This story was originally published in The Daily Yonder.
Leah Sagan-Dworsky warms up her violin before her bat mitzvah in Montpellier, Vermont.
As the only Jew in his elementary school other than his brother, Eli Baldwin had his mom visit class to teach his peers about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. From a young age, Marisa Swanson was instructed to lie about her Jewish faith if anyone in her small town asked. Before it was cool, Abby Craig used Zoom to attend the Jewish youth group that met in a temple three hours away from her home.
About 1 million Jews live in small-town America, according to sociologist Matthew Boxer, Ph.D., of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. One small subsection of them, emerging adults that are now starting or in the midst of college, have a particularly wide array of perspectives on the unique intersection of their religion and geography.
Young rural Jews live on farms in the heat of Mississippi, in small communities in freezing upstate New York, in tiny towns in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada, and everywhere in between. They are Reform, Conservative, converted, and Humanist Jews. Some didn’t know the Jewish prayers until college, while others had virtual Hebrew lessons with their rabbis before the age of 13. Some found friends through MeetJew.com, and others went to Jewish summer camps their entire lives. They are Hispanic, queer, Israeli, partially of another faith, vegetarian, and the children of preachers. Though few and far between, the young Jews of rural America are no monolith.
The tremendous variety in young rural Jews’ lived experience sheds light on the nuances of every small-town’s culture in a way that might not be visible from the surface. There is only one common thread through each story: Like most things in both rural and Jewish culture, it’s complicated.
The following is a collection of stories and statements from young Jewish adults who self-identified as rural on an online forum for college students involved with Hillel, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.
Building Jewish Identity in Rural Places
Community, or Kehilla in Hebrew, is an integral Jewish value. For many urban and suburban Jews, community is the foundation of their relationship with the religion: from synagogue to youth group to summer camp to Sunday school. In rural America, where the Jewish population is so thinly spread, these institutions are usually hard to come by.
For this reason, many rural Jews develop their Jewish identity in ways completely foreign to their urban counterparts.
In Brooksville, Mississippi, Abby Craig’s Jewish journey was mostly digital during the school year and at sleep-away camp during the summer.
Abby Craig’s family got creative in order to share their Jewish values and traditions. She wishes urban Jews were more understanding of the unique circumstances she and her family faced as rural Jews.
Growing up in a town with barely enough Jews to gather for formal prayer (known as a Minyan), Eli Baldwin of Clayton, New York, saw the rarity of his identity as an opportunity to serve as an ambassador and educator.
“I remember in elementary school my mom would come into my class and we would teach the class about Rosh Hashanah or Hanukkah,” Baldwin recalled. “I had few really negative experiences. … Teachers were understanding of me being absent for high holidays.”
Though he sometimes felt pressure to be the face of Judaism in his community, rural Jewish life taught him to be adaptive and compassionate towards others.
“I do have an appreciation for small Jewish communities and flexibility in worship and practice,” Baldwin said. “I think I also have greater understanding for people who are genuinely ignorant and just don’t understand.”
Beyond their geographic novelty, rural Jews live at the confluence of a wide variety of identities.
One young Jewish woman who preferred to remain anonymous was raised in a conservative Christian household in Wright County, Iowa. When she returned home from college where she had converted to Judaism, she struggled to find Kosher food and understanding, even among the few people she told of her conversion.
““[There was] a lot of confusion since my dad is a pastor,” she said. “A lot of folks assumed I was Messianic and was doing it to get closer to Jesus. I’m not. People literally assumed I still prayed to Jesus. When I said no, they got confused and said, ‘so you’re an atheist?'”
Despite the challenges of being the first Jew that her neighbors ever encountered, this young woman still found solace in the rural community.
“Evangelicals love to ‘love bomb’ and can get a little cold or hostile when they realize you don’t want to convert,” she said. “For the most part though, they are good caring neighbors even when they don’t understand.”
The critical role of connecting with other religious groups in rural areas is not lost on the Jewish community. In Muncie, Indiana, Muslims and Jews regularly come together to promote education within each others’ communities.
Jeremy Goldstein, a former leader at the Ball State University Hillel, helped organize an interfaith meeting swap with the Muslim Student Association as well as a community interfaith dinner. He said that collaborating with other minority groups was a positive experience and made the Jewish community feel stronger and more present overall.
“[The Hillel was] somewhat invisible until I started to reaching out to other religious organizations to get multicultural events going,” Goldstein said.
Bringing the minority groups together also helped highlight the commonalities between them, a powerful experience when both identities are marginalized to begin with.
“I would say that in general everyone seems to get along. I didn’t encounter any Antisemitism there. In fact , I encountered a lot of students that weren’t [previously] interested in Judaism and wanted to learn more,” Goldstein said. “After the Pittsburgh [synagogue] shooting, a number of people from various different religions came to services to support the Jewish community.”
For Ryan Eubanks (who also goes by Ari) from the outskirts of Lufkin, Texas, interacting with other religious groups while growing up was an exercise in constantly avoiding assimilation.
“Really a lot of minority people I know just tried to blend in or assimilate as a way to cope,” Eubanks said. “Really I think that’s the only way to have a positive experience there as a minority. I didn’t all the time so I got some flack growing up.”
Eubanks identifies as Jewish, Hispanic, and gay. He said that due to generations’ worth of heavy cultural baggage, the intersection of these identities was problematic not just in his community, but within his own family while he was growing up.
“My family is pretty mixed. My mom had a Polish Jewish father and has a south-Mexican mother and my dad is a good ol’ white Southern boy,” Eubanks said. “That makes my family dynamic pretty intense. There is a lot of anti-Hispanic sentiments and Antisemitism present within my own family, not just in the town.”
However, Eubanks believes that his unique identity allows him to connect and relate to other minorities in his community. He channeled his frustration with what he calls “white, Christian hegemonic culture” into a passion to make rural America more inclusive for people who are in some way marginalized or who don’t fit in the common mold.
Eubanks described his mother, the linguistic administrator for Lufkin Independent School District, as a leading voice for the Hispanic community in Lufkin and his inspiration for starting a Hillel at his college. The mother-son team have worked together to put on large community events to help Hispanic immigrant families get involved with their students’ education. Despite her prominence in the minority community, Eubanks thinks his mother still doesn’t feel comfortable as her authentic self in public work.
“Watching my mom at home speaking Spanish and being loud and laughing and watching her at work assimilating is pretty jarring,” Eubanks said. “It’s literally like two modes to cater to herself and the Hispanic community and to white people,” Eubanks said.
Antisemitism in Rural Areas
For some young, rural Jews, openly practicing their faith was not only difficult due to a lack of community, but dangerous. In some places, Antisemitism runs deep and dark and drastically affects the way young Jews construct their identity and practice their faith.
Marisa Swanson had many such experiences in her hometown of Winnemucca, Nevada.
Swanson said she had to hide and lie about her Jewish faith while growing up. After connecting with the Jewish community in college in Reno, she believes education is the key to defeating ignorance and Antisemitism.
Across the country in North Carolina, Samantha Brody faced Antisemitism in her cornfield-adjacent schools.
“There were definitely struggles growing up in rural schools in the middle of the Bible belt,” Brody said. “In elementary school, the other kids were cool with me being a part of a different religion. In middle school, however, is when things started going bad. In seventh grade I was called a stupid Jew. In eighth grade, I found a note in my locker that said ‘Hitler rules.'”
Unfortunately, Brody felt unsafe being Jewish in her rural community. She was constantly worried about finding allies, she said, so she wasn’t able to share her religious identity with others.
That is, until high school, when she had the opportunity to meet other Jews through a convention by the Reform Jewish Youth Movement, NFTY. The fear and pain caused by the Antisemitism she experienced growing up quickly transformed into pride and involvement with the Jewish community.
Luckily for both Swanson and Brody, college provided an opportunity to find Jewish community and to practice their faith proudly. Both Swanson and Brody have traveled to Israel with other college students and are deeply involved with the Hillels at their schools.
According to Boxer at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center, urban Jews make up between 80 and 85% of the Jewish population of the country. They are concentrated in large communities on the coasts and in big cities. They are the popular face of American Jewry. They don’t really know about their rural siblings.
The young rural Jews I spoke to had little in common — except for wanting urban Jews to be more understanding and accepting of the uniqueness of rural Jewish life.
Leah Sagan-Dworsky, a student at Brandeis, grew up in Montpellier, Vermont. Her temple — “rent-a-Schul,” as she called it — served several different Jewish denominations at various times during the week because the Jewish population was so small. According to Sagan-Dworsky, Kosher meat must be shipped in at a premium cost, Jewish summer camp isn’t an option for most families, and there is only one religiously observant family in town. She wishes urban Jews understood the significance of these details.
“I think the Ashkenazi, white Jew experience in the suburbs of New York or D.C. or Chicago or L.A. is broadcasted a lot and is seen as the norm, and I think it’s important to understand in the Jewish community that Jews come from many different experiences and cultures,” Sagan-Dworsky said. She said that when urban and suburban Jews meet rural Jews, they should keep in mind that “not everyone had the same Jewish education growing up. I’ve had certain times when people are condescending.”
Just as they aren’t fully aware of the challenges, urban Jews might not be aware of the unique opportunities of rural Jewish life: the charm and closeness that is hard to replicate in a big city.
For instance, in many large, urban synagogues there is an arduous or uncomfortable process for lower-income families to receive an abatement for yearly fees, according to Erica Asch, a practicing Rabbi in Waterville, Maine. “In Maine, we have the ability to be a lot more open to people … the entry barrier is much lower. In a smaller community you don’t have to go through those layers of bureaucracy,” she said.
Asch is also the assistant director for the Center for Small Town Jewish Life, an organization dedicated to creating a “socially equitable, multi-generational, and geographically diverse Jewish world sustained by intentional collaboration.” The center aims to engage rural Jews, especially the younger generations, in a host of ways: from an annual statewide conference and affordable summer youth “Funtensives” to teen travel trips and young professional retreats. Throughout all their programming, the center and the synagogues it works with pride themselves on creating a welcoming and inclusive environment.
“I think this is probably true of every small congregation in Maine, and I think everywhere: we are just so happy to have new people come. You cannot come to the synagogue, if you have not been here before, and not be noticed … Everybody is super excited you’re here and very excited to meet you,” said Asch. “In that way I think it’s a lot easier to become a part of the community and meet people.”
Covid-19 and Young Rural Jews
In many respects, rural Jewish communities were better prepared than urban ones to adapt to the changes the pandemic brought. Experience with innovative programming (the Center for Small Town Jewish Life has been utilizing online resources for a few years already), resilient congregants and clergy, and tightly-knit networks sometimes made it easier for rural Jewish communities to transfer to remote or hybrid activities, Boxer said.
That being said, many rural synagogues had already been struggling to keep their doors open and programs running long before Covid-19 took hold. Now, Boxer said, rural Jewish communities face a serious threat.
In small Jewish communities, older folks tend to make up the bulk of whatever small religious congregations do exist. High risk for the virus and difficulties with broadband and technology use mean less face-to-face contact and reduced engagement with programs, which according to Boxer, means more hardship for the institutions that do exist.
Keeping small town synagogues and tiny Jewish networks alive depends on moving forward with flexibility, inclusivity, and creativity. This will require engaging younger members, which in turn requires making rural America a place where Jewish teens and young adults want to stay.
A common quip in Jewish lingo is if you ask two Jews a question, you’ll get three opinions. The question of what it means to be young, rural, and Jewish seems to follow that pattern. But, at least among those interviewed here, the question of what young people want out of their rural Jewish experience does not.
Simply put, rural Jews want to feel welcomed by their neighbors and accepted by their urban peers. They want to find ways to connect with other minorities, show up as their whole selves, build community, and take pride in their culture without fear of Antisemitism. They want to live in a place that is as vibrant, diverse, resilient, and unique as they are.
As Sophie Rathmann, a Jewish college student from Larkspur, Colorado said: “Judaism has always been something that looks different in every context, and that’s beautiful.”