Young, Rural, and Jewish: Reflections from Mikhal Ben-Joseph

Mikhal Ben-Joseph is a Robertson Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and was a 2020 summer intern with the Center for Rural Strategies.  In her most recent piece for the Daily Yonder, Mikhal takes a rare look at rural Jewish teens and twenty-somethings who are as diverse and interesting as the places they call home. Below, Mikhal reflects on her own Jewish identity and rurality.

Mikhal Ben-Joseph introduces an Interfaith Shabbat she put on at UNC Hillel.

I’m a Jew from the suburbs of South Florida. You can throw a stone from my childhood backyard onto the lawn of the local Jewish Community Center, where I attended preschool, participated in and was later a counselor for a large Jewish youth group, and celebrated my Bat-Mitzvah, a significant coming of age ceremony in Judaic tradition. I can probably count the number of times I was the only Jew in my class on one hand, but honestly it never occurred to me to do so because I never faced explicit Antisemitism or ignorance about the existence of my community or beliefs. 

I’m a Jew who now lives in a small-ish town of Alamance County, North Carolina. You can throw a stone from my backyard into a forest and probably hit a deer. There is no Jewish community here to speak of, let alone a center dedicated to it. I can count the number of other Jews I’ve met in this town on one hand (the answer is zero), and although I have thankfully not faced any egregious or violent Antisemitism, there is certainly a lack of awareness in my new neighborhood about the religion and culture I call my own.

My name is very Jewish. When I meet new neighbors or order takeout around these parts, my name is usually “Mimi.” That’s because when I introduce myself with my real name, Mikhal, I am always asked about my origin, which requires a convoluted explanation of how a teenage Jew from South Florida with an immigrant parent ended up in a town where 43.2% of people identify as religious (all of them some flavor of Christian) but 0.0% of them identify with my religion. One of my most memorable experiences on this topic was when my mom was explaining to a new neighbor where my dad’s thick (Israeli) accent is from. So you must be Jewish, the nice woman commented. This was followed by: “Have you always been that way?”

Most importantly, I have learned that rural Jewish life is vastly different from my suburban upbringing. I’m writing this because I am now one of very few Jews overall who pay attention to the experiences of our small-town brothers and sisters.

I’m not sure I would self-identify as “rural” (Help Rural Assembly crowdsource the meaning of a term that is simultaneously the unwavering focal point of our mission and impossible for our team to define with any sort of unanimity here). However, since moving here from South Florida, I have learned many lessons regarding my new Jewish reality, some more amusing than others. There are no synagogues, Kosher butchers, or other Jewish institutions within 30 miles of my house. If I say my name is “biblical,” that usually resonates with those who ask about it. Most importantly, I have learned that rural Jewish life is vastly different from my suburban upbringing. I’m writing this because I am now one of very few Jews overall who pay attention to the experiences of our small-town brothers and sisters.

This passion project started almost by accident. I was curious to find out if other rural Jews existed, so I posted a brief message on a private Facebook page of nearly 15,000 Jewish college students: “Any Jews from or living in a rural area?” I was shocked that within a few minutes, dozens of people liked and commented on the post. In the coming days, I started to talk with these folks. I was simply amazed: there were Jews in every rural corner of the country, and each one had a vastly different story and experience. Like the rest of rural America, I quickly realized, rural Jews are no monolith. 

I was in joyous disbelief when I later found out about a small-but-mighty network of Jewish academics, professionals, and clergy people dedicated to studying and uplifting small-town and rural Judaism. In classic “Jewish Geography” fashion, everyone I spoke to connected me to several more people who were involved with the topic. It wasn’t long before I had hours of Zoom chats and endless Facebook Messenger conversations going. 

I was making friends with everyone I spoke to, especially the other teenagers and young adults I met through the initial post. The content was amazing, and the opportunity was clear. Urban and suburban Jews know little, if anything, about the existence of small-town Jewry. Small towns typically aren’t even aware of their Jewish neighbors. This was a story that could bring people together across the country and within their communities. It was just a matter of telling it.

This was a story that could bring people together across the country and within their communities. It was just a matter of telling it.

Lighting candles at Hanukkah with my family

Here is a link to my Young, Rural, Jewish project. Each story was extremely unique and spoke for itself, requiring little narrative addition on my part. At the end I talk about how tiny Jewish communities in the U.S. are paradoxically both critically endangered by the pandemic and better equipped to face it, and how young Jews might be the key to saving them.

My hope and prediction is that everyone will relate to some aspect of this project. If you’ve ever been a minority, struggled to keep an organization alive, built an identity in a challenging environment, found an unexpected community, or discovered joy in rural living, you have something in common with the rural Jewish people. 

So yes, nice neighbor lady, I have always “been this way.” And whether I live in a metropolitan county where 1 in 10 households practices my faith or I happen to be the only Jew in town, I always will be.

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