Memphis: A Welcoming Community

by JCPConnect-

By Gila Golder- Gila is JCP’s community impact associate and a transplant from Baltimore. 

In fall 2014, I was living in upstate New York with my husband, Rob, and we were looking for a change.

Rob was commuting two hours each way from Rochester to Ithaca, in his final year at Cornell Law School. (The Jewish community in Ithaca is mostly made up of undergraduates— believe it or not, Rochester was the closest city with a significant population of Jewish couples and families!)  I was running an infant/toddler playgroup out of our two-bedroom apartment during the day, and working evening and weekend shifts making fundraising phone calls at the Rochester JCC. We had made a lot of friends in the Rochester Jewish community, but we knew it wasn’t the right fit for us long-term. During the 18 months that we lived there, we tried out multiple synagogues but couldn’t find one that felt like home. And while Rochester is home to an active Orthodox community, something that was important to us, we didn’t quite feel like we “fit in” in terms of our observance level and customs.

The Golders celebrated their first Memphis Purim this year.
The Golders celebrated their first Memphis Purim this year.

We started investigating Jewish communities that we could move to after Rob graduated, primarily in the Midwest and the South. We wanted a place that would be affordable, with an Orthodox community and K-12 Jewish day school, someplace warm and friendly and close-knit. Boston (Rob’s hometown) was too big and too expensive. We did seriously consider Baltimore (my hometown), but neither of us had any luck finding jobs there. Other cities on our shortlist were Milwaukee, St. Louis, Atlanta, Columbus, and Kansas City.

We were aware of Memphis, but it wasn’t particularly on our radar until I discovered a Yahoo! News article a Rochester friend had shared on Facebook, “Memphis Jews Invite ‘100 New Families’ to Relocate”, writing, “Anyone want to do this for Rochester?” Curious, I clicked the link. The Orthodox community in Memphis had just launched a campaign to recruit new families, and they were offering subsidies for people to travel to Memphis for a “Taste of Jewish Memphis” Shabbaton weekend.

We explored the 100 New Families website, read testimonials from people who had recently moved to Memphis, and researched the day school. The community seemed to fit all of our criteria. The more we read and researched, the more we liked the sound of it. I called Jessica Baum Sukhodolsky, who was listed as a contact on the website, to introduce myself and let her know we were interested in the Shabbaton. She sounded genuinely thrilled to hear from us, and eager to help in any way possible to connect us to the community.

After all that, we almost didn’t make it here. The airport in Rochester is tiny, and flights in or out typically cost an arm and a leg. Even with the travel subsidy, we couldn’t afford the trip to Memphis. I called Jessica back to apologize and let her know that we couldn’t come for the Shabbaton after all. I didn’t ask for additional help, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but that’s exactly what happened— the 100 New Families team increased the subsidy to meet our needs.

The weekend was absolutely packed with activity. We toured the Margolin Hebrew Academy and the JCC, and tried out three different synagogues on Shabbat. There was a gala Friday night dinner in the home of Shelby and Lee Baum. I remember being charmed by all the Southern accents and the y’alls sprinkled into everyday conversation. But there were a lot of transplants from the North, too, people like us who were attracted to Memphis’ low cost of living and vibrant community. Rob reconnected with an old friend from yeshiva who had moved to Memphis with his family. Everyone was so nice, and so enthusiastic about Memphis. At a get-together on Shabbat afternoon, we noticed a lot of kids running around, evidence of the community’s growth and sustainability. And, of course, we were plied with food at every turn. Rob still jokes that the homemade mac and cheese served at a meet and greet on Saturday night was a “major factor” in our decision to move to Memphis! By the end of the weekend, we were exhausted. But we could already tell that Memphis was special. Something just “clicked”. It felt like home.

Gathering with new friends for a YAD Trivia Night.
Gathering with new friends for a YAD Trivia Night.

May couldn’t come fast enough for us. We spent the rest of that year with one foot out the door. We knew we wanted to move to Memphis, we just weren’t sure when or how we could make it happen. We were so ready to be done with the ridiculous commute, done with shul-hopping, done with feeling like the odd ones out. My in-laws drove in from Boston for Rob’s graduation from Cornell. I watched him walk across the stage and knew it was time to figure out our next steps.

Back in December, Joel Siegel, another 100 New Families volunteer, had sent me a job opening from Memphis Jewish Federation (now Jewish Community Partners). I had bookmarked the e-mail and set it aside, knowing it was too soon to apply. Fortunately, the position was still open. I interviewed over Skype— putting my mom in charge of the napping toddlers— and within a week, Federation offered me the job.

We spent the summer packing and organizing for the move, and scrolling through the 2-mile Orthodox neighborhood on Zillow. Our housing search became increasingly frantic as the weeks passed and we still hadn’t found anything. We were looking for a house to rent, but most of what we saw on the market were houses for sale, or large houses for rent that we couldn’t afford starting out on one salary. Eventually, we qualified for a mortgage on a townhouse, but that deal fell through at the last minute– and that’s how we found ourselves driving through Ohio on our way to Memphis, having absolutely no idea where we would go when we got there.

I scrolled through contacts on my phone as Rob drove, calling anyone I could think of who might be able to help. Everyone I spoke to was sympathetic, but most were either out of town or had a full house. Eventually, I connected with Linda Schlesinger, who offered home hospitality for the night. And what hospitality— when we finally pulled into East Memphis at midnight, apologizing profusely, she and her husband David greeted us with easygoing smiles and a barbecue buffet! They were equally relaxed and welcoming even as “one night” turned into a week and a half before we finally found a house that would work for us. We had just experienced our first taste of Southern hospitality.

We were part of a group of 26 Jewish families who had moved to Memphis over the summer, including 8 Orthodox families. How do I know this? Because part of my job at Jewish Community Partners is newcomer engagement. During my first few months at work, I staffed a volunteer committee that assembled welcome bags for the new families in the community. We all had a good laugh when I set one aside for myself!

15 months later, we’ve settled in to the community, and we couldn’t be happier. We love Memphis so much, we even celebrate “Memphis milestones”—our first Grizzlies game, first trip to Beale Street, first anniversary of living in Memphis, first time surviving the summer. (Well, maybe not that last one.)

Gila got a Grizzlies win for her birthday.

Rob is wrapping up an internship for Judge Paula Skahan and is just about to start his career as a criminal defense attorney. He shares a commute downtown with a fellow attorney, and then takes the bus to meet me at the MJCC at the end of the day. (I’m told “no one” in the Memphis Jewish community rides the bus. Then again, apparently “no one” works downtown, either— at 30 minutes away, it’s considered an inordinately long commute. Take that, New York City!)

I love that my office is located in the MJCC, the central hub of Jewish Memphis. I can’t walk through the lobby without seeing at least one person I know. Plus, my desk is about 100 feet away from Holy Cow—how cool is that?

Working at Jewish Community Partners, the umbrella organization for the Memphis Jewish community, has been a great fit for me professionally, but it’s also been a tremendous boon on a personal level. I always have my finger on the pulse of the community; I’m the first in my social circle to know about upcoming programs and events; and I have the privilege of giving back to a community that has welcomed my husband and me with open arms. Recently, I even had the opportunity to invite a group of visitors with the most recent “Taste of Jewish Memphis” Shabbaton to come to our office and learn about JCP’s role in the community.

This fall, Jewish Memphis welcomed another group of new families to the community— 46 this time, including 16 “returnees,” people who grew up here, left for college, and chose to come back. I have so enjoyed meeting the new Memphians. I hope they love it here as much as I do.

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