By Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith
At the recent Central Conference of American Rabbis meeting held in Chicago, I was asked why I choose to remain the solo rabbi at a small congregation in a very remote location. I have served as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Dothan, Alabama since July of 2007. Temple Emanu-el is the only synagogue in a 100 mile radius and we have 69 member units. We are located right in the thick of the Bible Belt where ignorance of Jews and Judaism is rampant, and getting kosher food or even finding greeting cards at the Jewish holidays can be a challange. We have learned to make do with what we have. For example, there is no mikveh nearby, so immersions are done in a natural body of water. When we need specific supplies, a group of us take orders and make it fun day. And as we rabbis of smaller congregations are acutely aware, our salaries and benefits tend to be lower than that of our colleagues in larger congregations which impacts not just our current circumstances, but our future as pensions are computed as a percentage of our salaries.
Yet most rabbis in small congregations love their congregations, love their work, and have no desire to leave. Why? Because of the close relationships we form with our congregants. I know every single one of my congregants. When I get the God-forbid phone calls in the middle of the night, I not only know who I am talking to, but I know their family and which of their friends I will need to be in touch with to help with the immediate crisis. Because we are so small, we are like a large, extended family. Yes, we have our differences, and there are occasional disagreements, but we all feel a close connection to one another. This manifests itself in a spirit of caring that at times leaves me almost breathless. We are there for each other for all the good times and the bad. B’nai Mitzvah are celebrated as a community. The child or children belong to all of us. Everyone bakes for the luncheon or Oneg, and everyone is invited to the service and everyone attends. Religious School Shabbat is one of the highlights of our ligturgical year, even though the majority of congregants do not have school age children. And when someone gets sick or dies, the community is there providing food (Do I need to say this? We ARE Jews, afterall), comfort and even cleaning if it is needed. And all this is done without a Caring Committee, because we are a Caring Community. We worship and play together; we bowl, discuss books, study Torah, do social service projects, and eat countless meals together as a community.
And I have experienced the caring personally. While Rob and I were in Chicago at the CCAR convention, Rob’s brother suffered a massive heart attack. Immediately the congregation sprang into action. Rob’s brother was never alone from the time he was admitted to the hospital, through his emergency surgery as congregants took turns staying with him until Rob and I could get back to Dothan. Other congregants checked in on Rob’s elderly mother who is bedridden in a long-term care facility and was frantic at the thought of losing her oldest child. Once Rob’s brother was released from the hospital, congregants brought him heart-healthy meals, drove him to the doctors, visited with him and helped out in innumerable ways.
I often describe our congregation as Small and Mighty because we are able to do so much despite being so small. And it is because of our relationships to each other that we are able to accomplish so much. Everyone knows that they are needed and valued. I believe that most of us in small congregations stay because of the relationships we are able to foster and for the keen sense of belonging that may not exist in a larger setting.
And it doesn’t hurt that there is no snow here, and we are only 90 miles from Panama City Beach.
Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith serves as the rabbi of Temple Emanu-el in Dothan, AL and is dedicated to proving that there really is a vibrant Jewish life in the Deep South.