By Bryna Sherr
The city: Rogers, Arkansas.
Ever heard of it? I can’t say I would have been able to tell you where Arkansas was on a map in 2009! Rogers/Bentonville is in Northwest Arkansas – the home of Walmart.
The People: The Sherr family. We had to relocate temporarily due to my husband’s job.
The Scene: Me panicking about leaving our friends, family, and Jewish community to live in the proverbial “Bible Belt.”
For someone who never left the East Coast of the US before, this was a scary prospect. I had lived in parts of New York (lots of Jews), Maryland (lots of Jews), and Pennsylvania (many Jews), among other states. I could not fathom that Arkansas was going to have a Jewish community for me and my family.
I posted about our move on Facebook, and I got a message from our cousin’s cousin’s husband who knew of Jewish people in Northwest Arkansas. “Could this really be?” I wondered. Apparently so!
We connected with the Hoodis family, who were one of a handful of founding families of Congregation Etz Chaim (CEC) in Bentonville. They told us that on our house hunting visit, we should connect with them to get a tour of the area and to learn what Jewish life had to offer us.
We met up with Wynnie and David, who were our age, and who had kids the exact ages as ours. They told us with pride and love about the converted Hispanic church (Spanish signs still on the restrooms) that was their synagogue they had created. They led us into a tiny warehouse-like structure, a makeshift Bema (pulpit), and a hand-painted Torah ark that appeared to have been a former entertainment center.
My husband and I were stunned. We had never seen anything in Judaism so informal - we were used to big institutions that we would just pay dues to, participate in activities, and attend High Holy Day services. This congregation was truly a grassroots effort. We were resigned to make the best of things, because a Jewish family life is what we wanted – if this was it, this was it!
On the first day of Hebrew School, which taught about 20 children, Carol ran up to us and in the deepest Mississippi accent you can imagine, and shrieked, “I CAN’T WAIT TO TEACH YOUR CHILDREN HEBREW!!” Stunned to hear a Jew with such a thick southern accent, and my questioning her qualifications in my head, I figured this was better than nothing. This first impression did not last long.
Turns out Carol, with her deep southern accent, was so nurturing and beautifully taught our children Hebrew. A year later, I was asked by the Hebrew School principal to attend the Hebrew School teacher training in Mississippi at the Institute for Southern Jewish Living. The ISJL unites people from all over the south to support Jewish life in areas with small Jewish populations. I was blown away to meet other Jews from Mississippi, Alabama, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. It felt comforting to know we weren’t the only ones! I was about to do something I never in a million years thought I would do - I taught the upcoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah class at CEC.
Two and a half years later, in 2011, we were saddened to leave the new southern Jewish family we joined and the deep friendships we made. We truly enjoyed the programming, services (CEC chose to be non-affiliated to accommodate all sects of Judaism), Hebrew School, and people from all over the US in this tiny corner of the South. It certainly opened our eyes to the knowledge that there are indeed thriving Jewish communities in small southern cities. And we were honored to be a genuine part of the one in Rogers, Arkansas.
Bryna Sherr wears two hats at JFS: She is the Permanency Coordinator with our Adoption & Foster Care program and a Therapist with JFS’ Mynd Works program. To learn more about either program, contact Bryna at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 717-233-1681.