Conversion
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Hattiesburg has very
"Deep South" Rabbi



Hattiesburg, MS - Jewish life in Hattiesburg is very different from where Rabbi Celso Cukierkorn grew up. In his native Sao Paulo, Brazil, he lived in a neighborhood, where there was a B'nei Akiva across the street. Next door was an office of the Jewish National Fund, and there were kosher butchers and bakeries down the street. "Until I finished high school, I never knew people existed who weren't Jewish...we had 100,000 Jews in my town." Now, Cukierkorn is the rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Hattiesburg, a community of about 50 families. Congregational leaders had emphasized how important it was for them to have a full-time rabbi for the community's long- term survival. Cukierkorn said, "Here we are the center of Jewish life for an area of about 50 miles radius. It's very important."

Every year, the congregation does a large Purim party. This year, Cukierkorn will be providing a traditional Brazilian drink. I'm from the deepest South, he said.

Cukierkorn comes from a rabbinic family, with rabbis going back 700 years - though his father and grandfather did not follow suit. His father's uncle created the Daf Yomi, a process through which Jews study a page of Talmud every day. Other family members include Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin. Cukierkorn came to Hattiesburg from Temple Emanuel in Gastonia, N.C.

One of his activities in Gastonia was to bless unwanted animals at the shelters before they were put down. "Somebody has to," he explained. He feels rabbis who come to the South tend to stay. "The communities are very family oriented. There is a real need for Yiddishkeit, so you feel you have a function in the community."

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 congregation has established an adult education program, a series of seminars on anti-Semitism. Cukierkorn said the first session is from pre-Christian days to just before the Holocaust, the second session is about the roots of the Holocaust, and the third is about the anti-Semitism currently found in the Arab world. This summer, he will create a new curriculum for the religious school. "The community's obligation is to give the children enough Judaic background."

Cukierkorn's wife, Jesse, is a Judaic artist. She said she mostly takes commissions and does not yet have a gallery. She did the ketubah for their wedding last year, and some of her works have symbolism from the Holocaust. Her grandparents are survivors.

Hattiesburg is "an extremely active community," especially the congregation's Sisterhood. Despite the small membership, there's always at least 30 for a Shabbat evening service, and sometimes those in attendance all go to dinner following the service.

As a way of strengthening Jewish life in small communities, he would like to see a campaign to resettle Jews from places like the former Soviet Union in those towns.

"This is a great place," he said, adding that it is important to spread the word and counter "the negative propaganda" about life in the South.

"I came from the Third World, and it's not the terrible place we hear about," he said. "This is as good a place to be a Jew as any other place in America."

From the February 2001 issue of the Deep South Jewish Voice.