To this day I remember the excitement that I felt more than 43 years ago when I learned I was “Going to McGehee!” It was the spring of my third year at HUC, and I was studying in Israel. I wanted a bi-weekly, preferably in the south because I had never been there. When I learned that I had been matched to become the student rabbi at the Meir Chayim Temple in McGehee in the southwest corner of Arkansas I was overjoyed.
My first trip was a two-week stint for the Holy Days. I flew to Memphis as instructed and then to Little Rock. I picked up my car from THRIFTY Rent-A-Car and drove the hundred miles to Dumas in a huge old green Hudson. When I pulled up in front of their home, Temple President, Bob Heiman and his wife Hattie, both of very blessed memory, were waiting outside to greet me. When I turned off the motor, the car would not stop running for about a minute. Although I expected the car would explode momentarily, Bob, who had been in the automobile business laughed heartily and said that it was no big deal.
I still remember the title of my first ever Rosh Hashanah sermon: “I Want to Start All Over!” For every visit during my two years there, I worked hard to prepare every sermon and every Torah reading, translating as I went along. To this day, I still love to read from the scroll this way.
That visit marked the first time I was ever on radio with a short program each weekday during the days between the Holy Days. I remember the announcer saying: “We present Rabbi Stephen Fuchs who is conducting Holy Week services at the My-er Ki-em Temple in McGehee.” “Rabbi Stephen Fuchs!” I loved the sound, but I was shocked when I heard the name of the synagogue pronounced that way. Little did I realize that the members pronounced it that way too! I did ask the announcer to change “Holy Week services” to Services for the Days of Awe,” and he graciously did.
On my next visit THRIFTY replaced the vintage Hudson with a brand new, fire engine red Ford Torino–which broke down as I was driving back to Little Rock, right in front of the State prison in Cummins! Every hundred yards there were warning signs, saying, “Prison area. Do not stop!” I still think of it as a miracle that somebody did stop, jumped the battery, and that I made it to Little Rock just in time to catch my plane.
When in the spring Bob told me that the temple would love for me to return for a second year, I felt it was a great honor.
My second year included my first Confirmation Class. During the Confirmation service each of my four students read from the Torah scroll and offered commentary on the portion that he or she had chosen. It was quite a feat because none had had any formal Hebrew training at the time. I still remember it as a beautiful and meaningful service.
When I entered HUC it was my desire from the very beginning to be a congregational rabbi. Therefore I considered my bi-weekly pulpit to be by far my most important “class.” I looked forward to each visit with great enthusiasm. I shall never forget the warmth and hospitality of the members who opened their homes and hearts to me.
When it appeared in 2009 that the congregation was ready to close, I offered at my expense to take a Shabbat off from my congregation in West Hartford to visit and conduct a Shabbat service. It was a great thrill for me to be back.
I am so glad that I made that trip, and it seemed to mean a great deal to the congregation as well. The congregation Continue to struggle, but time and changing demographics forced its ultimate closure in June 2016
As I look back over my career in Columbia, MD, Nashville, TN, West Hartford, CT, and as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, I feel very blessed that I felt the warm embrace of some of the nicest people anywhere in SE Arkansas. They taught me so much about being a rabbi, and I consider it a great blessing that I was privileged to serve the Meir Chayim Temple in McGehee!