Some orphaned shuls in Southern towns, distant and desolate, whose rabbis — never replaced — departed long ago, will fly him in to be the rabbi for a weekend, but for a Shabbos in Longview, Texas, Rabbi Aaron Rozovsky figured, “I’ll rent a car. It’s only four hours.” He adds, “If it’s within seven hours, I’ll drive.”
And so the Institute for Southern Jewish Life’s director of rabbinic services (he’s the department’s only full-time rabbi) heads west from his office in Jackson, Miss., driving in the August heat on Interstate 20, through neighboring Vicksburg — 43 miles is “neighboring” in rural America — crossing the bridge over the Mississippi River, a crossing that is “always a blessing,” he says. He notices the terrain, “very flat, some bluffs, pretty fertile, very green.” He was a soldier in Afghanistan, where he learned that terrain matters.
He drives past exit signs for Tallulah, Bee Bayou and Monroe, La. “This is where ‘Duck Dynasty’ takes place,” he thought to himself. Around here, not too many Northerners know, is a factory making wooden duck callers (that imitate quacking) needed by duck hunters. Every town has a story.
In Longview, “there’s a beautiful synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. I served there before, a wonderful congregation,” he tells me via cell phone. “When I come to a town I try to get there in time to set up, say hi to the folks, and roll the Torah,” to the scroll’s weekly portion. The amount of Torah rolling he has to do bespeaks how long the shul has gone since the last time someone could “layn” it.
The Jews of Longview, a community born in the 1930s oil boom, used to go to synagogue in Kilgore, 12 miles down Texas Highway 31. The Longview Jews finally raised enough money to build their own synagogue in 1957, saying hello just as everyone was saying goodbye. The boom no longer boomed, like the Texas thunder that promises — but doesn’t deliver — rain. Longview had Jewish 54 families in the 1950s; 15 families now.
Rabbi Rozovsky’s job is not just “circuit riding,” as Southerners call roving pastors. He writes sermons that he e-mails throughout the 13 Southern states, from the Red River Valley in Texas and Oklahoma to the Potomac River towns in Virginia. Often, in lieu of a rabbi, someone in the nearly empty pews will go up to the pulpit and read the e-mailed sermon from their long-distance rabbi. The Institute for Southern Jewish Life estimates that since 2000, their circuit-riders (each rabbi hired for a three-year stint) have traveled nearly two million miles, served 211 congregations, and reached 5,000 children. Rabbi Rozovsky will do circumcisions, weddings, funerals, and visit Jews in the jailhouse. The Institute also offers cultural programming, with one musician advertised as “Shlomo Carlebach meets Muddy Waters.”
Rabbi Rozovsky, who is 33, drives the Texas highways back to Jackson. As Southerners say, “it’s a fur piece from here to there,” but he’s comfortable with long distances. He knows God is never distant, no more distant in the Delta than in New England where he grew up. God was as close as the inside of his soul during his 12 years in the National Guard — as a military policeman, before moving into chaplaincy after his 2018 ordination from Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College — service that took him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and later Afghanistan, where “I learned how to create a festive Shabbos dinner” out of “a few cans of corn, peaches, and army rations.” He loves his girlfriend and she’s a long distance away in South Carolina (he met her online).
The rabbi is still active in the National Guard, a soldier always, exceedingly polite, peppering even our phone conversations with a crisp “Yes, Sir,” and “We’ll stay in touch, Sir.”
His is an unusual rabbinate, with an unusual route that got him there, not only through the military but earning a master’s degree in international studies with a concentration in Latin America, at Central Connecticut State University. But “This is my dream job,” Rabbi Rozovsky says, serving small Jewish communities that have “added so much to the American fabric, and our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.”
He tells me, “One of my favorite synagogues is in Vicksburg. I love them. In 1937 they had 467 Jews. Now, they have five — five! That’s where I did Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.” Including the rabbi and his visiting mother and brother, there were only eight Jews in shul — it could break an old man’s heart, remembering what that shul once was, but “That’s what I love about the South,” said Rabbi Rozovsky. “Five Jews in Vicksburg but 48 people in the pews!” OK, 40 weren’t Jewish, but so what? “People say, ‘You can’t be Jewish in the South,’ I say, ‘Yes, you can.’ You don’t even have to be Jewish to be ‘Jewish’ in the South. The choir was from the local Methodist church, the soloist is a Methodist dentist — his Kol Nidre is just fantastic!” The Methodists didn’t know Hebrew but the prayers were transliterated.
“One [non-Jew] said to me, ‘I’m here because [that Jew sitting over there] bailed out my grandfather in the Depression when my grandfather was having a hard time. I really love Jews, I want to support them.’ Another woman told me, ‘I’m Baptist through and through. But my grandmother was Jewish and I want my two sons, who are with me, to know their heritage.’”
The rabbi adds, “The one funeral I’ve done so far was for a Jewish cotton farmer; 200 people showed up at his funeral. They were cotton farmers, too, and they loved him.”
Rural America is getting smaller. According to the Department of Agriculture, an average of 33,000 people annually migrate from rural to urban areas. The more Jews leave Longview and Vicksburg for Dallas and Atlanta — where observant Jews are more likely to find a minyan, a mikvah, kosher food and other Jews — the more Jews back in small towns are “forced” to leave when their shrinking congregations are no longer viable.
On the other hand, said Rabbi Rozovsky, “There’s something incredible in these small towns. You’ll see each Jew not only on holidays but sweeping, vacuuming, breaking out the Lysol and Windex; it takes everybody to make these shuls function. I love that. If one person isn’t at services, it’s felt. It’s all hands on deck. I love that spirit.”
As long as one Jew needs him, he’s ready to drive: “I’m just about booked through next June. I have a bat mitzvah request for May 2021. I may only see a student or convert only twice, but we’ll be working together throughout the year,” via Skype. Rabbi Rozovsky gives potential converts a 400-hour syllabus: “I did a conversion two weeks ago in Arkansas and the week before that in McAllen, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. I have a conversion next year in San Angelo, Texas, and in November in Tupelo, Mississippi.” They’re converting “for all sorts of different reasons. But I’ve haven’t had any that are converting to get married.” They’re converting for the love of the Jewish people, “that’s the big reason.”
As Rabbi Rozovsky drives the two-lane blacktops, that’s his reason, too. He loves the Jewish people.