‘Circuit Riders’ .. Rabbis that is

Letter from Hebrew Union College to Congrgations without Rabbis

July 1912 Letter from Hebrew Union College to Congrgations without Rabbis

Part of the training for American Rabbinical students at all three Hebrew Union College campuses is to travel to under-served Jewish communities to conduct worship services. The Jewish Archives in Cincinnati has letters dated in the 1890s

from the Hebrew Union College Administration to local congregations regarding placement of student Rabbis. When the program began, students only traveled for High Holy Day services. I have a copy of an 11 July 1912 letter sent to congregations with no Rabbi (twenty seven are listed  and 5 are crossed off). Camden, Arkansas and Port Gibson, Mississippi are on this list.

Congregations were started in Camden, Arkansas (1870 and named Beth El Emeth “House of God of Truth”) and Pine Bluff Arkansas (in 1866 and named Anshe Emeth “Men of Truth”). These communities flourished but later the Jewish populations declined.

  • In 1913, the Beth El Emet congregation had only 11 members and no Rabbi, so services were conducted by visiting Rabbinical students. Today the only visible sign of Jews having lived in Camden is the Jewish Rest Cemetery, which is maintained with funds from a trust.
  • Pine Bluff’s last full-time Rabbi, Leslie Sertes, left in the mid-1980s and to this day, the town is served monthly by a student from HUC in Cincinnati. Eleven or twelve local Jews participate in services although some drive from different towns (as of 2014) but I am told this practice will be discontinued in 2016.

Today, Rabbinical students visit far flung towns on a monthly, twice monthly or High Holy day basis; the local individuals pay the expenses plus a stipend to the student. The community determines the frequency. All students participate.

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