In her hometown of Jackson, Miss., Alexis Schwartz was the only Jew in her high school class. Now, at 35, she is surrounded by Jews. Schwartz is the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Israel Action Center.
Tell us about growing up in Jackson, Miss.
Jackson is a small town that masquerades as a big city. When I was growing there was only one only synagogue in the state that had a full-time rabbi.
What was it like to be the only Jew in your high school class?
I never felt people were anti-Semitic or anything. I just felt different. The high school I went to was a big inner city public high school. I was a minority mostly because of the Judaism. It was 85 percent African American, maybe 1 or 2 percent Hispanic and the rest were white kids. Growing up where I grew up, there was a lot of respect for religion. There was certainly a lot of curiosity about Judaism.
Did your family keep kosher?
No, we didn’t keep a kosher house. It was pretty impossible to keep kosher in Jackson. If you wanted to you could have meats shipped up from New Orleans, or you could be a vegetarian.
What were holidays like in your house?
My family tries to get together for as many holidays as possible. My mom was one of six kids, so I have 17 or 18 first cousins on that side. They’re spread out all over the country. So if there was no family around, we would have all of our friends over.
I have distinct memories of seders with 30 or 40 people all spread out around the room in a very loving environment and enjoying each other’s company. We used to host Yom Kippur at our house and I have memories of my mom going up and down the sanctuary for Yom Kippur services asking, “Do you have somewhere to go? Do you have somewhere to go? Please come to our house.” So that’s kind of how I view holidays. It’s important to include everybody.
What influence did your grandparents have on you?
My dad’s mom, my grandma, she was a tough woman. Loved her family a lot, and being Jewish was very important to her. I found out that in the ‘40s, she worked for an organization that sold lawn mowers to Israel, and when they got to Israel they turned them into guns. When I got the job at the JCRC, she told me this history and I had no idea this was something she did. I hope I’m living up to her legacy.
I understand you were in Israel this summer? What did you do?
I participated in the [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ young Jewish leaders diplomatic seminar. You’re doing in-depth seminars with different speakers. I got to stand in the Golan and look over to Syria and see what the security risk is that Israelis are dealing with. We heard and we felt bombs exploding. You could see it in Syria with the civil war going on. It was definitely an eye-opening experience.
What did you feel in that moment as you watched the bombs fall?
You can see these things in the media, you can see these pictures, but to see the smoke come up was shocking. It was not a scene from a movie. It was right there in your face.
What are the differences you’ve noticed between Jewish life in Israel and the United States?
My husband put it in really good terms: When you’re here in the U.S., especially where I grew up in Mississippi, being Jewish is different. And it takes some
finesse and thought to explain it to people who don’t have the same background and who don’t have the same thought process. When you’re in Israel, you don’t have to explain this is why we do this. This is why at dinner you can be in three different conversations at once and argue with people, and that’s just the ethos of being Jewish.
What’s one place in Israel many people don’t know about but should?
Everybody knows Jerusalem, but I was there for the light festival. It’s this art festival that goes on for 10 days over the summer and it’s all these large-scale lights in the walls of the Old City and on the buildings.
These artists do these amazing moving pictures in tune with music, projected on the walls of the Old City. They projected the famous photo from 1967 of the three soldiers, and a video that talked about the history of it. I can’t even imagine how the artists did it, but it was the coolest thing I’ve seen in Jerusalem.
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