B’nai Israel Reaches
Out to Total Community

by David Tisdale

Hattiesburg, MS - Hattiesburg Jewish community has roots that stretch back more than 100 years and Congregation B’nai Israel’s new rabbi intends to maintain and strengthen the congregation’s spiritual presence in the city.

Cukierkorn, a native of Brazil, came to Hattiesburg from a synagogue in Gastonia N.C., in January. “I think Hattiesburg is a beautiful place”, he said. “It is a place that has lots of potential for growth. It has lots of different cultural opportunities.”

Cukierkorn says the Jewish religion is organic and pragmatic and focuses on how a person lives his or her life 24 hours a day. Cukierkorn said the fundamental differences between the branches of Judaism are their levels of observance. He said to move in membership from one branch to another does not require a conversion process.

Another aspect of the Jewish religion is its celebration of events as opposed to people.

B'nai Israel is a Reform congregation, and Cukierkorn said small communities with only one congregation should lean to the Reform movement, because "everybody comes" to a Reform congregation, while there are some who might not feel comfortable in a Conservative or Orthodox institution.

The contemporary American Jewish community is descended largely from central European Jews who immigrated in the mid- 19th century and from eastern European Jews who arrived between 1881 and 1924, as well as more recent refugees from and survivors of the Holocaust.

Congregation B'nai Israel was founded in 1890, when Orthodox services were held in the home of a congregant, Maurice Dreyfus. In 1900 the congregation occupied the top floor of the Odd Fellows building for the use of services. In 1920, the congregation purchased old army barracks and used the lumber to build the first permanent worship structure at the intersection of Hardy and West Pine Streets.

The congregation made the move to Reform Judaism in 1934 and in the late 1930s hired its first full-time rabbi, Arthur Brodey. Construction of the present Temple B'nai Israel synagogue on Mamie Street took place in 1947.

Services are held every Friday evening at 8 p.m., except for the first Friday of every month when they are held at 6 p.m. There are 60 families included in the congregation's membership, and Cukierkorn said that number is growing.

Cukierkorn said he believes part of his responsibility as a rabbi, in addition to serving his congregation's spiritual needs, is helping to preserve the Southern Jewish life. Cukierkorn is one of two full-time rabbis in the state. He said this fact underscores Temple B'nai Israel’s commitment to the Jewish community in Hattiesburg. There are 2,000 Jews in Mississippi, he said, and added that the number is growing, particularly in south Mississippi, where the state's population is growing fastest.

Temple B'nai Israel's Sisterhood organization participates in several community outreach efforts, including volunteering at area hospitals.

The congregation also participates in Breadbasket, an organization that also includes churches that come together to provide food for disadvantaged individuals and families in the Hattiesburg area.

Cukierkorn hopes to involve Temple B'nai Israel in more activities within the Hattiesburg religious community. Recently, he read from the Old Testament during an induction ceremony for a new minister at Trinity Episcopal.

He said plans are also being made for a Holocaust memorial ceremony he hopes will include participation from religious leaders throughout the city.

He feels that despite the fact Hattiesburg is marked overwhelmingly by the Christian faith, Cukierkorn said he and his congregation feel accepted as part of the city's spiritual community. "Christianity teaches love, so it doesn't amaze me that they behave that way," he said.

Temple B'nai Israel's location in the city's historic Oaks neighborhood district makes it one of a group of religious worship centers anchored in the eastern half of Hattiesburg.

While some Hattiesburg churches have moved from the older part of the city to newer, developed areas west, Temple B'nai remains committed to stay in its present facility, Cukierkorn said. "We have a building that can clearly accommodate our needs," he said. "Our neighbors are very friendly. It's a perfect place for us."

Member Tammy Rubenstein said for her, the congregation is more than just a group of people to join in worship. "It's extremely important to me," she said. "It's like an extended family. Every member is like an extended family member to me."

Brenda Parkinson recently joined the congregation after being raised Baptist. She was raised in an orphanage and only recently discovered that her birth mother was Jewish, which led to her conversion. "I feel like a complete person," she said. "Now, I have a connection with my heritage."

From the April 4, 2001 issue of the The Advertiser News.