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Amy Milligan Researches Lives of Jews in Selma, Alabama

By Betsy Hnath

Amy Milligan's research on marginalized Jewish voices has taken her to some unexpected places. But even Milligan was surprised to find herself in Selma, Alabama, a city known more for civil rights than for synagogues.

The Batten Endowed Assistant Professor in Jewish Studies and Women's Studies and the director of Old Dominion University's Institute of Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding, has investigated the LGBTQ community, gender studies and the role bodies play in the Jewish faith.

She's also interested in small Jewish communities.

Some people consider "small" anything under 100. Milligan's definition is different. She looks at congregations under 25.

"The same way I'm interested in the feminist voice, the queer woman's voice or the voice of the Jewish body, I'm interested in the voice of these small Jewish communities."

Her curiosity began in the Amish Country of Pennsylvania while she was working at Elizabethtown College.

"My first book was on a small Jewish community in Lancaster," Milligan said. "I was interested in how a group of Orthodox Jews survives living there and why they wouldn't move to a larger community like Philadelphia or Harrisburg. I also wondered at what point small communities close the synagogue doors altogether?"

Selma, Alabama, wasn't on Milligan's radar. But when a former colleague took a civil rights tour in the area, Milligan teasingly challenged her to "find the few Jews in Selma."

"My friend visited a beautiful synagogue and connected with some of the congregation and immediately sent them my information," Milligan said. "At that time there were eight members who wanted to tell their story. I knew I wanted to be the one to tell it."

There are now five. The youngest is 67 years old.

With so small a community, and the next congregation almost an hour away, the few Jews in Selma have unique struggles.

"They've not had a rabbi in a very long time," Milligan said. "Now they have to decide if they have a Jewish wedding or a Jewish funeral without one."

Even prayers become complicated with so few members.

"Ordinarily, you need a minimum of 10 people to perform certain prayers," Milligan said. "What do they do in those cases? What happens when you're all related? Or you aren't all friends and you have to spend time together as such an intimate group? These are tough questions with no easy answers."

Milligan doesn't have those answers. Instead, she hopes her research will bring to light a story that's often gone unnoticed.

"Selma has such a long and rich history of having Jews there. They were critical in building the city," Milligan said. "So much of the story we hear is tied to civil rights, and that's a really important part of Selma's story. But there's another part there, too. They're an aging community, and they have to make some tough decisions."

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