Joseph Rosen was recently named rabbi for the Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson. The Rochester, Minn. native holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brandeis University and a master’s degree and Ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Rosen recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about his new position and his transition into life in Mississippi.
What made you want to be a rabbi?
“Both of my parents work for Mayo Clinic. My dad is a transplant surgeon and my mom does public relations and blogging. Growing up with Mayo in my family, I experienced what it meant to be touched by helping professions. I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but the general chemistry requirement on the pre-med track did not agree with me, so I thought about doing clinical psychology and getting my Ph.D.
“At the same time, I became very involved with the Jewish student community. One reason I went to Brandeis was because Rochester doesn’t have a large Jewish population. (Brandeis’ student body is 45 to 50 percent Jewish and the school was founded predominately by Jewish Americans.) I presided over Reform Jewish worship services and I also served a year as Shabbat meal coordinator with Brandeis Hillel. In my junior year, I registered to take Hebrew classes and two Judaic studies classes. I loved the Judaic classes I took, and I saw my two passions intersect: – I could serve others and be involved in Jewish life. Eighteen days after I graduated Brandeis, I was on a plane to the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College for my first year of rabbinical school.”
Being a Minnesota native, how did you end up in Mississippi?
“As I was going through rabbinical school, I cast my net nationwide. My first conversations with potential employers were through Zoom. Beth Israel was the second interview I did. I made cheat sheets of all of the places where I was interviewing, so I could know a little more about them – the size of the congregation, the number of families, characteristics, history etc. When I was working on my cheat sheet for Jackson, I went to the Beth Israel website and at the top of the site it said, ‘Shalom, y’all.’ When I did my interview, I started out by saying, ‘Shalom, y’all.” From then on, it didn’t feel like an interview. It felt like four people having a conversation about the Temple. It just felt right.”
Prior to taking the job with Beth Israel, had you ever been to Mississippi before? And what were your thoughts about coming here?
“I had never been to the Deep South before. I grew up most of my life in Minnesota. I didn’t really know what to think about the South, except what I saw in the news and in the history I learned of the Civil War. I came down for my callback in February. I was wowed by the energy and compassion of the congregation in welcoming me. Nothing felt super formal and everything was easy to navigate. I enjoyed my visit. I knew by the time I got on the plane to go back to Cincinnati, Beth Israel was the job I wanted.
“On March 5, that’s offering day – the day when congregations are allowed to call graduating students – I recognized the 601 area code and I was very excited.”
How are you settling in?
“Since arriving here, the congregation has done everything to give me a warm welcome. We had our first Shabbat Service on the July 4th weekend and we had 140 - 150 people. It was wonderful to see a big showing for Friday night. We had a cookout afterward and a trivia night – it was a lot of fun. The warmth and energy of the congregation has been great and they are helping me connect to the wider Jackson community. I have had a wonderful time meeting many community leaders and clergy.”
Where is the next closest Jewish congregation in Mississippi?
“There are small Jewish communities all over Mississippi. We have members who have come from places like Vicksburg, Meridian, and Hattiesburg; there’s a Chabad House in Biloxi. The Institute of Southern Jewish Life here in Jackson tracks all the congregations and small groups. Other than the Chabad House, we are the only congregation with a full-time rabbi.”
What is a Chabad House?
“Chabad is a branch of Hasidic Judaism, a more traditional stream. It is one of the larger Hasidic movements and is known for its outreach all over the world. I haven’t had the chance to interact with the Chabad in Mississippi yet.”
What’s the difference between Reformed Judaism and orthodox Judaism?
“The Reform Movement started in Germany around the 19th Century, following the Enlightenment, when Jews were fighting for emancipation across Europe. Jews thought they shouldn’t have to choose between modernity and tradition. The idea was that Jews could become part of the modern state, and be active citizens in the community while still holding on to their Jewish identities. Some aspects of the movement included using the vernacular of their communities in the worship services and taking a more flexible approach to halakhah, traditional Jewish law. Early reformers also introduced the use of musical instruments, particularly the organ, into Shabbat services to make them more lively.”
I want to go back to something you mentioned before, about Beth Israel being the only congregation with a full-time rabbi in the state. What does that mean for the congregation?
“I have to be flexible. People grow up with traditions that vary greatly. We have to make sure that we’re flexible and welcoming to all. We have some members who grew up with an Orthodox background and some that did not. To accommodate members, our Friday service is more mainstream Reform. On Saturday, we still use the Reform prayer book, but the service is done in a more traditional style. There is a greater focus on Hebrew, rather than English. I usually only use English during that service when announcing page numbers, talking about the Torah portion for the week, or some words introducing prayers.”
Do members at Beth Israel speak Hebrew?
“The congregation is learned and able to navigate the prayer book. We have Hebrew on one side, with the words transliterated on the other side to give the pronunciation of the word in English. A member of our congregation is beginning to teach liturgical Hebrew and we’re going to kick off our Adult Education series after the High Holy Days.”
High Holy Days? What are those?
“That’s Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish New year and the Day of Atonement. In terms of the Gregorian calendar, it happens at different times usually between mid-September and mid-October. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins Sunday night, September 29.”
Has anything about Mississippi surprised you?
“When I got here for my callback it was a Sunday. A congregant drove me around and said it was ‘Shomer Shabbat’ on Sunday. I was like, ‘what do you mean?’ and as we drove downtown, I realized what he meant. I didn’t see anybody. Everybody was at church. In the mid-afternoon, the city started to come alive. That was really interesting to see how much religion affects life here as opposed to other places I lived. It reminded me a lot of Jerusalem during Shabbat. One congregant told me that when people meet you, they’re going to ask ‘What’s your name? Where are you from? And what church do you go to?’
“The only real complaint I have is that it’s way too hot sometimes. My favorite season is winter, and in Minnesota, we had plenty of it. And it’s been a bit of a culture shock learning different “Southernisms.” I was criticized by one of my congregants when I called them crayfish as opposed to crawfish. The Southern fried food is also very good, but I need to watch myself a bit.”
What is your favorite food so far?
“That’s a tough question. I’ve been to a lot of good places. I don’t keep Kosher, so I have enjoyed some good crawfish at a couple of places. My bookkeeper took me to Piccadilly. Seeing the full Southern buffet there was something I wasn’t ready for. But I did try grits for the first time, and they were very good. My favorite restaurants so far have been Dave’s BBB and Barrelhouse.”
What’s next for you at Beth Israel?
“We’re definitely in transition. I’m getting used to the congregation and they’re getting used to me. I’ve been asked a lot about what changes I’ll make, and one piece of advice my mentors gave me was don’t make any changes too quickly … My job now is to have open ears and be a listener. I want to have one-on-one conversations with as many members of the congregation as possible Changes have to be made based on a partnership. Keeping my eyes and ears open is my first priority. I also want to be sure to learn as much institutional memory as possible.”