Not too long ago, Rabbi Marshal Klaven says, he met with a Jewish man and his family from the Mississippi Delta region. The man, from a traditional Jewish background, said he hadn't been raising his two school-age children in the faith but wanted to do so.
As Klaven began to explain traditional Jewish practices, it became readily apparent the children were completely unfamiliar with the religion's most basic elements.
"It was a striking statement that Judaism can die not within two or three or generations but Judaism can die in one generation," says Klaven, who works for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) based in Jackson, Miss. "We work to ensure that it can continue to survive."
As Jews prepare to celebrate Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year - throughout the world starting at sundown Wednesday, congregations in Southern states including Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Oklahoma and Jewish organizations are increasingly working to preserve Jewish identity in the South and to try to ensure it flourishes.
In some places, the effort is taking an unorthodox turn - and working.
In Dothan, Ala. - a city of about 67,000 near the Florida border - one group offers as much as $50,000 to Jewish families willing to move to the town and stay at least five years.
Six families have moved to Dothan, and four are in the "pipeline" and undergoing a rigorous screening process, says Robert Goldsmith, executive director of Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan.
Families that meet the approval criteria - including a home visit, background and credit checks and traveling to Dothan to meet the community - qualify for various stipends such as moving expenses, purchasing a home, private K-12 education costs or launching a business, according to the group's website.
A similar effort is taking place in Meridian, Miss., Goldsmith says. Jewish groups in other cities such as New Orleans offer job and housing assistance, free or discounted synagogue memberships and other enticements to Jews willing to relocate to their cities.
With them, the families - initially those with young kids but later including empty-nesters and others - have brought a vitality that has reinvigorated the congregation while respecting its history, Goldsmith says.
"They have been a key part of what this project is all about, which is helping revitalize the congregation," says Goldsmith, who noted that Dothan's Temple Emanu-El has grown from 38 to 71 families since 2008. Its religious school has gone from five to 23 students. "It's not just numbers, it's the quality and vitality of the congregation," he says.
Kenny and Lisa Priddle say it was the opportunity to be more than a number at the synagogue that influenced their decision to move from Schenectady, N.Y., to Dothan in May 2011. The empty-nesters received assistance with moving costs and the down payment for a new home among other expenses, Lisa Priddle says.
"We wanted to go someplace that needed us just as much as we needed them - for me, that's why it works," says Lisa Priddle, 52.
Although the move to the South required an adjustment, the welcoming embrace of the town's Jewish community, good jobs and new friends have made the transition easier, the couple say.
"I think we will be here for a long time," says Kenny Priddle, 58.
Outside Florida, which has a Jewish population of about 638,985, about 461,110 Jews live in the South - more than ever, according to statistics from the Jewish Virtual Library and ISJL. Many of them - especially the young - have moved from smaller Southern communities to large cities such as Atlanta and Nashville in search of jobs and economic prosperity, says ISJL historian Stuart Rockoff.
As a result, the Jewish communities they've left behind in towns and cities such as Birmingham, Ala., and Shreveport, La., are decidedly older. As those members die, their congregations dwindle - and sometimes close.
Over the past 25 years, the ISJL estimates that 26 congregations in towns such as Port Arthur, Texas, Muskogee, Okla., and Goldsboro, N.C., have closed. The number is expected to rise in the next 10 years, Rockoff says.
In Birmingham, Caren Seligman, Birmingham Jewish Federation outreach director, is wooing young Jewish college graduates and professionals who have moved away with a "You Belong in Birmingham" campaign. Central to the program's success, Seligman says, is accepting and embracing a younger generation's non-traditional style of observance.
That includes get-togethers for holidays, such as Sukkot, or group service projects instead of attending traditional services or belonging to a synagogue, Seligman says.
"Nowadays they want to do it differently," says Seligman, whose program started seven years ago with the names of 35 young Jews with a Birmingham connection and has grown to a list-serve of more than 400. "They want Shabbat dinners at someone's house. ... They don't need the buildings to make themselves Jewish."
For Klaven, a self-proclaimed circuit rabbi who travels each year to 110 small congregations in 13 Southern states stretching from Texas and Oklahoma to Virginia, serving a diverse population requires an inventive approach. He teaches conversion and Bar and Bat mitzvah classes and offers counseling using Skype and Facetime. It's paid off not only in the form of some congregations growing larger and others avoiding closure but also in creating intimate relationships - something Klaven says is essential for Judaism's survival.
"If you save one life, you save the whole world; if you destroy one life, you destroy the whole world," says Klaven, citing a well-known core Jewish principle. "One person, one family can make the whole community."
Bath reports for The Times in Shreveport, La.