Georgia: Debtors, Warriors and Comedians-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Intro) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. The podcast about American Judaism form the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan. 

(Justin Regan) This project started when I decided to leave my job as a public radio reporter to take a road trip across the U.S. And there certainly is a romance to driving around the country. It’s something I clearly felt, and have been capitalizing on in this podcast ever since. However, there can be times when the scenery gets bland. Specifically for me, that was when I was on the East Coast. Let me clarify, I think the east coast is gorgeous. I saw New England’s Autumn colors, Shenandoah National Park, Appalachia and some beautiful stretches of the Potomac River. But when you’re on the highway, the only thing you tend to see on the east coast is a corridor of trees on either side of you. And that’s pretty neat at first, but it starts to get redundant after a couple of weeks. That’s what made the coastal regions of Georgia and South Carolina so special. The scenery changed. There were palm and magnolia trees, lush grasslands and Spanish Moss covering all of it. I especially appreciated the tropical feel with winter approaching. Of all the places I had been on my road trip to that point it was the first time I was in an area like that. And one of the jewels of this region is the city of Savannah, Georgia. Which made it fitting this town got the distinction of being the final place I visited before starting my return journey. 

Georgia: Debtors, Warriors and Comedians    

(Regan) Not only is Savannah pretty, it has a pretty energetic scene. Well, at least I’ll have to take people’s word for it. The day I was there, it was beyond mellow. You see it wasn’t until I had driven all the way to Georgia that I remembered in the south everything is closed on Sunday. Except of course, for the synagogues. 

(Rabbi Robert Haas) Hello, my name is Robert Haas. I’m the rabbi of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia. The third oldest synagogue in America. The oldest in the South. And we are both a wonderful and growing synagogue and a full time museum. And I think my responsibility is to help bring people together to help people find their niche in the Jewish world.

(Regan) This is one of several episodes profiling congregations that pre-date the United States. And Mickve Israel does by more than 40 years. 

(Haas) The Jewish boat arrived here only five months after this place was settled. So they’re still cutting down trees trying to figure out how to build this city when we arrived. That’s very rare. Almost unheard of.

(Regan) The colony of Georgia was originally formed in 1732 by James Oglethorpe as a place for debtors, destitutes and others who avoided the prisons by going to America. Essentially wealthy Europeans sponsored poor Europeans to leave Europe. This also happened in London’s Jewish community, where prominent members sponsored 42 Jewish travelers. Many were Sephardim, Jews of Iberian origin who had been displaced by the Spanish inquisition. At first, the trustees of the colony were hesitant to let them in. But then Savannah was hit by a Yellow Fever epidemic.

(Haas) And so Oglethorpe who was in charge of the community invited the Jews to come and be part of Savannah. In exchange, this man, Samuel Nunez who had escaped persecution in Portugal and went to England then came here agreed to treat the community because he happened to be a doctor who specialized in  these type of diseases. So in exchange for saving the community, Jews have always been given full rights in Georgia. The biggest help though was we weren’t Catholic. Because Protestantism was having issues with Catholicism. But very soon after the community was founded, Catholics were allowed in. Actually the original rules of the community  was you couldn’t be a member if you were Catholic, a slave holder or a lawyer.

(Regan) The original slavery ban in Georgia was not for moral reasons. The trustees thought it would make the settlers lazy. And Georgia residents were rewarded for capturing runaway slaves from other colonies. There were no Jewish signatures on the first petition asking to end the slavery ban. But that was because the signers didn’t let Jews sign it. And once the ban ended in 1751, Georgian Jews also took part in slaveholding. That includes documented cases of enslaved individuals doing work for the congregation. Similar to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in South Carolina, Rabbi Haas says Mickve Israel is also figuring out how to handle this tainted part of their history. 

(Haas) I think it’s a real issue. We live in the south, so we know of the horrors that occurred here, recently and a long time ago. And it’s something you have to say ‘Hey, we’re Jewish, we’re proud to be Jewish, but hey, there were Jews who did terrible things, there were Jews who made mistakes. There were Jews who had slaves. There were Jews who looked the other way,’. But again, Judaism itself is a wonderful thing and people make mistakes and people didn’t do what they should have. During the Civil Rights, we could be proud that many people who led the Civil Rights Movement were Jewish. It’s an incredible percentage. In the South where Jews were very worried about just trying to fit in and worried about losing everything, they were the ones who gave jobs. They were the ones who helped behind the scenes. But not at the focal point or front out of fear about what’s going to be happening to their families. So you gotta own up and say ‘Yes we made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of things we shouldn’t have’. But also, people did a lot of things they should have during those periods. So it’s kind of a balance. But you don’t want to hide from it.

(Regan) As Haas took me around the museum he explained that Mickve Israel gets about 15,000 visitors each year who come to check out one of America’s oldest congregations. The Savannah Jewish community makes and posses a lot of history, including what Haas calls the pride and joy of their collection; the two oldest Torah scrolls in America. 

(Haas) They came here in 1733 and 1737 and they are both about 550 years old. We think they came from North Africa, Spain or Portugal. They’re written on deer skin which is not really done anymore because you need to have a domesticated animal but apparently they had a way to domesticate deer back then. And you can see even though they are 550 years old they are incredibly well written and in amazing shape. They are in better shape than our Torah scrolls written in the mid 19th century by far.

(Regan) They’re in such good shape that the scrolls were not retired until a few years ago. Mickve Israel is also one of several colonial congregations to have in their possession what might be one of the earliest signs that America could be a better place for Jews: A letter from George Washington. He sent a personal response after the congregation congratulated him on being sworn in as the country’s first President. 

(Haas) Washington’s letter really talks about the first freedom we have in America and how its an open community for people of all faiths. It’s really quite ahead of its time  by a brilliant man. But it’s also incredible to see they were looking towards the future saying ‘We’re going to be welcoming people of all faiths and backgrounds’. It’s echoed from responses we got from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. We sent them notes telling them we were building our first actual building and they sent congratulation notes. So they were open to religious freedom which we know is quite incredible. And we know there were a lot of issues with how they treated slaves and so forth and  that’s something they’re going to have to live with the reputation. 

(Regan) It started a tradition where Mickve Israel writes to and receives a letter from almost every U.S. President, including most recently Barrack Obama and Donald Trump. Mickve Israel is a congregation of other firsts as well.

(Haas) In our wonderful museum we have what we believe to be the first circumcision kit brought to America. Brought on the boat in 1733. We used it until about two years ago. When we retired it. Which was awesome because our insurance rates just fell. That’s a joke. We really didn’t use the kit. But it is the first circumcision kit we believe.

(Regan) Many early Jewish settlers helped ingrain the Jewish people in the growth of the new community and the eventual country. That includes Georgia where congregation member Mordecai Sheftall became the highest ranking Jew to serve in the American forces during the Revolutionary War. At one point, he was captured by the British who then greased Sheftall’s utensils with lard after he refused to eat his pork ration. Abigail Minis and her five daughters operated a prominent tavern in Savannah and helped supply Patriot forces during the war. And there’s Raphael Moses, whose work in agricultural technology helped to create Georgia’s iconic peach industry.

(Haas) The Girl Scouts were founded in Savannah, Georgia. And when Juliette Low founded the Girl Scouts she picked 5 people to be the leader and three were from our congregation. So 60 percent of the first Girl Scout leaders were Jewish.

(Regan) Over the years things have changed. Internally, Mickve Israel, like KKBE in Charleston, transitioned from Traditional Sephardic to Reform in the 19th century. British rule ended. Georgia was a colony, a state, a Confederate state and then re-entered the Union. The institution of slavery was legally ended with the 14th amendment. And Atlanta overtook Savannah as the economic and political capitol of Georgia. However, Hass says Savannah is still the second largest Jewish community in the state. 

(Haas) We are such an intricate part of this community. If you look at our congregants, I don’t think there is a non-profit board in this community that doesn’t have at least one of our congregants on it or one person from the Jewish community. It’s something that we are quite proud of that we have been here for the entire time.

(Regan) And he says it’s a growing community.

(Haas) For a very long time Savannah was a very small city and looked inward and didn’t have a lot of  people coming and moving here. And that has changed quite a bit in the last 30-40 years with SCAD, which is the art college, with Midnight in the Garden of [Good and] Evil which is a book that came out talking about how eclectic Savannah was. With the new laws about how you had to maintain historical structures downtown, with the port growing. So we’ve become really quite a mecca.

(Regan) As for Haas’ story, he’s held pulpits in places like Dallas, Houston and L.A. and also volunteered for a year with American Jewish World Service. Like many other rabbis, it wasn’t always a given he would become one. In another world, Haas could have been a lawyer. 

(Haas) I was going to go to law school in college and then switched and decided to become an elementary school teacher. A lot of people thought I only did it to upset my mother and I want people to know that was not the only reason I did it. But I soon realized all my extra curricular activities were in the Jewish community. I was a youth group leader, I was volunteering, I was away at youth group retreats all the time. So it sounded like a nice way to do something interesting and be there for others because as a rabbi of a congregation you’re kind of a jack-of-all trades. I kind of do a little bit of everything. This morning I had Sunday school, then we had a grandparents program, then I talked to somebody about Chanukah because they need to teach somebody else, then I have this interview thing, then I have a wedding, then I’m going to a friend who’s being honored. So it’s quite a wonderful way to spend my time.

(Regan) I asked him how it felt to be the senior rabbi of such a storied congregation.  

(Haas) It feels really quite nice. It’s powerful to be part of a tradition that goes so far back as we know Judaism. But here in America, to be part of a synagogue that predates the United States itself is quite rare. There’s only 6 congregations that existed before President Washington was inaugurated. So it’s a powerful feeling to know I represent a southern congregation that’s been here so long. But it’s also nice because it’s so connected to this city at large. People in this community know if there is an interfaith thing or they need a rabbi or they want to hear about what’s going on in this Jewish community they can come here to this synagogue that’s been here for so long.

(Regan) And he says it’s also a very supportive community. Something that was shown after the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The tragedy occurred one day before Mickve Israel’s “Shalom Y’all” food festival. An event that draws thousands of visitors annually. Haas says there were some tense meetings with the planners who were concerned about security and if anyone would show up. At one point they even considered canceling. 

(Haas) And of course we decided we’re not going to cancel it. If we cancel it means they win. And secondly, when the day came, not only did people come, they came out of everywhere. We had people who would never think about coming who came just to support us. I cannot tell you how many ministers and priests and Imams said after service ‘You need to go to Monterey Square and celebrate the food festival with Mickve Israel because of what happened.’ We ran out of food at 2:30 it was supposed to go to 3. There was not a crumb left. We had people come at 2:45 and 3 who knew they wouldn’t get any food just to say “I’m here to support you’

(Regan) Similar to previous episode with Rabbi Greg Kanter in South Carolina, Haas thinks safety is important, but it’s also critical to not hide your pride. 

(Haas) We’re here to celebrate with everybody else because unfortunately these crazy people whether its groups or individuals. They’re not attacking Jews they’re attacking anybody who’s different. And it just so happens in Pittsburgh it was a Jewish community, before that it was a gay community, before that it was an African American community, before that it was this community and that… there’s always going to be people of hate who can attack. And really they can transfer who they are attacking from one minority to another. It’s just an issue of who they are upset with at the moment. ‘How do I empower myself by taking somebody else down?’

(Regan) But Haas doesn’t think that’s close to the majority of Americans. And in his part of the world he sees a lot of cooperation. Haas himself takes part in many interfaith activities.

(Haas) So yes, anti-Semitism is on the rise and we’re all worried, but also I think interfaith work and meetings is on the rise as well. Interfaith work in America is a beautiful thing. If you go around the world in a lot of places you just don’t see it. You see some respect. But the connections, the closeness, is something that I think is indigenous to America. And I think this has to do with this idea in America everyone can find their place. Whether you’re from one country or another. Whether you are this religion or another, you can find your place in America.

(Regan) Specifically for Jews, finding their place can involve asking themselves if they are more American or more Jewish. 

(Haas) And it’s a beautiful question to ask because it really shows that we care about being Jewish and we’re dedicated to this country. Is there going to be balance? Of course. The balance shifts one way or the other depending on what’s going on of course. But the mere fact that we can be in America and ask that question is incredible because for countless generations, Jews were not allowed to ask that question. ‘You are Jewish. You’re living in our country, you’re an outsider. Do what we tell you to do.’ Assimilation is not a problem we’ve faced as much in recent centuries because we haven’t been allowed to face it. So it’s a challenge. And I’ll tell you it’s the best thing in the world to have this challenge. Because staying Jewish just because we’re not allowed to do anything else, staying Jewish because I’m fearful is a terrible way to stay Jewish. If you want to stay Jewish today you have to really want it because there are so many things out there. I can leave Judaism and nobody will even bat an eye.

(Regan) He says this makes it more important for houses of worship and Jewish institutions to give people a reason to be involved. I asked Haas if these talks about change lead to any generational disputes in his congregation. 

(Haas) 100% and that’s how we want it. Because every generation has to find it’s own way. There’s always going to be changes. If it doesn’t change, it’s not going to evolve we’re going to fail. Obviously the Bible is the Bible and the texts are the texts, but how are we going to relate? How we are going to relate to the outside world? Music? All of these things need to evolve with that. For any generation that doesn’t do that is probably just going to leave Judaism. Because everybody needs to have that connection. 

(Regan) When Haas isn’t debating the future of Judaism or showing off centuries old circumcision kits, you can find him doing stand up comedy. It’s something that certainly stuck out to me because I am an AMATEUR standup comedian. And for those of you listening in, I want you to know in my script the word ‘AMATUER’ is in all caps and bolded… and probably spelled wrong. Like many comedians, Haas used to think he didn’t have the chutzpa for standup, but then he tried it and was hooked. Today he does open mics, charity shows and occasionally works with traveling comedians. 

(Haas) Everybody needs to have a hobby. So my hobbies as you look at me is rock climbing, sky diving, and motor cross and car racing and comedy. 

(Regan in tape) And espionage of course as well.

(Haas) Well that one I’m not allowed to talk about. 

(Regan) Being the rabbi of a historic congregation, Haas is a clean comedian. He describes his style as a straight laced sarcastic Bob Newhart type. But like many comedians he can use laughter as a way to address serious issues. 

(Haas) I do comedy about hate. About how hate is a terrible thing. And how people who look at the world with their perspective of ‘I’m right and everybody else is wrong so I have to hate you’ is really strange. Trying to do some family comedy now that I have a child. Kind of working on that. It’s always fun to see a situation and try to figure out how it can become funny for a sermon or a program or for doing a comedy set. 

(Regan) Interestingly, Haas says since he started performing standup he’s actually put less comedy in his sermons. But when he does tell jokes from the pulpit, he wants them to be meaningful. 

(Haas) I love being a rabbi. It’s an incredible opportunity to work with people in a wide variety of ways. And it’s so meaningful to be there in celebrations but it’s also meaningful to be there in times of sorrow. It’s great to work with people of other faiths but it’s wonderful to work within our own community both in my synagogue but with other synagogues who are not members. It’s great because this congregation lets me do stand up comedy as a hobby just for fun and they take great pride in it. But I also know it’s my hobby, but I do it in a way that it adds to me being part of the rabbinic world. It’s not something that detracts from it. So if all my jokes hit in this interview that’s great if not please email me so I can make sure to make them better for next time.

(Regan) Once the interview ended, Rabbi Robert Haas left to officiate a wedding in Mickve Israel’s sanctuary; one of the celebrations he gets to be a part of. As for me, I went for a walk along the somewhat empty streets of Savannah. It was a cloudy day and most stores were closed, but it still felt special. I knew that once I left this town every travel from here on out would be heading back home. When I left Arizona months earlier I never thought I’d make it this far. When my trip was all said and done, the route I took would make for a much wider and grander oval then the one I originally drew on the map in my planning phase. The same can be said for this project. I really didn’t expect so many rabbis to graciously give me their time and thoughts. And I didn’t expect to hear so much. But it clearly set me on a path I didn’t think I’d ever go on. 

(Regan) Now let me be clear, this was the final interview I recorded on the trip, but it is NOT the end of the season. In fact, there will be a new episode in two weeks as always. This was the trip that started my quest and it only taught me how much more I had to go. I hope you continue to join me on this trek. 

(Regan) American Rabbi Project Georgia: Debtors, Warriors and Comedians was written and produced by me Justin Regan. I would like to thank some of the people who have donated to this podcast; Cindy Richter, Sharon and Herb Cohen, Jules Greenberg, Zac and Heather Abrams, Emily Perry and Brian Friedman. You too can help support American Rabbi Project by going to my website rabbiproject.com and clicking on the donate tab. A special thanks to Kylie McCormick who has been instrumental in the background information for these last two episodes. Also thanks to Derek Povah for handling the web stuff and explaining complex financial transactions with beer coasters. Additional thanks to Jeremy Krones, Beth Vanderstoep, Sarit Rathbone, Dylan Abrams and my parents for the assistance. Please feel free to reach out to me by emailing justin@rabbiproject.com. Or follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject

And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving. 


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