Not only are there Jews in Alabama, but they are doing very well, thank you.
“There’s a thriving Jewish community here,” says Rabbi Eytan Yammer, former Teaneck resident and recent graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York.
Yammer, who has lived in Birmingham for the past year, served first as the “spiritual leader” of the 120-year-old Knesseth Israel Congregation, the community’s only Orthodox synagogue, and now functions as its official rabbi.
The shul, with some 100 congregants, is made up of two kinds of Jews.
“Some have been here for five generations,” he said, noting that the great-grandparent of one congregant helped lay the synagogue’s cornerstone. Other members are associated with the University of Birmingham Medical School, which, said Yammer, attracts people from all over the world.
|Rabbi Eytan Yammer|
According to the rabbi, a former student at the Torah Academy of Bergen County and a graduate of Rutgers University, the chief of the department of medicine is one of his shul’s members, as is the director of the department of surgical pathology.
Yammer said he and his wife Marisa were “indeed surprised” when they visited Birmingham two years ago to help out during Pesach.
“We didn’t know there were Jews here,” he said. “When we arrived, we saw that it was really amazing, a blessing. There are three shuls, 6,000 Jews, and a community day school.”
There are also three Jewish preschools, and “the kosher meat and cheese in the Piggly Wiggly are not that much more expensive than they are anywhere else.”
Yammer said when he first visited the community as a rabbinical student, the job didn’t pay much, but it promised to be an adventure. What he found instead was a “shidduch.”
“Sometimes the timing is wrong but the shidduch is right,” he said. “This was just the right match. I love the community, the people. We found everything we needed here,” he said, noting that the community had much of the infrastructure needed to live an observant Orthodox lifestyle.
“It’s no big deal that they didn’t have a kosher meat restaurant,” he said, adding that things are changing and he is working to make some of the community’s ice-cream parlors kosher. If it hadn’t been for the recent tornado, which tore down the requisite telephone poles, the community would also have had an eruv. (Yammer wrote about the tornado’s devastation in a May 5 Op-Ed piece in this newspaper.)
Calling his synagogue membership “diverse,” the rabbi said the mix of congregants provides “more to learn from.” His shul’s parking lot is open on Shabbat – a decision, he said, “I struggled with.”
Not to open it would have been “sending a message that we don’t care about you. This is not a monolithic place by any stretch,” he said, explaining that while some members are “right-wing Orthodox, others are intermarried. That type of openness toward others is critical in living in the South.”
Nevertheless, he added, “You won’t get anything different in Teaneck in terms of the davening itself [or] how we celebrate Shabbat and festivals.”
Following services on Saturday morning, “We come together and have a small light lunch. People hang out for hours, schmoozing, playing games, learning Torah. Those types of things happen much more readily” in small communities, he said.
Also significant is the “amazing amount of cooperation,” he added, noting that his synagogue shares a daily minyan with Chabad. This year, the community held one awards ceremony for all the local Jewish organizations. While the event was held in a Conservative synagogue, “glatt kosher food was available on request, prepared in our kitchen. The community all came together. It’s very indicative of the way we do things.”
The rabbi said he had always wanted a job in a small community.
“You have an effect on the whole community,” he said. “Even non-Jewish members of the JCC call me rabbi, and people recognize my wife and ask her advice. You reach a much broader constituency.”
Yammer’s wife also grew up in Teaneck and her parents, Robert and Lori Rosner, continue to live there. His own parents, former township residents, now live in Jerusalem.
Speaking of the recent tornado, the rabbi said, “We’re really blessed that no one [in the Jewish community] was severely hurt. It’s miraculous.”
He credited the disaster relief group Nechama with helping to clean up the resulting damage. His shul provided sleeping space for the group’s volunteers, including 35 Yeshiva University students, and helped in other ways with the recovery efforts.
“It was about 100 degrees,” he said, “and the volunteers were mostly helping non-Jews.”
One particularly meaningful moment occurred when a Nechama field worker, “not Jewish, brought 15 NCSY girls and members of the local Jewish community to work with a Mennonite disaster-response team to help a Southern Baptist woman clear out the rubble of her home. I sat there for a moment taking it in,” he said. “It was a beautiful moment in time. It broke down the barriers.”
While he has not encountered anti-Semitism, he said, “there are evangelical Christians who feel they should save our souls. It’s a really big challenge to the community.” But more often than not, he said, “people are really interested in Judaism and what it means to be a Jew.”