Southern fried Zionism

The Bible Belt’s city of Memphis has a surprisingly close connection to Israel and celebrates the Jewish state every year

May 8, 2019 21:28
Southern fried Zionism

THE MEMPHIS Stands with Israel rally held in the city in 2014.. (photo credit: TORAH MITZION MEMPHIS)

As Israelis celebrate Independence Day through the night in Israel, the party will just be getting started down in Memphis, Tennessee.

The largest city in the state, but with a truly Southern small-town feel, Memphis is home to an established Jewish community of about 8,000 or so Jews who are extremely close and love to share their Southern hospitality (both the famous kindness and warmth and the beloved liquor) with others. The community has a long history, tied with the State of Israel and Zionist movement for over a century.

The Memphis Jewish community dates back to the 1850s, when Jewish Germans arrived and established the first Jewish institutions, according to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. The community established itself as an important part of the city of Memphis and survived many challenges, including an order issued by Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that would have expelled all Jews in Tennessee, Kentucky and northern Mississippi, if not for the powerful protests of Jews around the country. After the Civil War, the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s decimated the city. Most of the 2,100 Jews fled the city, leaving only the 300 who risked staying to try to help or those who could not leave.

YOUTH IN Memphis wave flags and hold signs in support of Israel. (Credit: TORAH MITZION MEMPHIS)

After the epidemics were over, Eastern European Jews began rejuvenating the Jewish community. They brought with them more Orthodox religious practices and new political ideologies, including the brand-new Zionist movement.

With much opposition from the Reform German community, the Eastern Europeans formed Ahavat Zion, the first Zionist organization in the city, in 1896. One member of Ahavat Zion wrote multiple articles about Zionism for The Commercial Appeal, the citywide daily newspaper that is still delivered to this day. Memphis Zionists were very active (and still are), raising $6,000 (worth about $182,729 in 2019) for the movement in 1898. They raised money for the Jewish National Fund and in 1918 a Hadassah chapter was founded in the city.

Since then, the city has gotten only stronger in its love for Israel.

In 2017, Memphis was designated as the sister city of Shoham in central Israel. Students in the two cities have exchanged letters, and Margolin Hebrew Academy (MHA) and Bornblum Jewish Community School middle school students will be meeting fellow students in Shoham in May. Students keep in constant contact with their Shoham peers, talking over Skype and WhatsApp.
“We have a connection between communities,” teacher Michal Almalem of the BJCS said. “It’s not just ‘let’s learn a little about Israel.’”

Tovi and Esti Kochav, residents of Shoham, visited Memphis for the Anshei Sphard Beth El Emeth (ASBEE) Congregation’s World Kosher BBQ Competition and Festival in 2017. “We prayed, laughed (even to the point of tears) and discussed challenges from both sides – related to Jewish identity, and raising and educating our children. We did not expect to find so many similarities in a community so far away from home,” they wrote to the Memphis Jewish Federation’s blog

Shoham even hosted a Thanksgiving dinner in 2018 for Memphians (yes, that is the official term for someone from Memphis) in Israel.

THE ENTRANCE to the city of Memphis. (Credit: REUTERS)

Memphis rocks its Zionist side all year round in the Jewish schools, synagogues and at community events. Students at both the Orthodox MHA and the Conservative/Reform BJCS study in a Hebrew-language class at least twice a week, and their teachers make sure that all students learn to speak Hebrew conversationally and read Hebrew like a pro.

“Israel is connected to everything we do,” Almalem said.

She and other teachers teach about current events and strive to make Hebrew “a living language, not just a language in the siddur [prayer book].” She plays modern music by artists such as Ishay Ribo and Static & Ben El Tavori.

Shlihim (emissaries) from the Torah MiTzion Kollel and Bat Ami programs stay in Memphis for the entire school year. Memphis has hosted 80 kollel bahurim (shlihim) since Torah MiTzion started coming there in 1996. The shlihim study Hebrew and Jewish studies with students in both schools and with youth throughout the community and synagogues, while educating the community as a whole about Israel. They organize an Israel-themed escape room, a Tu Bishvat party for the whole family and a falafel booth at the ASBEE BBQ. The heads of the kollel move in, usually with their entire families, for a few years to help guide the shlihim who come to help out in the community.

“We really love the community,” said Rabbi Rephael Azugi, head of the kollel in Memphis. “We’re wrapped in warmth and love here.”

Torah MiTzion’s main goal is to build a living bridge between Memphis and Israel.

“Thank God, throughout the years we’ve seen many connections that were formed by Memphis individuals and families who made aliyah [immigrated to Israel] and came to visit,” Azugi said.

The Memphis community has stood up to support Israel publicly multiple times, including rallies on main streets in Memphis, with large Israeli flags and banners waving proud. For Israel’s 70th birthday, the community shared the stories of Memphians’ connections with Israel, and congressmen and local mayors signed a congratulatory banner sent to Shoham.

However, there are some main events that really show how much Memphis loves Israel. Some of the most well-known traditions in Memphis are the Israel Independence Day festivities, including a march and a community event at one of the two larger Orthodox synagogues.

YOUTH IN Memphis wave flags and  hold signs in support of Israel. ( credit: TORAH MITZION MEMPHIS)

The march is organized by the MHA. Students march together down the streets of Memphis dressed in blue and white, while waving Israeli and US flags high and blasting Israeli music. It’s hard to miss.

Passersby cheer on the festivity from the sidewalks and their cars. It may not be a massive parade like in New York, but the community is still excited over it every year, and the city loves it.

The joint community event usually starts out with holiday prayers and a Remembrance Day ceremony conducted by Torah MiTzion emissaries and a transition ceremony to Independence Day. “Independence Day and Remembrance Day are the outcomes of an entire year of engagement with the community,” Azugi said.

Students from the elementary school spend months practicing Israeli flag dancing with Bat Ami and learning the lyrics to Israeli songs with ASBEE cantor Aryeh Sandberg and Baron Hirsch Synagogue cantor Ricky Kampf for the kids choir, which sings classic Israeli tunes.

“The purpose is to celebrate Independence Day in a way that is not just having fun, but to thank God for the great miracle we have,” Baron Hirsch executive director David Fleischacker said.

The MHA conducts a ceremony for Independence Day at the school as well, with students lighting memorial candles and reading poems and texts. The Torah MiTzion and Bat Ami members talk to the students about their experiences and stories that they heard, educating students about the difficult experiences that many Israelis face.

The BJCS’s eighth grade goes on a trip to Israel every year and attends Independence Day and Remembrance Day ceremonies during the trip. Meanwhile, BJCS students in Memphis take part in ceremonies on both days, singing “P’tah Libcha” (Open Your Heart), a song memorializing three teenagers kidnapped and murdered in 2014 before Operation Protective Edge, and reciting various poems, including “Magash Hakesef” (the Silver Platter).

On Jerusalem Day, ASBEE hosts a communal picnic and concert, with holiday prayers, live music and a delicious mix of Israeli and Southern food.

“It is vitally important that we show our support for Israel and to reaffirm our right to live and build anywhere in Jerusalem,” Rabbi Joel Finkelstein of ASBEE said in an invitation to the event. “As such, the entire community is welcomed to join us in celebrating this momentous day.”

In April, the Memphis Jewish Federation hosted the Taste of Israel event, where five gourmet chefs from around Memphis prepared tons of amazing kosher Israeli food, alongside an array of Israeli wines and desserts. Five hundred people attended.
Even with such a packed schedule, the main event may be the citywide Israel Festival, happening this year on December 8.

The Israel Festival is organized by the Memphis Friends of Israel, a nondenominational nonprofit dedicated to educating the Memphis area about the positive aspects of Israel. MFOI consists of synagogues, churches and interfaith groups. More than 7,000 people attend the Israel Festival, which features music, arts and crafts, education and children’s activities, alongside tons of Israeli-style food prepared by local vendors.

The Memphis skyline. (Credit: REUTERS)

The Israel Festival really shows how much the city of Memphis, Jews and non-Jews alike, love Israel.

“I looked around; it was not just a festival for Jews; I noticed a few Christians who love Israel,” Tali Versano Eisman, a resident of Shoham who visited Memphis in October and spoke at the festival, wrote in an article on the JCP website describing her visit. “Suddenly, I feel being hugged. No one is touching me and, still, I feel an embrace. They love Israel. They love us.”

Through the years, Memphis has made clear that it’s a place where the Jewish people and its national home are beloved and cherished.

“When people ask about my accent and I tell them I’m from Israel, they get so excited,” Almalem said. “I feel so proud. I’ve never felt scared about being Israeli or Jewish here.”

It just goes to show how even a smaller Jewish community, tucked in Tennessee, can make a big impact on the hearts of residents of a large city and visitors from all over, when it comes to a nation and a people they so love.

Related Content

Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour prepares to perform
September 17, 2019
New leadership in the Women's march of after accusations of antisemitism