Embracing Local Culture
I grew up in Tennessee (aka “the buckle of the Bible Belt”) and have spent my entire life in the Deep South (Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama). If you are not from the South, let me assure you the culture here is rich, vibrant and joyful. And yes, many of the stereotypes you have about Southerners are true. In the summer, we sit on our front porch laughing with friends and drinking sweet tea. Most of our vegetables are served fried, and the mere mention of “potential snow flurries” causes schools to close across the state.
There is something unique about being both Jewish and Southern that only Southern Jews truly understand. And even though it may not seem like both cultures complement each other, I believe they do on a deep level. In the South, you are expected to be polite and kind to everyone. You are raised to respect your elders, to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir.” There is an implicit trust of your community, so your children are able to ride their bikes around the neighborhood and play until the fireflies come out. Your neighborhood has block parties and cookouts and everyone is welcome and expected to bring a “plus one.” These values of community, family and inclusion we own in the South are the same values we know are deep within Judaism.
When families relocate from larger non-Southern Jewish communities to Nashville, they are shocked by the hospitality, kindness and grand welcome they receive. They do not expect to get handwritten thank-you cards from our head of school thanking them for a visit or an offer to video-chat with their child’s future classmates. They are surprised that we are so willing to connect them with realtors, preschool directors and clergy from every denomination.
To us, these small steps that we take to make new and potential families feel included and welcome aren’t anything special. This is who we are as a Jewish community. Our Tennessee culture tells us to be courteous, but our Jewish identity demands that we go deeper. Our heritage commands that our welcoming of the stranger, our food for the needy and our smiles to the homeless are authentic.
Embracing our heritage—both Southern and Jewish—has empowered our school to be who we are: a community Jewish day school for Southern Jews. Although we have families from all over the world, including Russia, Israel and Persia, our Southern community and Jewish values provide a foundation for our children grounded in compassion, love of the other and inclusion. While many Jewish families are anxious about moving to the South, when they get here they see that our Southern culture only serves to complement our Jewish values.
By truly accepting who we are as a school, we have been able to flourish, grow and connect with our students and their families on meaningful levels. I challenge you to ask yourself, For what is your community known? How can you use that to your advantage? And most importantly, what other foods can we fry?