When Small is Just Right

An interview with Rabbi Abby Jacobson of Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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Abby Jacobson was raised on a cattle farm in Central Florida where there was one synagogue within a 50 to 60 mile radius. “And not just one Conservative synagogue,” adds Jacobson, “one synagogue, period.” But Jacobson loved being part of a small Jewish community, and it clearly had an impact. She went to Jerusalem to study at the Conservative Yeshiva and then on to the Jewish Theological Seminary for her rabbinical degree. After graduating in 2009, she became the spiritual leader of the 175-family Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City. Here she explains why her small community is such a great place to be a rabbi.

Abby Jacobson

CJ: How many Jews are there in Oklahoma?
AJ: There are about 6,000 Jews in Oklahoma, with about 3,000 in the greater Oklahoma City area. In Oklahoma City there’s a Conservative synagogue, a Reform synagogue, a Chabad, a Hillel, and a Jewish federation. Then there are about 2,500 Jews in the Tulsa area and others scattered elsewhere. There are seven synagogues in Oklahoma, and six have rabbis. I’m the first female rabbi in the state.

CJ: Were you hesitant about working at a small congregation in an area without many Jews?
AJ: Not a bit. I was one of the few people in rabbinical school who knew exactly what I wanted and never changed my mind – a small congregation in the south or the southwest outside a major Jewish metropolitan area.

CJ: Why?
AJ: When I went to the Conservative Yeshiva and then to rabbinical school in New York, I got to experience Judaism where there are big Jewish populations. I appreciated that, but in a smaller community with fewer Jewish institutions people feel more pulled to join because the pull to assimilate without it is so much greater. In New York, there’s a synagogue for every niche, and if you don’t like one shul you can always go somewhere
else. But I missed that drive to feel like a member of a shul where I was building something that wasn’t about being the exact thing that I wanted, but about piecing together something that all of us wanted.

CJ: What’s your job like day-to-day?
AJ: I get to do things I would never do if I were one of 16 Conservative rabbis within a three-hour drive. I certify a bagel place for kashrut. I’m a prison chaplain. I teach in the religious school – and it’s not just meeting with the pre-b’nai mitzvah kids, I’m actually one of the teachers. I do weddings, funerals, b’nai mitzvah, babies, counseling, interfaith work – all of it. There’s always a new challenge and everything I do is so necessary.

CJ: How would you describe your synagogue?
AJ: What I hear from people is that the congregation is very haimish and welcoming. I’d also describe us as liturgically traditional but socially progressive. There’s a respect for pluralism but at the same time people are more interested in learning what they’re supposed to be doing and on making sure things are done right.

CJ: Why is that?
AJ: I think it’s a feeling that they don’t want to miss out on anything because they don’t have the Jewish critical mass of a New York or Chicago or St. Louis. For instance, we have a mikvah on premises, and we’ve had a continuously running morning minyan for close to 100 years. In fact we have the only morning minyan in the state.

CJ: What’s your relationship with the evangelical Christian community?                                                                              AJ: Sixty-five percent of Oklahoma is made up evangelical Christians. Kenahora, everybody loves us here. Partially it’s the Christian Zionism in the evangelical community. People who see my kippah in the grocery store are more likely to tell me that they love Jews than anything else. But the largest Baptist convention in Oklahoma came out strongly against interfaith work because it sort of condones other religions. So the interfaith community is made up more of liberal Christians and all the non-Christians. We have fantastic relations because in a sense we are all dwarfed by the majority.

CJ: Do your evangelical neighbors know much about Judaism?
AJ: Sometimes there are difficult questions, and we’ve been spending time with our older kids making sure they have answers. It’s questions like, are you a complete Jew? Which is code for, do you believe in Jesus? Or sometimes when a person sees a kippah they ask if you go to this or that messianic congregation.

CJ: What’s the best thing about a small congregation?
AJ: I don’t call our congregation small, because small makes it sound like we need to get better. We are at a size where we can serve every person and if not, we’re able to engage that person one-on-one and figure out what they need and how we can serve them.