ISJL supplies Jewish resources region-wide

Ed Fellow Leah Wittenberg teaching Dallas religious school teachers

New CEO to continue outreach across South

By Aaron Greenberg

Special to the TJP

DALLAS — Macy B. Hart grew up in a very small Jewish community in Winona, Mississippi. Like many Jews in the South, he came from a family that had to go out of its way to preserve tradition.
Hart, the founder  and outgoing CEO of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), endured 160-mile round trip drives each Sunday as a youth to get a Jewish education.
ISJL board member Scott Miller, of Dallas, was slightly luckier, growing up 30 miles from the synagogue in Greenville, Mississippi.
That’s less of an issue in Dallas, which has multiple congregations hosting enough people on the High Holidays to inhabit a rural town.
Still, the ISJL plays a major role in the Metroplex, just as it does for towns with two Sunday school students. (And yes, there are five of those serviced by the organization.)
Headquartered in Mississippi, ISJL has an annual budget of $2.3 million, with an imprint in 13 states. The institute’s educational program serves 76 congregations — including 23 Texas schools — and 4,000 children.
Its education program serves 1,000 children at six of the region’s schools — Congregation Shearith Israel, Temple Emanu-El and Temple Shalom in Dallas; Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, and Adat Chaverim in Plano.
The connection between what happens in the countryside and major cities is vital, according to Michele Schipper, ISJL’s incoming CEO.
“Those small towns are feeding these cities. But, those still in the small towns, we are honoring them,” Schipper said, noting that if they migrate, they’ll then be more likely to go “shul shopping.”
Overall, ISJL’s rabbinical department provided services to 43 communities with visits between 2014 and 2016, helping to counter the shortage of clergy — which isn’t only a rural or Southern problem, as Hart and Schipper point out.
Dallas serves as an anchor for many of the ISJL programs that reach out to smaller cities and towns. Speakers and cultural contributors start in a major city, then hit the road in a rental car. Examples include author and speaker Dr. Ron Wolfson and country singer Joe Buchanan.
“There’s a shortage of rabbis, and there are many more congregations nationally than rabbis,” Hart said. “We’re a solution.”
Rabbinical visits are part of the larger idea to provide for locations that lack resources, and bring the entire Southern Jewish community together.
“It’s a mythical congregation, all the services you’d get if you belong to a synagogue,” Schipper said.
That includes a significant effort to preserve and share history with an encyclopedia that includes background on every Jewish community that has ever existed in the South ( Some of the entries include videos with an oral history.
As someone who bridges the experience of rural and urban Jewish life, Miller eagerly supported ISJL before joining the board. He sees benefits and interests for the local community, as well as his hometown of Indianola.
“I think that Jews living in rural areas in the South should have access to some of the same Jewish opportunities that we have in Dallas,” he said. “No other organization does what the ISJL does, so if it did not exist, we would have to create it.”
Another connection familiar to Metroplex families is Rabbi Andrew Terkel, director of Year Round Programs at Greene Family Camp. Terkel is one of ISJL’s education fellowship alumni. Many of the alums have gone on to rabbinical school, and most have become involved with professional Jewish life, Schipper said.
Hart served as North American Federation of Temple Youth (NIFTY) president in the late 1960s. He wanted to work in New York, but ended up back in Mississippi running the brand-new Henry Jacobs Camp in Utica, Mississippi. After 30 years of serving dozens of congregations, many without clergy, he was ready to try something new to boost Southern Jewish life.
“I was in a position that if I wanted it to happen, I was going to have to do this,” Hart said.
In a few weeks, Hart will step down as CEO from the organization he founded in 2000, and he came to Dallas to make sure the organization’s friends and partners are properly introduced to Schipper.
Schipper, meanwhile, has been the organization’s COO going on 11 years, and like Hart, she came from a small Jewish community in Mississippi. Her family owned a deli in Jackson that was famous throughout the Deep South.
She grew up at Henry Jacobs Camp, becoming a counselor, staff member and assistant director. She has also been involved in JCCs out West and in Jackson, serving as sisterhood president and congregation president.
Hart said he’ll focus on his “bucket list” for the organization as he transitions to a president emeritus role, confident in Schipper’s ability.
“She has seen this meteoric growth. She is a product of this entire thing. I’m not concerned about the continuity,” he said.
Perhaps their biggest legacy is the education program, which includes a 6,500-page fully scripted curriculum for preschool through high school. It took $9.2 million to develop and deliver, but now is used throughout the South and revised each year.
A team of 10 education fellows partner with communities, answering questions and making three in-person weekend trips. An annual conference also takes place each June in Jackson, where educators get a chance to learn not only from ISJL, but from each other.
Generally, ISJL programs get tested in Mississippi before being rolled out. Some of the community engagement programs include LAB (Literacy Achievement Bonanza), a literacy camp that has partnered with Jackson State University, and Talk About the Problems (TAP), which trains kids to be mediators.
“We’re looking to replicate that throughout our region,” Schipper said.
A traveling trunk with primary source documents is used to help explain the story of 19th-century Jewish immigration to the South, part of the Heritage & Interpretation department. The department grew out of the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience.
The museum predates ISJL, part of Hart’s efforts to preserve Southern Jewish artifacts. It became part of the larger organization, but will become its own entity with a New Orleans location in 2019.
The synergy will continue, of course. After all, that’s what ISJL is about.
“I think that Jews, no matter where they live, have a responsibility to help other Jews,” Miller said. “We are privileged to live in Dallas, where we have access to almost everything Jewish. I believe that if more Jews in Dallas knew about the ISJL, they would embrace the opportunity to provide resources to help Jews in other places live a more Jewish life.”
Large or small, when communities need a boost, they can turn to ISJL, Hart said.
“Instead of an urban mentality, of ‘if you want it, go where it is,’ tell us and we will bring it to you,” Hart said.

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