Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Rayman Solomon, the son of David and Miriam Solomon of Helena, Ark., read the Megillah in English at Purim; attended Passover seders that concluded not with "Next Year in Jerusalem," but with a rendition of "America the Beautiful"; and was confirmed as a teenager alongside eight of his peers, in lieu of becoming a Bar Mitzvah.
These days, he may make his home in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, but Solomon says that his religious and cultural identity came from his experience of being Jewish in a small Southern town, growing up in a classically German-Reform congregation.
His family lit candles and had Shabbat dinners on Fridays and attended services later that night — there were no Saturday Shabbat services, he said — at Temple Beth El. He attended Sunday school and received "a strong education in Bible stories," though not much in the way of Hebrew instruction.
Said Solomon: "I think my sense of both identity, and that Judaism is about belonging to a community, is heavily influenced by my experiences growing up as a very small minority" in an overwhelmingly non-Jewish environment.
Despite all that, Solomon noted that many of his generation — including himself and his two brothers — left Arkansas after high school, most of them not returning. Still, there was an understanding that such would be the case, he said.
"If you go from a group of nine or 10 in my Sunday-school class, and only one comes back, the congregation was getting smaller and smaller, and there was not an influx of Jews," said Solomon, 62, who today is the dean of law at Rutgers-Camden and a member of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley.
"I think that most of the parents recognized that there were dwindling opportunities for their children in these small towns," and so Jewish life would dwindle as well, he explained.
"I don't think any of us regret our decision not to be living there, but all of us regret that there's a dwindling congregation" in Helena, he said.
That sense of decline and loss led Solomon to become involved with the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (www.isjl.org), where he is today chairman of the board.
The Jackson, Miss.-based institute, founded in 1986, serves "as a bridge to try to create a sense of community" among towns where only a few families live, "to try to create a larger 'congregation of the South,' " he said.
That's done though multiple avenues, such as the institute's Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, a speaker series and traveling rabbis who serve various congregations with educational, religious and cultural programming.
The idea, said Solomon, is to connect communities in 13 Southern states, so that despite the distance between Greenville, Miss., and Paducah, Ky., these areas can still feel part of something larger.
He asserted that the major movements have, in a sense, given up on such locales, at least institutionally speaking, focusing their efforts on the far greater percentage of Jews in larger cities and suburbs.
But he emphasized that the diminishment of Jewish life rurally isn't exclusively Southern — pockets of the Midwest face similar challenges, as do parts of the non-urban Northeast.
Affirmed Solomon: "It's a national problem."