Back to Brownsville: Jewish Tales from Small Town Tennessee

Adas Israel Brownsville, TN

What you notice first—as you peer into the space—are the tall, stained glass windows that surround the dark wooden pews, the pulpit and the ark. You can easily cover the distance from the entryway to the bimah in a dozen paces. And while it is tempting to use words like small, tiny, quaint or postage-stamp, to describe the building, those terms say more about our frame of reference than the actual look and feel of the Temple itself. Moreover, those words do a disservice to what the founders of this synagogue achieved, and what the current generation of congregants are working so hard to preserve. Like other distinctive synagogues one may visit throughout the Jewish Diaspora, what makes Adas Israel of Brownsville, Tennessee so remarkable is the tale it tells us about the passage of time and the richness of history. Completed in 1867, only two years after the Civil War, by German Jews who helped to build up Brownsville before the fighting could no longer be contained, Adas Israel presents us with a powerful glimpse into the past and reminds us to broaden perspective in the present.

Ark in Adas Israel

Celebrating Yom Kippur in Brownsville in 2008 was not my first experience in a “small congregation” and “small town” setting. Massena, NY, Weldon, NC, and Laconia, NH have also put up with my preaching, singing, and/or teaching. That said, I need to be clear that I too have often entered these small congregations with many of the same experiences, expectations and assumptions as those of you who belong to large and midsize congregations in major cities or their surrounding suburbs. Each time, and in different ways, I have learned something new and my expectations have been challenged.

Brownsville Sign

In Brownsville, my perspective was different for one specific reason: my family has history in this particular town. They were part of the Confederate Jewish veterans whose story began with the choice to immigrate to America after a failed revolution in their native Germany in 1848. As my Chicago bound rabbinic ancestor, the great Bernhard Felsenthal wrote, paraphrasing the book of Job, the message of the progressive defeat in that struggle sent the harsh message: “this far have you come and no further.” The rabbi’s journey took him from Germany to what would eventually become one of the largest cities in the U.S., Chicago. His cousins, however, followed the route of the river and the railroad to Brownsville, seeking their fortune in commerce. People in this region of the country will tell you that the Civil War was really a war of “brother versus brother.” This saying is a fairly accurate description of the Felsenthal family’s experience. Jacob, Moses, Joseph and Isaac Felsenthal (who died at Shiloh) all served in the Confederate forces, as did Rabbi Felsenthal’s brother, David. The Rabbi, however was a vocal proponent of the Union and was among those who gave a eulogy for Abraham Lincoln, when the train bearing the slain President’s coffin on a nation-wide memorial tour made its stop in Chicago. It is the names of these Felsenthal brothers, and those of their wives, and children, that leapt out at me right off those stained glass windows. I knew they had belonged to the Temple. But I didn’t fully appreciate or understand the role they played in building it, until the moment my mother and I walked though Adas Israel’s doors and saw the names on those window panes.

Window in Brownsville Sanctuary

Now what kind of Jewish boy would I be if I didn’t take a moment to thank my mother? She is the one who encouraged me to attend the 140th anniversary of Adas Israel and whose life history reflects the bridge between North and South in our family. My mother was born and raised in Petersburg, Virginia. She graduated from Petersburg High in 1956— the alma mater of the movie star, James Cotton, and the basketball star, Moses Malone—before heading off to college in Massachusetts, where she met my father of blessed memory. Petersburg was a Jim Crow town back then and my mom was educated at segregated schools. This may be one of the reasons she spent much of her career working as a Program Director for the JCRC/ADL and why she organized and participated for many years in a Black—Jewish Women’s dialogue group. When we met in Memphis that October afternoon before Kol Nidre, we stopped at the Civil Rights Museum, housed at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. A few months later, the eyes of the world return to Memphis as our nation observed the 40th anniversary of his assassination. The visit to the museum proved to be humbling preparation for the Day of Repentance and a powerful reminder of the work that still remains undone.

After turning the wrong way on Highway 40, an error which became readily apparent when we crossed the river and saw the sign saying “Welcome to Arkansas” we turned around and raced off to Brownsville, just in time for dinner at the home of Temple President, Fred Silverstein. People, with a connection to Brownsville, came from all over the country to be there for this day. A tall, graceful man with gray hair and gentle blue eyes, Fred is exactly what you’d expect your southern host to be. His charm and confidence put us at ease from the very beginning. He knew where and when things needed to be done but felt no need to rush. It was in Fred’s home that I was introduced to my Tennessee cousins, the Brownsville Levy’s, for the first time. David Levy and his wife Sarah run a flower Nursery, called Willow Oaks, just outside of town. Their businessis on the same acres farmed by David’s father, who, many years ago, grew cotton where flowers grow today. Their son, Jacob, attends Religious School at the nearby Congregation B’nai Israel of Jackson, a Temple that was also started by the Felsenthals, Levys, Sternbergs, and Taams, along with other Brownsville Jews and their families, those many years back when the area experienced rapid growth.

It took some time for my expectations, rooted in the context of contemporary large/midsize Temples to wear off. Adas Israel still uses the “newly revised” Union Prayer Book II, published in 1945. Words such as “thou, thine, thee, thy, verily, knowest, ordainest, fadeth, passeth, and whithereth” can all be found on page 256. The service was read by Mr. Silverstein and Sam Feist, a Brownsville native in his thirties and producer for CNN now living in the DC area. Music was handled by Sam’s wife, Danielle, and a hired quartet, who normally play and sing in the choirs of local churches. The organ, which is nearly as old as the congregation, remains in excellent condition. Rabbi Richard Sternberger, of blessed memory, who served a number of area congregations and was the URJ Regional Director before his retirement, read a few prayers. In his bow tie and double-breasted suit, he looked every inch the towering classical Reform rabbi of yesteryear. At the time, Rabbi Sternberger was coping with macular degeneration, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he read the prayer book. His baritone voice and pulpit presence were still strong. Danielle chanted Kol Nidre and Mr. Silverstein gave a sermon comparing Judaism’s conception of redemption with the way it is used and misused in today’s mass media. It was these two elements that helped me to overcome the awkwardness of the prayer book and the unusual surroundings. Tastes and styles change. Perhaps one day the translations found in Gates of Repentance and Mishkan Tefilah will sound as strange to my grandchildren as those of the early Union Prayer Book sound to me. Willingness to adapt our philosophy based on new information and new ideas is part of why progressive Jews love progressive Judaism. But while we are willing to change, we still love the strength and comfort found in continuity, especially when that continuity is experienced through content.

It is easy for people today to be skeptical about the styles of Classical Reform, but as I experienced worship in this manner and in this place, I came to appreciate its necessity to others and its contribution to us as never before. Without Classical Reform there might only be two types of Judaism in the United States today: various extents of Orthodoxy and various degrees of assimilation, neither of which are palatable if you choose to embrace both tradition and modernity. Orthodoxy was no more functional for the founders of Reform Judaism in this country, than it is for many of us today. The notion of total assimilation strikes us as a reckless abandonment of our heritage, in much the same way as that option did for them. I take exception to the idea that we cannot assess the past based on the critiques of the present. Yet we do have a responsibility to judge it fairly, trying to understand the choices of generations past in context with the challenges and crises of their times. To look at this Temple, to participate in worship there, is to experience a profound sense of continuity, and it serves as a reminder that we are tied to Classical Reform through people, places and ideas.

Between the morning and afternoon services on Yom Kippur, my mom and I walked to the Jewish cemetery with our cousin Jonee Levy and her husband Harvey. While her brother David stayed in Brownsville, Jonee has become a political activist in San Francisco. To call our cousin Jonee outspoken is an understatement. Her style, politics and worldview are informed by years in the Bay Area, but her voice and vivacity are rooted in Brownsville. A few years before this gathering, I had the chance to introduce cousin Jonee to my senior colleague, Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, of blessed memory. Learning that Jonee was from Brownsville led him to ask if she had read The Jew’s Store, a novel about a Jewish family in small town Tennessee. “Honey,” she replied, “I don’t need to read it, I lived it.” Calling Rabbi Raiskin, a WWII veteran who marched with King and Heschel in Selma, “honey” seemed about as appropriate as calling the President of the United States, “Sweetie Pie.” But, like playwright Alfred Uhry’s Southern Jewish matriarchs, Jonee isn’t preoccupied with holding back. She has earned the right to be opinionated. The persuasive skills she’s honed through political organizing are what got me, my Mom, and Rabbi Sternberger to this historic event. It’s almost impossible to be sad in Jonee’s presence, and this was the case even in the cemetery. Like the Temple, the cemetery is over a century old. Stones dating back from before the Civil War to the present day fill the grounds.

The day after Yom Kippur we gathered together for a farewell brunch at David and Sarah Levy’s farm. Jonee made her signature hoe cake (a biscuit recipe dating back to slavery where field workers would let the mixture bake on the handle of their hoe). They gave us a tour of the flower works and Sarah asked me to check up on Jacob’s Hebrew reading skills. Even though his Religious School in Jackson has half the sessions of big city Temples, I’m happy to tell you that Jacob’s reading skills are just fine. He was more than ready for his Bar Mitzvah. Sitting around the living room, David told us the story of how his father, Henry Levy, refused to cooperate with the Ku Klux Klan when they demanded that he tell them the names of the cotton workers who were involved in the NAACP. Family businesses are becoming ever more scarce as are family farms. I’ve encountered other Jewish professionals in the flower Nursery business, but they didn’t own the operation or the land it’s run on.

After bidding our family farewell, my mother and I headed off to Jackson. Congregation B’nai Israel left its first site in the downtown area, by the courthouse, and dedicated a new building in 1940. Sarah called the Temple President, David Cohen, and asked him to open the building for us. Once again, there were tall stained glass windows with the name Felsenthal throughout the Temple. That name can also be found on the memorial plaques and in the plaques of past Temple Presidents. The name of my great-grandfather, Victor Woerner, can also be found on both. Although under an hour’s drive from each other, the Temples of Brownsville and Jackson are quite different. Jackson is a much bigger town, and has many more Jews to support its synagogue. While Adas Israel is entirely volunteer run, B’nai Israel brings in a Rabbi for the High Holy Days and about eight other visits a year. The Temple in Brownsville has been named a National Landmark for many years now, while its sister congregation in Jackson has only recently begun the application process to gain that status.

After thanking Mr. Simon for showing us the Temple, we headed back to Memphis for our flights back home. Our trip to Tennessee was over, but we promised our cousins we’d try to make it back for the 150th anniversary of Adas Israel, if not sooner. I was there for Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah, and have stayed in regular touch with my Tennessee cousins. I’m determined to keep going back to Brownville. I owe it to my kids to provide what my mother has given me, an appreciation for the region and a sense of history. The duty is now mine to show those tall, stained glass windows to her grandchildren.

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