Wandering Jews – What One Family Learned Stepping into the World of American Jewry – Rabbi Joshua Caruso

This blog post is excerpted from the D’var Torah shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Friday, July 12, 2013 at Kabbalat Shabbat Worship, a glimpse into the first findings of Rabbi Joshua Caruso after his six-month sabbatical journey with his family across the United States, exploring American Jewish history and the current realities of Jewish life in various parts of the country. Nearly 600 of our members joined the congregation that Shabbat evening to welcome Rabbi Caruso and his family home. The Caruso family also kept a blog, http://wherethejewsare.com which can be a helpful reference. We encourage you to respond below, to share your thoughts, and this posting with others, so we might all benefit. All of us at Fairmount Temple look forward to additional insights, teachings, classes and programs as a result of Rabbi Caruso’s sabbatical.

It is fitting to be here tonight and share reflections from my family’s sabbatical considering that in this week’s Torah portion, Devarim, there is a review of our people’s biblical journey, moving from one place to another, armed with God’s law every step of the way. At the beginning of the portion, the text reads, “See, I place the land at your disposal…” Even though God was speaking to the Israelites about the Land of Canaan, our family did feel empowered to see this country as one filled with exploration and opportunity.

It was a trip of a lifetime, and it kicked us in the proverbial you-know-what because while we had an itinerary, not everything went as planned – like the time we plugged a crockpot (containing Leah’s delicious homemade chili) into our car’s power outlet through an inverter, only to blow out – one by one – every single outlet in the car. These were outlets that powered our phones and the ever-valuable GPS which the Wednesday morning study group so generously gifted us in anticipation of our trip. The circumstance merited a trip to a Honda dealership, and I only wish you could see the expression on the mechanic’s face as we embarrassingly explained the reason for our visit.

But wait,…there were more mishaps. Like the time we found ourselves on the road during Passover, in Wall, South Dakota, with no sign of Matzoh until Sioux Falls – which was on the other side of the state! (Just imagine me trying to describe the dimensions and texture of this Passover staple to the baffled employee in the local supermarket. With a desperate plea, I will say that I did intone the words, “giant cracker”, which got me nowhere). Let’s just say we ate a lot of potatoes for a few days (prepared in every way you can imagine!).

Or the time we silly Midwesterners camped out on Lake Mead, Nevada, in February, only to find that the 75 degree sun-kissed weather during the day belied the 30 degree temps at night. Let’s just say that these naïve Caruso campers came to learn the meaning of “high dessert”, which is code for REALLY FREAKING COLD AT NIGHT. Nevertheless, we bundled up in layers of clothing in our Coleman tent, only to awaken in the wee hours, one-by-one, to find refuge in our heated SUV.

I could go on…but then I would not be able to share the other memories I brought home to enrich my rabbinate – and this congregation. I’d like to share some stories, many of my which are attached to an image, and tonight I will share three of those images, and the stories connected to them, which remain with me.

The first image is of me and Macy Hart sitting in a restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi. Macy grew up in a small town in Mississippi, one of only a handful of Jews with few avenues to connect with other of the same faith in the region. As a proud southerner, he founded Camp Jacobs in Utica, MS – a camp of the Union for Reform Judaism, where Jewish kids from all around the South could be together and share in community. Camp Jacobs became a great success, and decades later, Macy was ready to take the next step in addressing the needs of southern Jewry. He thus created the Institute for Southern Jewish Life, which oversees more than one hundred small and declining congregations in the south, providing financial and educational resources to communities in need. To Macy, when he thinks about these communities he serves, he thinks about individual Jews who feel a sense of pride and identity, but who also want to live and grow as Jews; the Institute helps them do that. I can still see his determined face sitting across from me, as if he were the Moses of the South, leading his people from the darkness to a land of identity.

The second image reflects three bathroom doors, now boarded up, which were located at the back of a former pool hall in Monroe, Louisiana. At first glance they looked like three simple doors – could have been doors for anything. But it all came into focus when a long-time Monroe Jewish resident, who owned a liquor store caddie corner, provided context. Those three doors were bathrooms for whites and blacks, he said. The odd number of doors did not compute in my head. “One door for white men, one door for white women, and one door for coloreds”, he said. To this born and bred northerner, all the books I had read, all the pictures I had seen, and all the stories I had heard could not have prepared me for that physical sight.

The image of those doors echoed my time in the south where I spoke to Jews who lived during the civil rights era, and even remembered Rabbi Lelyveld. Back in the divisive 60’s, Jews were often found in the middle of the strife, sympathetic to the plight of African-Americans – and their striving for equality. But they were also business owners, family men and women, who didn’t want to cause trouble and draw attention; these southern Jews had made a place for themselves in society – recognized for their civic contributions, not because they were Jews…and many they wanted to keep it that way. Like those three doors, not everything was as it appeared at first glance. And while our experience in the south was jarring, it also evokes some the fondest memories of Jewish southern hospitality at its finest.

And finally…a third image. In my mind’s eye, I can see a giant tumble weed indiscriminately roaming across the highway with abandon as we were driving somewhere in Western Idaho. I was taken with the novelty of it all. I had never seen a real tumble weed before. I must confess that I had thought it only a fiction in western movies (or in that Star Trek episode when the Enterprise crew beams out into the old west!). And yet, there it was, a giant tumble weed buoyantly moving across the highway, with others following its example until it eventually lodged itself somewhere – at least for a little while. I found the wandering tumble weed an apt metaphor, because all the Jews we met – in Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, California, Boise and Jackson Hole and Rapid City and Omaha and so on, had all arrived in this country via an ancestor looking for a place to park, to lodge – and to be Jewish. They, like so many Jews who came before them, arrived in this country with their Judaism in tow, as if they were carrying gold in a satchel, a portable treasure to display on the family mantle (but always prepared to move on again).

Today, we are blessed to live in this country where each one of us has placed that satchel somewhere in storage along with the old photo albums collecting dust. We are now settled in a country that has, for over 350 years, primarily been a safe haven for our people. God bless America!

The Caruso expedition is over, and while the ride was illuminating, we have finally arrived at our home, lodged safely on Fairmount Boulevard, to join with family and friends in this very special community. We are glad we found our way home, and we are grateful for your support and love.