Three hundred people gathered last week in Birmingham, Alabama, to witness the final letters being filled into a new Torah scroll—a first for the Yellowhammer State. They came from all stripes of the small but active community of Magic City, to participate in a festive ceremony marking the culmination of a four-month long campaign.
Spearheaded by Chabad and the local Jewish community, the dedication of a new Torah scroll was planned to honor a fellow community member.
Last August, Jo Ann Hess-Morrisson, a longtime active member of the Birmingham Jewish community, was diagnosed with a tumor in a Jerusalem hospital.
Morrisson, who made aliyah in ’92 with her husband David, continues to split her time between Birmingham and Jerusalem, and when word of her illness came to Birmingham, everyone felt compelled to help. A new Torah scroll seemed an appropriate gesture, and Morrisson’s husband says the couple was deeply moved to learn of the effort. “This Torah has been a real lift for my wife,” says David, who stood by Jo Anne through a trying year of treatments and surgery.
And the new Torah, intended as a spiritual merit towards Morrisson’s complete recovery, marked a turning point for the Birmingham Jewish community as well.
Lying in the heart of the Deep South, Alabama’s Jewish community traces its origins back two and a half centuries, during which it has challenged the notion that that Jews and Southerners are polar opposites. Here Jewish culture is served up with a southern accent, an experience aptly hailed “Shalom Y’all.”
Birmingham’s own history (the city was founded in the mid to late 1800’s) was supplemented by a thriving Jewish community, which, though less devout than its Christian neighbors, contributed to this Bible Belt city’s religious landscape with their houses of worship and religious institutions. According to Chabad Rabbi Yossi Friedman, this is the only city nationwide where secular Jews have made a priority of marrying within the faith for as many as five, even six generations—a remarkable survival rate anywhere. But even among this community of strongly identifying Jews, religious observance hardly extended beyond Jewish marriages and High Holy Day Services, and integration into Birmingham’s larger community meant Jews were adopting a new way of life and shedding Jewish tradition.
Chabad’s arrival to Birmingham, says Rabbi Yosef Posner, who settled here with wife Frumie in 1987, was inspired by the community’s perseverance and by Chabad’s determination to secure its continuity. But the need for what many perceived to be yet another Jewish faction in this small community of 5,000, with its Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations, seemed superfluous to the locals, and the Posners maintained a low profile here for years, with a focus on building strong personal friendships that would slowly dissolve feelings of apprehension and ambivalence towards a Chabad presence in Birmingham.
Mrs. Posner began teaching in the Federation Day School, developing a special rapport with Mrs. Morrisson, the school director, who became a key supporter of Chabad efforts here. According to David Morrisson, his wife’s involvement with Chabad was rooted in a deep concern for the community. “If there would be a lasting traditional Jewish presence in Birmingham, Jo Anne was convinced it could only be Chabad,” he says. So investing in Chabad was really part of a conscientious decision about the future of the community. Without Chabad, says Mr. Morrisson, it would only be a matter of time before a traditional Jewish presence in Birmingham would simply cease to exist at all.
In 1993, the Posners hired another young Chabad couple, Rabbi Yossi and Miriam Friedman to work alongside them in Birmingham, a move that served to jumpstart Chabad’s phenomenal growth here in the last decade. A Gan Israel Day Camp was founded soon after, with seven children in a rented space in a bank building, and by the following summer registration had soared, and the need for a permanent Chabad center became apparent.
A building campaign garnered major support from local donors, including the Morrissons, and at two million dollars, the project, which included demolition and the construction of a 12,500 sq foot building, was completed within a year.
In their latest venture, Chabad began a Chai Tots preschool last September, with seven children enrolled part-time. By the end of the school year, there were fourteen students registered, almost all of them full-time, and thirty children are expected to begin next fall.
Three and a half year old Zander Karkim’s mother, Kim, registered him for Friday classes at Chai, to supplement his full-time education at a secular school. But Kim ran into a problem. Zander seemed to be thriving in the Chai environment, and didn’t really care to be anywhere else. “I started wondering what the point was in trying to make this other thing work out when I had something terrific already available,” says Kim, who soon enrolled Zander full-time at Chai.
Thrilled with the results, Kim points to the bright, cheerful environment and the myriad of activities that encourage children to use all their senses to explore and learn. “The teachers have a real ability to connect with the kids,” says Kim, and they bring the subject matter to life “in a very personal way.”
They may not be from the South, but, in true Chasidic tradition, the Posners and Friedmans exude a genuine warmth and openness that jibes well with the Southern hospitality that has greeted them.
“The most important thing,” says David Morrisson, “is that Chabad is here to stay. People here hadn’t expected that, and are really grateful for the level of commitment Chabad has made to our community.”