Confessions of a Northern/Southern Rabbi
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Confessions of a Northern/Southern Rabbi

Former rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim reflects on going up North after living down South.

Rabbi Paul David Kerbel
Rabbi Paul D. Krebel has lived all over the country, including New Orleans, La.
Rabbi Paul D. Krebel has lived all over the country, including New Orleans, La.

Three years ago, in July, I loaded up my Honda CR-V and drove north on I-85 and I-95 to begin the next chapter of my rabbinic career as associate rabbi of a large conservative synagogue in Roslyn, N.Y. There are many things to like about being in the New York area: the abundance of kosher grocery stores and restaurants, Israeli or Jewish movies at the local theaters, and schools are closed on the High Holy Days. With something like half of the Jews in America living in the New York, New Jersey, Connecticut tri-state area it is common to see a Jew wearing a kippah, bagel stores dot many small shopping centers, and it is very common to hear Hebrew or Russian being spoken throughout the region.

I loved my years in the Atlanta area. I loved my work at Congregation Etz Chaim. I am proud of my efforts to enhance the membership, programming and professional development opportunities as an officer of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association. And I worked hard to build bridges and a stronger Atlanta Jewish community, both internally to strengthen synagogue life, and to build relationships between synagogues and rabbis and most of Atlanta’s strong network of Jewish institutions and organizations.

So, in addition to the confessions I made privately on Yom Kippur, I have a public confession to make: I am proud to be both a Northern and Southern rabbi and Jew. My bona fides include the following: I lived in New Orleans as a child and even have a notarized document published next to this essay, indicating that I am ‘white,’ because in order for me Confessions of a Northern/Southern Rabbi to enter kindergarten in New Orleans, La., in 1963 (two years before the Civil Rights Act was enacted), you either went to a white or black school. That makes me pretty Southern. One of my birthday parties was on a New Orleans streetcar. I studied piano with a professor from Tulane University and, with our home only blocks from Tulane, we parked cars on our long driveway for all of Tulane’s home games at the famous Sugar Bowl. Family vacations included trips to Mississippi and Alabama.

In third grade, my father accepted the position of assistant director of the Jewish Federation of Rochester, N.Y., so we left New Orleans for one of the snowiest cities in the United States. Rochester was a Jewish community known for its many significant synagogues and its extremely high per capita giving to the Federation and UJA. I would celebrate my bar mitzvah in Rochester with the late Rabbi Abraham J. Karp, a noted historian and private rare Jewish book collector, and Hazzan Samuel Rosenbaum, the executive director of the Cantors Assembly (of Conservative Judaism) officiating.

We loved our life in Rochester. Then we moved to Hollywood, Fla., where I became a leader of the Southeast region USY, helped create a city-wide Jewish youth council and enjoyed the Florida life. I will not try to argue that living in Hollywood was truly a ‘Southern’ experience, but will still include it in my Southern resume!

Rabbi Paul D. Kerbel

The end of high school brought me to New York City, where I studied at Columbia University for four years and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America for college and rabbinical school, for a grand total of nine years living on the Upper West Side. My first year in rabbinical school found me travelling to Atlanta for the High Holy Days and for Shabbat once a month to serve as the student rabbi of the Fitzgerald Hebrew Congregation in Fitzgerald, Ga. I loved my year traveling to Fitzgerald.

During this year, congregants suggested that I return when I graduate and become a circuit-riding rabbi, serving the many small congregations in southern Georgia that had student rabbis or no rabbinic leadership. The fact that I do not drive my car on Shabbat would have put a damper on that idea, but it could have worked under certain conditions.

The congregation kept calling me “rabbi,” so I reminded the leaders of the synagogue that I was only in my first year of rabbinical school and had four more to go before they could call me “rabbi.” But they responded: “But you are the only ‘rabbi’ we have.”

By the time I returned from my year in Israel, Rabbi Loren Sykes, who later served as the founding director of Ramah Darom, had replaced me in Fitzgerald, so I was invited to serve as the student rabbi in Roanoke, Va. I love many things about living in the New York area. It is easy to be Jewish here. I have more kosher restaurants that I could try than I have the time and money to explore. I love the fact that the Long Island Rail Road adds cars on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. I love the fact that the local fish store in Roslyn offered to grind your gefilte fish and the local bagel restaurant was strictly kosher.

A notarized document from segregated New Orleans needed to enter New Orleans public schools in 1963.

But, the honest truth is that I miss the South. I get angry when Jews in New York ask: ‘There are Jews in Georgia?’ I loved my time at Ramah Darom. I love the SEC! And even though I did not attend any Southern college, I love the fact that the majority of the best football teams are from the South, and I love the Facebook posts of my former congregants as Florida battles Georgia, or Alabama faces Auburn or Tennessee. I love the fact that in the Publix supermarket I was always asked: “Did you find everything?” Or, seeing my kippah, the check-out clerk would say: “Have a blessed day!’

There are so many things I love about Atlanta and the South. I just wanted you all to know – I miss you! I miss my colleagues and congregants. I miss the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and JF&CS and AIPAC and all of the agencies I had the pleasure of working with. I miss all my fellow volunteers and acquaintances. I miss the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and participating in Atlanta’s Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah services.

I am proud to have a ‘split-personality,’ loving my life in New York, but missing so much about the South. Who knows? One day I may return. The Medieval Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi wrote, “My heart is in the East, but I am in the West.” To paraphrase him: “My heart is in the South even though I am in the North.” Actually, my heart is in both places. Having moved so many times in my life, it means a lot to me that when I travel to Atlanta, I consider Atlanta to be “home.”

And, I am happy to have so many friends and connections in Atlanta even if I currently have a home in New York City, love Zabar’s and eat kosher to my heart’s content. Just be assured that in New York City, there is a Jew who stands up for all that is good and true about the Jewish South and wishes he could visit more often.

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