Mississippi's Jewish population is dwindling. According to the Institute for Southern Jewish Life there are about 3,000 Jews living in our state. That's less than half as many as in the early 1920s. Just last month the only synagogue in Clarksdale was put up for sale because of the low number of worshipers going there.
For 12 years Marcia Petersen lived oversees in a country where she had little contact with people who shared her Jewish faith. So when she and her family moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, she says the first thing she did was open the phone book and look for a synagogue. She found Beth Israel in Biloxi.
Petersen said, "I felt especially after I'd given birth that it became imperative that I be able to surround myself with people of my heritage and that I be able to teach my daughter the roots of her heritage."
Membership at Beth Israel in Biloxi has grown steadily. Four years ago, there weren't enough children to hold Sunday school. Now the congregation is thinking about adding an extra classroom.
"If it wasn't for the younger membership I doubt if it would have survived," said long time member Moody Grisham. "The older people are passing off little by little, and they're not as active as they used to be."
Members say the gaming industry, NASA, and the military have made a big difference by attracting new Jewish families to the area. They say job opportunities is why this coast synagogue has thrived while some synagogues in other parts of the state have not.
"A lot of the Jewish residents of Mississippi previously were involved being merchants and farmers in parts of the state where those activities were prominent particularly up to a hundred years ago," said Steve Richer. "As those communities change their character a lot of those folks moved to more urban centers."
Mississippi isn't the only state where small towns are having trouble sustaining their Jewish populations. Historians say in recent years, synagogues in rural areas of Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Arkansas have closed as young Jews moved to more urban areas.
For more information about the Jewish faith in the South, check out these sites: