Mississippi.

Tucked away in the relatively average-sized town of Tupelo, sits a small synagogue by the name of B’nai Israel. It’s somewhat difficult to find, as it’s set off in a small residential area. The synagogue itself is no more than the size of an average two bedroom house, and it stands on the street as if it were a simple home. And that’s exactly what it is.

The small house-like structure only differs in one way from the rest of the houses on the block: the large Star of David that is perched in between two colorful stained-glass windows. Under the Star it reads: “Temple B’nai Israel.”

Synagogues just like B’nai Israel are what make up the majority of the Jewish population in Mississippi. Among the 1500 Jewish people in the State of Mississippi, about 70 percent reside in Jackson, where the larger synagogue of Beth Israel is located.  Meridian, Madison, and Tupelo are among the more well-known of the small town congregations, and aside from the slightly larger congregation in Biloxi, Mississippi, they help to make up the face of Judaism in Mississippi.

Among the members of this homey Tupelo congregation are two long-time members of the temple: Marc Perler and George Copen.

Perler has been a member of the B’nai Israel congregation almost since it was founded in 1957. He has been a part of its family for so long that he has become the congregation’s “head honcho.” Copen has been a part of the congregation since its beginnings as well.  A well-known member of the congregation, Copen takes pride in his Judaism, and believes the family-like feeling of the synagogue is what makes it so special.

“It’s one big family here,” Copen said. “And when we all meet, it’s Aunt Lucille, Uncle Saul, even though we’re not related. But they’re all uncles and aunts.”

Perler believes that small town Judaism is among the most important aspects of Jewish life in the South. He thinks that small town congregations make up families, which provide for excellent Jewish living in the congregation. Perler also appreciates the close-knit community the Tupelo congregation has provided.

“My kids, who now have kids of their own, say ‘I didn’t realize what I had, and how cool that was,” he said. “Now I wish I still had that kind of relationship with people.’”

Perler, having grown up in a 1,200 family congregation in Nashville, Tenn., knows what it’s like to be able to have congregational amenities provided for you. In a small town, it’s a little different. Being in the South where Judaism isn’t a major religion, a permanent head rabbi or Jewish School teacher may be hard to come by, so the congregants of B’nai Israel have had to make ends meet.

“When you’re in a small Southern town, you cannot economically and spiritually depend strictly on religious professionals to handle everything for you” Perler said. “You have your rabbi, your Sunday school teacher, your cantor … and we are all of the above.”

With such a small congregation, B’nai Israel doesn’t have a lot at its disposal. Perler believes that what they lack in materials, they make up for in their congregation.

“We think that we have made the very best of what we can with this congregation.”

However, it is not without difficulty that these small congregations thrive. Perler and Copen reflected on the difficulties and hardships that have come along with being a smaller synagogue. Perler believes small town Judaism is unfortunately beginning to die in Mississippi. Specifically, the Tupelo congregation, which has had a lack of younger congregants, and this means there will be no one to continue the tradition.

Copen shares the same belief.

“The largest count we’ve ever had here was 75 families,” Copen said. “Today we’re down to maybe 30, and most of those are retired elderly.”

Perler has an idea of why the younger population has decreased and attributes it to finding new and better opportunities.

“There’s nothing here for younger families,” he said. “We had a young doctor look at this facility and ask, ‘How big is your Sunday School? How many specialized teachers do you have? How many rabbis do you have?’ and we say ‘well, tell us what you want and we’ll make it happen,’ and that’s totally unacceptable to that certain socio-economic group.”

Without new or returning young congregants, B’nai Israel will eventually meet its end.

“All of us here are getting a little older,” Perler said. “My kids live in other states and they’re not going to come back here because they’ve got their own lives to deal with … and it’s quietly slip-sliding away everywhere.”

Copen seemed accepting of the idea of small town Judaism dying out.

“What’s going to happen? It will slowly slide away,” Copen said. “Small congregations like ourselves will only be in bigger cities.”

But Copen has faith that there will always be a congregation somewhere in a small town.

“This is an easy place to grow up and live and raise a family,” Copen said.

Due to the fact that these smaller synagogues can’t necessarily afford a staff and faculty, one rabbi’s profession involves making sure that these small congregations have what they need. Rabbi Marshal Klaven, director of Rabbinic Services at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, is widely considered as a “traveling rabbi.”

“It’s a fancy title that whittles down to me being a circuit-riding rabbi,” Klaven said.

The idea behind the circuit rabbi is to provide for smaller congregations in areas that they might struggle in.

“Areas with larger cities such as Dallas will never struggle like those in smaller areas who may not be able to afford a full time rabbi,” Klaven said. “And the organization I work for asked ‘Wherever there’s a Jew, why should they go without full time rabbinic support? Or without full time Jewish education? Or without full time Jewish cultural knowledge?…and we’ve taken all of those and put them out on the road.”

While on his circuits, Klaven made a number of appearances at the Tupelo congregation, and he is especially fond of it.

“It’s unique,” Klaven said. “I hope that a lot of larger and smaller congregations can start to do what they’re doing. They have a very competent and engaging service leader in Marc Perler, and they also give everyone a key to the building when they become a member … which really lets you know that you own it, and you’re responsible for it.”

Klaven is also aware of the small percentage of Jewish people in Mississippi, but he believes that although it may be small, the Jewish population makes itself known.

“Jews here are never bashful about their identity as Jews … however they use that to integrate highly in their communities, because they were and are the small businessmen and women, and having that function within these small towns made them highly accepted,” Klaven said.

After traveling throughout the South to multiple congregations, Rabbi Klaven has seen the difficulties of being Jewish in the South. He believes the difficulties aren’t so much found in connecting with other Jews, but that they lie elsewhere.

“Mississippi is densely populated with small town Jewish congregations. So if someone wanted to connect, they could,” Klaven said.

The congregations in small towns tend to weigh a bit on the older side of the scale, Klaven said.

“So if you’re a young Jew, there may be a struggle to say ‘you know what, there’s just not that much there,’” he said. “And I think that that is where the struggle lies.”

Although small town Judaism is dying out, it still stands as the face of Judaism in Mississippi, and as one of the main smaller congregations, the B’nai Israel congregation in Tupelo has created a name for itself. They are a close-knit family who have made the best of what they have, and are going strong today. They hold services every Friday night, and provide the classic dish of smoked salmon and bagels after services on the first Saturday of every month. People like Perler, Klaven, and Copen have played significant roles in the continuation and expansion of Judaism in Mississippi, and although it may be dying out, it will continue to thrive no matter what.

As George Copen said, “There’s always a Jew someplace who can start a congregation.”


Taylor Lust