Look closely at the photo and you will see the only room left standing in Paul’s house, where he and his family survived the deadly twister that tore much of Joplin, Missouri apart, was just a closet.
Paul was among many who lost their homes that fateful Sunday afternoon. And like many in his community, he’s deeply grateful just to have survived. But there is one thing that makes Paul different from many of his neighbors: he’s Jewish.
Yes Toto: there ARE Jewish people in Joplin, Missouri. And it’s a swell community, too.
For three years, my husband served as a student Rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation in Joplin—a reform Jewish congregation with about 40 families. (Congregations that cannot afford full-time clergy may employ a student Rabbi who visits the congregation once or twice per month & fulfills other duties.) And during that time, I had the privilege of coming to know the community—which I can only describe as extraordinarily committed to living, learning and being Jewish.
And as you can imagine, in a place like Joplin, that’s not always easy.
It’s not easy when you come home to swastikas scrawled on the front of your house, or that your local baker chooses to decorate his store with neo-Nazi paraphernalia.
It’s not easy when your kids grow up and permanently leave—lured away by opportunities in big cities, where having matzah for Passover doesn’t require special advance ordering—places where it’s just not as ‘hard’ to be Jewish.
And it’s not easy when classes of students from the local Ozark Christian College attend Friday night services (always graciously welcome) to ‘study’. They try and do mean to be respectful—but how do you explain to a curious Christian bible student that it’s never really ok asking if we fear hell.
For three years, I saw first-hand how members of Joplin’s Jewish community were determined to practice Judaism—no matter the challenge, far the drive, or easier not to affiliate. And I was humbled.
For those of us that live in big cities with sizable Jewish populations, it’s seems incredible that Jewish people are found in cities and towns that we’ve never heard of—let alone been to. But it is not the existence of Jewish communities in these places that is incredible, but that in them you can find some of the most dedicated people committed to Jewish life, learning and community.
In McGee, Arkansas—where my husband had his first pulpit—I met people who literally drove 300 miles just to be able to attend high-holiday services, or say Kaddish for a loved one.
In Joplin, I saw near 100% turnout whenever the Rabbi was in town to attend Friday night shabbat services.
And now, I’m watching from afar the strength of a community that—despite some having lost their homes, their jobs, their very way of life—somehow pull together to help those that lost more.
I believe most of us know on a superficial level that it’s “easier” to be Jewish in a city like Chicago where we have access to Jewish community, culture, and education. There are numerous advantages to living with a large Jewish population. But what we might not know is what we might also be missing.
There are times when I long for the intimacy that comes with a smaller community, and the increased importance that everyone has as a community member—just by identifying with that community. In that respect, it’s easier to feel closer to the community.
And while I confess, I do not have the desire to live in a small town, or small Jewish community, I wish I could bottle the enthusiasm, appreciation, and pride found in the small reform Jewish communities of McGee and Joplin. Big city life has left many of us too jaded, dull to the privileges we enjoy.
Soon after I learned about the twister in Joplin, I emailed the congregation. Paul was the person to write me back, and in his email was not one word of his own loss, but his assurance that no lives were lost, the building remained, and that they would—as a community—go on.
I think that says a lot to the values and priorities of the Joplin community—values that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of here, and maybe embracing more of myself. (I know, shocking, I’m not perfect.)
However, the jaded, city girl in me does hope that the afore-mentioned local bakery was wiped out. That would be my silver lining.