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One of the advantages of living in the Mountain Time Zone is that we are awake a few hours past people on the east coast – and occasionally read the morning news stories the night before. On the evening of December 26, scrolling through the headlines on The Washington Post’s website, I saw this article: "A millionaire paid Jews to move to a small town in Alabama. Now, a couple struggle with their choice."
Without reading the story, I knew it had to be about Temple Emanu-El, the congregation in Dothan, AL, where I had served as rabbi for 10 years. Beginning in 2008, one of the congregants there had offered a financial incentive to entice Jewish families to move to Dothan to revitalize the congregation. At the time, the project created quite a sensation, and the congregation had helped a total of 11 families move to Dothan. Unfortunately, mostly due to job displacement, seven of the families have since left.
The story in The Washington Post profiled one couple that had taken advantage of the offer and, after seven years, was trying to decide whether they wanted to remain in Dothan. This particular couple did miss the vital Jewish community they had left behind in New York, but mostly, as I knew from conversations with them before I retired from the Dothan synagogue, they missed the two grandchildren who had been born after they moved to Dothan and being close to their family.
Reading the article, I could not believe the slanted view of Jewish life in Dothan it depicted. The reporter did tell the story of the couple’s indecision, but as soon as I read, “Lisa and Kenny can quickly recount the times when they’ve felt the sting of discrimination. Since 2016, they have watched warily as anti-Semitism has worsened around the country,” I knew this was not going to be a story only about the couple, but yet another story about intolerant Southerners who are too ignorant to learn about and accept other faiths -- and bear animosity against anyone who is not an evangelical Christian.
Sure enough, the reporter wrote about Lisa and Kenny’s presentation at the “massive Methodist church that dwarfs the Priddles’ synagogue across the street” to explain Hanukkah to a respite program for people who suffer from mild dementia. Sadly, the only questions she and Kenny got concerned Jewish food, not wider issues or beliefs.
The reporter also recounted an incident when someone – out of ignorance not malice – commented to Kenny about Jews, and relayed how after Kenny told one of his patients he was Jewish, she asked that he no longer care for her. Although she reported these two incidents, she neglected to write about all the Jews who told her they had never experienced anti-Semitism or how so many other members of the Dothan community showed an interest in Judaism by attending a special Shabbat service held each year at the temple at which Jewish traditions and rituals were explained. She did not tell of the annual interfaith Thanksgiving service featuring seven different faiths or the interfaith group that meets once a month. She did not mention that the “massive Methodist church” and the synagogue it “dwarfs” are good neighbors whose members like and respect each other and spend time in each other’s houses of worship.
And this, too: After the horrific massacre of Jews in Pittsburgh, more than 200 people of all faiths came to the synagogue to support the Jews of Dothan. The reporter knew about that gathering, but did not report it, seemingly because it did not fit the narrative of ignorant, narrow-minded Southerners who do not see beyond their own faith and exhibit anti-Semitic behavior.
The Washington Post reporter’s story was front page news and it went viral. But at what cost?
Her reporting hurt the Jewish community by misrepresenting their acceptance and respect by the Christian community and ignoring the Jewish contributions to greater Dothan. The larger community, too, was hurt as members wondered if they had not been welcoming and were unintentionally ignoring the feelings of their Jewish neighbors.
The positive effect of the story was the response – an outpouring of letters and articles supporting the Jewish community and disputing the reporter’s characterization of Dothan – that flooded the local media outlets.
But the damage has been done. As Lance Griffin, editor of the Dothan Eagle wrote:
“Sometimes we create our own hurdles that we must leap over here. Sometimes we get hurdles thrown in our path. Whether it was intended by the author or not, the average reader in another part of the country will conclude from the story that Dothan is an anti-Semitic town, a hurdle Dothan may be incapable of clearing for a long time.”
Photo credit: Dothan Eagle