Rural Jews Need More Support

Stop telling rural Jews to move to the city, and start supporting us where we are.

I was confused when I discovered that, scattered among the 400 doughnut holes I ordered for our Hanukkah party, there were additional treats covered with an extra, unwanted ingredient.

I went back to the counter to let the store’s manager know that there had been a mistake. He beamed and told me that he appreciated our business so much that he added 50 of the store’s most popular flavor to our order: a maple-flavored doughnut hole topped with candied bacon.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure they would be delicious! I was touched by his gift and how excited he was to be a part of our celebration, but I couldn’t bring bacon doughnuts to the Hanukkah party.

After talking with the manager a bit further, I discovered that he had no idea that bacon wasn’t kosher — actually, he had never even heard of the concept of kosher!

Welcome to life as a Jew in rural America.

Of course, kashrut isn’t the most important aspect of Judaism, and many American Jews do not keep kosher, but the general lack of knowledge around it is an issue — not just for this particular store, but for Jews who choose to live outside large metro areas.

Living a Jewish life in rural America is challenging. I live in a city with no organized Jewish life. I live in my hometown, which is tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. I’m lucky, however, that our neighboring city has a small, unaffiliated Jewish community that meets every Saturday morning in what used to be a church.

In some ways, this unassuming simplicity is beautiful.

But for a Jewish convert like myself, the community couldn’t support the requirements of a conversion. We are lay led, so there was no rabbi to guide my conversion. We have no mikvah and there’s no kosher market — a typical story for rural Jews. I was able to start my conversion while living in Richmond, Virginia, where my neighborhood alone had two synagogues. When I came back to live in my hometown for a while, I was able to continue my Jewish education and religious life with online resources like My Jewish Learning and IKAR. I’m grateful for these online resources, but I’m still left wanting more in real life.

In a recent article published on Alma, Niki Kates writes that only 3% of American Jews live outside of metropolitan areas. Though this may seem like an insignificant percentage, that’s around 200,000 people — roughly the population of Salt Lake City, Utah. That’s 200,000 people who could greatly benefit from more Jewish institutions developed in their communities.

But maybe you’re not convinced that supporting rural Jews is worth the investment, or that it’s even your problem. “If you want to live a Jewish life,” I’ve been told too many times to count, “then you need to move closer to other Jews.”

But what happens when city life gets old?

Multiple media organizations have reported that COVID-19 has set off a wave of internal migration of Americans leaving big cities behind to try out rural life. In the Tahoe Daily Tribune, we see evidence of people abandoning San Francisco for Lake Tahoe’s nature and affordable living. On CNN, we see headlines like “These People Have Left Big Cities for Good” that illustrate the motivation of New Yorkers to move out of the city given new remote work benefits and a better quality of life.

So now that Jewish residents of America’s megacities are dispersing around the country, will their new communities be ready to receive them?

The rural Jews of America have long had the obligation and duty to educate our rural communities about Jewish life, but we often do so without the resources and leadership we need. That’s where, I believe, Jewish institutions come into play and serve a clear benefit to us and our non-Jewish neighbors.

I lived in Richmond, Virginia for a year and worked at the city’s Jewish Community Center (JCC). What I discovered overtime was that a large number of its members weren’t Jewish. Yet they walked by menorahs, Jewish artifacts, Hebrew books, and a delicious Jewish deli each morning as they made their way to the pool. These same members were also in attendance at Jewish plays, food and film festivals, and holiday events. Though they weren’t necessarily there to learn about Judaism, they passively did so just by being in a Jewish space. Had this JCC not existed, these individuals and families would have joined a gym elsewhere and learned much less about Judaism and their local Jewish community.

With the rise of antisemitism in America and more and more reporting coming out about the non-Jewish public’s general lack of education regarding important Jewish issues, developing more institutions and resources for Jews in rural areas would not solely be for the benefit of the Jews who live there — though of course it would be life-changing for Jews like me — but for the benefit of non-Jews who could learn more about our culture and our rituals, and in turn, be more respectful to their Jewish neighbors.

I’d swap 50 free doughnut holes for that any day.

Header image design by Grace Yagel. Original image Aaron McCoy/Getty images

Caleb A. Guedes-Reed

Caleb A. Guedes-Reed (he/his) is a journalist based in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia. Influenced by his world travels, his work often focuses on LGBTQ issues, spirituality, religion and human rights.

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