JACKSON, Miss. — A Jackson-based rabbi has begun his third annual Passover pilgrimage across the South, visiting small Jewish communities where local culture has put its mark on the ancient faith in ways unexpected and unique.
Rabbi Marshal Klaven is director of rabbinic services for the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. He began his trip Thursday and planned to visit more than a dozen small Jewish communities in six states.
He says the congregations along the route have a strong commitment to their culture, despite their size. He’s looking forward to the food that will be served during the traditional holiday meal, which often includes Southern variations like those found in the Mississippi River town of Natchez: matzo balls with gravy.
The Jackson-based Institute aims to nurture Jewish congregations throughout the South, bringing them educational programming that they might not otherwise be able to afford. Because of the intense schedule, Klaven is splitting up the list of cities with rabbinical student Matt Zerwekh.
Klaven said Natchez will be the smallest community visited, with fewer than 10 participants, while Fayetteville, will likely be the largest, with about 100 families. Other stops are planned in Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana and Florida.
The holiday celebrates the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. Traditional foods, like haroset, a shank bone, and bitter herbs are used as symbols of the Passover story during the Seder. Klaven said the story can be used to explore contemporary oppression, whether by cruel dictators or personal demons.
“When we are able to join forces and march together, we can overcome them and free ourselves,” Klaven said.
While traditionally the Passover Seder takes place on the first two nights of the eight-day holiday, the pilgrimage will include Seders on other nights as well, so more cities can benefit from the rabbi’s leadership.
“People often overlook small communities, whether they’re Jewish or not, because they’re seen as not having as powerful a voice, or not as consequential. But they still demonstrate the best of what it means to be a close, comforting religious community,” Klaven said.
One example of can be found in Crossville, Tenn., about 100 miles east of Nashville. The Upper Cumberland Jewish Community in Crossville has been able to thrive despite low numbers. On an average Friday night, anywhere from 15 to 20 people, mostly retirees, meet at a local church to celebrate Shabbat. But this Passover the group will host an interfaith service for about 150 people, led by Klaven.
Norton Goodman, an 80-year-old retiree from Chicago who now lives in the Tennessee community, said he was initially concerned about moving to place with such a small Jewish population. Those concerns soon evaporated when he saw how strong that little community was, and how supported it has been by the rest of the city.
“We’re all separated from our families, we sort of feel this is our family here,” Goodman said. “The Passover Seder is no exception to that.”