Almost every Friday at about 7:45 p.m., auxiliary police officer Joe Erber calls in “Ten-Six” (or “busy”) to his dispatcher. He cruises over to West Market Street on the outskirts of downtown Greenwood, Mississippi, and strides into Ahavath Rayim, the last Orthodox synagogue in the state. Erber grabs a prayer shawl off the rack, kisses it, and drapes it over his police uniform. Then he makes his way to the pulpit and begins the services: Hebrew with a drawl. For years, Erber has served as the de facto rabbi of Ahavath Rayim, spiritual leader to a once-thriving congregation that has dwindled down to almost nothing.
It’s a story that can be found in small communities throughout the South. At the turn of the century, Jewish immigrants poured into towns like Greenwood, seeking relief from the stifling tenement life up North. They arrived as peddlers, saved money, opened up stores. By the 1930s, Jews formed the backbone of the merchant class in hundreds of these towns. Soon after, though, young Jewish people began leaving, opting for the larger cities. By the early 1950s, this small-town Jewish exodus was in full swing. Today, the exodus nearly complete.
Note: For the first time in well over 100 years, it appears there will be no minyan in Greenwood, Mississippi, to celebrate the high holy days in 2001; there are now less than ten Jewish men over the age of thirteen in the area. If you or someone you know can help Congregation Ahavath Rayim make minyan this year, please e-mail Joe Erber at email@example.com.
Recorded in Greenwood, Mississippi. Premiered December 20, 1991, on All Things Considered.
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.