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JSCN USA is a collaboration building on Jewish Small Communities Network in the UK [ jscn.org.uk ] & The Small Jewish Communities Project in the USA [ smalljewishcommunities.org ]

Connecting Jewish small communities in the UK and now in the USA

Jewish Small Communities Network CIO is a UK registered charity – number 1168499

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Jewish Small Town America

by Samuel Richardson

I grew up in small-town America.
Small-town life isn’t exactly as it is portrayed in the Rockwell paintings.
Not everyone knows the business of everyone else.
The sidewalks didn’t roll up every night, just from Friday afternoon until Monday morning.
It is true that some things in a small town never change – but other things do.
In my hometown, the high school is still there, but the proverbial Five-and-Dime downtown was replaced by the mall. Eventually the kitchy/artsy stores revitalized the downtown area and, I suspect, few miss the Five-and-Dime.

Folks in small towns tend to have a bit of an inferiority complex. Just about everything from fashion to music to cultural fads are compared to what has just come on the scene in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. The teens yearn for the bright lights and adventures of the big city. The opposite, of course, rarely occurs. People working in in America’s major metropolitan areas and sleeping in the suburbs don’t often think of what keeps the folks in Lincoln or Ft. Collins awake at night. Few 18-year-olds in Baltimore wonder what life would be like in the mountains of New Mexico.

There is one sure-fire way I have found to give a city-dweller pause: Tell them about the 300,000+ Jewish Americans who live in small communities across America. I thoroughly enjoy the stunned looks on the faces of my urban-centric friends when I describe places such as Huntsville, Alabama, Pueblo, Colorado and Boise, Idaho where Jewish families have been living – and thriving – for most of the past 100 years.

In all there are over 300 Jewish communities in the US with under 5,000 individuals who self-identify as Jewish. The vast majority have Jewish populations under 3,000 and over half under 1,000 Jewish residents. As a share of the entire American Jewish population (6.769 million, according to the 2014 American Jewish Yearbook), those who live in small Jewish communities comprise just 4.4% of the whole. However, their size and proportion of American Jewry betray their importance to understanding Judaism in America.

In addition to the unique historical and social stories they have to tell, small Jewish communities can help us understand what it is to be Jewish in America today – and how to increase the chances that your children’s children will be Jewish. In the cities and larger communities where there is a significant critical mass of Jewish residents participating in the life of the community, it is easier to hide, easier to not be involved, easier to sneak out the back door and loose one’s connection to Jewish life and being.

The same is not so easy to do in a small Jewish community. Many, if not most, of those who live in small Jewish communities are reminded of their minority status on a daily basis; they cannot simply hide. For any given task that needs to be done for the sake of the Jewish community, a Jewish family or an individual there must be someone to step up and fulfill the need without training, without a budget and with only limited “professional” guidance. The result of this unique living situation is that Jewish Americans living in small communities have found ways in which promote generation after generation of Jewish identity and functionality that are unknown in Denver or Boca. Could it be that our larger communities – which are hemorrhaging Jews at unprecedented rates – could learn from their “flyover country” brothers and sisters a thing or two about keeping Jewish kids Jewish?