A historic marker will be dedicated this month at the site of Alabama’s first synagogue, at 559 Government Street in Mobile.
On Sept. 17, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation and the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life will host a 2 p.m. ceremony to mark the location of Sha’arei Shomayim’s first building. The Historical Mobile Preservation Commission is also coordinating the event.
According to the commission, the marker is at the closest right-of-way to the original site. A Burger King is currently located there.
Today, Sha’arei Shomayim is known as Springhill Avenue Temple, based on its location since 1955. It was chartered in 1844 as Sha’arai Shomayim Umaskil el Dol, Gates of Heaven and Society of Friends of the Needy.
The JASHP seeks to identify and recognize sites of American Jewish historical interest. One major project is identifying the site of the first synagogue building in each state. Society President Jerry Klinger explained that instead of marking the oldest congregation, recognizing the first building shows Jewish permanence in a state.
The society has already erected markers for the sites of the first synagogues in several Southern states.
In Louisiana, the society erected a sign on Rampart Street in New Orleans, at the location of Gates of Mercy Synagogue, which built there in 1845. In the early 1900s, Gates of Mercy merged with Touro Synagogue.
In Florida, the first synagogue building was in downtown Pensacola, housing Temple Beth El. The congregation, which moved in 1931 to its current location, built the first synagogue in Florida in 1876.
More recently, the society erected a plaque in downtown Jackson outside a Conoco station, the site of Mississippi’s first synagogue, Beth Israel. While Beth Israel’s building dated back to the 1860s, B’nai Israel in Natchez is an older congregation, though it did not build the first synagogue building in the state. Nevertheless, the society recently dedicated a marker in Natchez as well.
Sha’arei Shomayim dedicated the Emanuel Street Temple in Mobile in 1846, but soon outgrew it and moved to a new structure on Jackson Street between St. Michael and St. Louis Streets in 1853. The congregation then moved to the corner of Government and Warren Streets in 1907 before moving to Springhill Avenue.
While the congregation’s first building was on Emanuel Street, it did not belong to Sha’arei Shomayim. That structure was built for the Episcopalians, who later sold it to the Unitarians. Sha’arei Shomayim leased it from the Unitarians.
The Unitarians had owned the Jackson Street building also, but had previously sold it to the Mobile Musical Society. Sha’arei Shomayim purchased it from the society while Israel Jones was president of both institutions.
The Jackson Street Synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1856 and rebuilt on the same site.
There was talk of placing the marker at the Jackson Street site, since it was the first synagogue that was actually owned by the Jewish community, but the Government Street site, being on one of Mobile’s main thoroughfares, was deemed preferable.
The oldest synagogue building in continuous use in Alabama is Temple Beth El in Anniston, which was completed in 1892. The oldest synagogue building still standing is Temple Beth Or’s original building in Montgomery, which is now the Catoma Street Church of Christ. It was completed in 1860, and was Beth Or’s home until 1902.