Rabbi shares Jewish customs with locals

Published 8:44 am Friday, September 2, 2016

The fact that Rabbi Jeremy Simons grew up Jewish won’t shock anyone.

For three years, Simons has been the Rabbinic department director of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. It used to be called the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience.

Rabbi Simons gave a presentation last week called “Growing Up Jewish” to members of the Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society. This is the third time Simons has made the rounds in Brookhaven. His earlier teachings were about Jewish weddings and mourning traditions at the end of someone’s life.

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The rabbi’s lectures are sponsored by the historical society as part of an agreement.

The society’s museum is located in the former Temple B’nai Sholom in Brookhaven.

The temple was built in 1896 by the Reformed Jews. The women of the congregation sold homemade sweets to people on the passenger trains that stopped in Brookhaven and to locals to raise the $150 needed to purchase the lot on which the temple was built.

Then the men constructed the building.

It was used, according to the city’s website, until 1970, when the local population of Jews had declined. It was still used on religious holy days, and special occasions like weddings.

A deconsecration ceremony as held in 2009 and the building was turned over to the historical society.

In exchange, Simons and other experts on the Jewish faith visit Brookhaven to give lectures about Jewish customs and traditions.

At his lecture last week, Simons spoke about “the most significant ritual” of early Jewish life — the circumcision of male babies. The procedure was used as an identity marker of the Jews to separate their people from all others, he said. This comes from the Torah, the Books of Moses, which is the first five books of the Old Testament.

Not even the eighth day falling on the Sabbath or on Yom Kippur (the holiest day of the Jewish year) is cause for postponing circumcision, he said. Only if it endangered the child’s life or health could it be postponed.

Sometime on or around the eighth day, a child is also given his or her Hebrew name. This is not the same name as what is found on the child’s birth certificate, he explained. The Jewish name is one that is used in Jewish cultic practice – rituals, readings of the Torah, etc.

Simon also explained the terms bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, which mean “son of commandment” and “daughter of commandment,” respectively. Based on a passage from the Mishna, a written record of oral traditions, the bar mitzvah is a celebration of taking on the commandments or accepting the Jewish religion, done when a person has reached a minimum age of 13. Having studied with a rabbi for months, the candidate will lead in a prayer, read a passage from the Torah in Hebrew, and give a sermon or speech. A party of some kind is usually held afterward.

Simons also discussed Religious School (also known as Sunday School or Hebrew School) and Jewish youth groups, such as the North American Federation of Temple Youth. He talked about summer camps, including one in Utica — the Henry S. Jacobs Camp. Simons noted that approximately 1,800 Jews live in small groups across the state of Mississippi, but for a few weeks every summer, Utica becomes home to the largest group of Jews in the state due to the large number of youth and workers who gather there.

The Rabbi shared with the group of about 15 and answered questions for over an hour on that stormy evening. He encouraged listeners to keep in touch and ask any questions they had about Judaism. He said he appreciated the friendly environment of the South in general, and especially in Brookhaven.

The LCHGS plans events over the course of the year, and hopes to have the rabbi offer other presentations in the future.

Donna Campbell is managing editor of The Daily Leader. Contact her at donna.campbell@dailyleader.com.