Deep Southern Roots Find Firm Soil Up North

Growing up in Monroeville, Ala., Rabbi Jim Egolf and his family routinely drove for an hour-and-a-half to reach their Reform synagogue in Pensacola, Fla., just so young Jim could attend services and religious school.

Even as a young boy, Egolf realized that being one of the only kids from a minority religion was a statement of his identity in the South.

He also stressed that although Southerners are commonly stereotyped as looking unkindly upon Jews, the Jewish communities throughout the region were strong.

"Despite what you might see on television or stereotypes, the Jewish community in the South is very woven into the fabric of all the cities," said the rabbi.

Egolf, who took over at Beth David Reform Congregation in July, decided as a teenager that he wanted to be a religious leader.

"When you're trying to decide what you want to do with your life, and you look around at the people you respect and admire and who change the world – that's what attracted me," he said.

While Egolf may be new to Beth David, he's no stranger to the Philadelphia area; he earned a bachelor's degree in religion at Temple University.

"It was interesting because more people went to Temple University than lived in my county growing up," he said.

And Egolf did not limit his learning just to Temple, but also took classes at Gratz College, and even lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year.

He enjoyed Israel so much that he did his first year of rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.

He completed his studies at the school's Cincinnati campus in 1995.

His first posting was a brief stint at a small congregation near Houston. After that stop, he moved on to the 200-family Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, Miss., where he stayed for six years.

The retirement of one rabbi and the death of another made Egolf, for the span of about a year, the only rabbi in the state of Mississippi.

"It's interesting to go to a dinner and be sitting next to the Lt. Governor of the state, and he's the one making small talk," said Egolf, referring to politicians attempting to create a relationship with him to help garner the Jewish vote.

Mobilizing to Help New Orleans

Although he now lives in Bala Cynwyd, Egolf keeps in touch with many folks down South, including a rabbi from New Orleans.

"When he told me he was evacuating for Katrina, I knew it was serious," said Egolf. "Once you live down there, you know what to get out for."

After Katrina hit, Egolf immediately began working on a two-tiered effort, first combining with other synagogues to get immediate aid to the victims, and then setting up a fund for the Touro Synagogue. The fundraising effort continues at Beth David and other nearby synagogues.

Egolf was attracted to his new post because of the synagogue's sense of mission.

"The congregation has a cap on membership, so we're not looking to get as large as possible as fast as possible," he said.

"We're looking to have people who are in an invested relationship with their synagogue" and their religion. u

Rabbi profiles were written by staff writer Jared Shelly



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here