Three Congregations Now Part of History

Congregations and communities come and go. In recent years, synagogues have closed in places like Jasper (2005), Clarksdale (2003), Rolling Fork (1992) and Demopolis (1989). This past year, however, has seen the demise of three long-established congregations — Temple B’nai Sholom in Brookhaven, Temple Beth El in Lexington and Temple Beth Israel, Gadsden.

Stuart Rockoff, who heads the history department at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, explained that especially after the 1950s, the next generation of Jews moved on to bigger communities and different professions than their small-town merchant parents. “There was a hard-core group in each community that felt compelled to carry on” with preserving the congregation, but eventually time would take its toll.

It isn’t a new phenomenon, but three congregations closing within a year is notable, he added.

Neither is it the only story. While some communities disappear, others are formed. The last 25 years has seen new congregations in places like Mandeville, Fort Walton Beach and Auburn, and rejuvenation this summer with the dedication of a new building in Tuscaloosa. And the demise of Lexington’s congregation may ultimately benefit the growing Jewish community in nearby Oxford.

Brookhaven’s New Museum

Now that the old carpeting has been removed from the pulpit and all the floors refinished, Rita Rich is awaiting the return of the pulpit furnishings at Temple B’nai Shalom in Brookhaven.

But the building is not being set up for High Holy Day services, nor is Rich a member of the congregation. She is president of the Lincoln County Historical and Genealogical Society, which last fall received the building on a 99-year deed, with the idea of turning it into a museum for the county’s history and the area’s Jewish history.

The congregation held its official deconsecration last summer, on Aug. 30. The next month, the congregation’s Holocaust Torah was passed on to Heartspace Spiritual Resources and Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, N.C. By coincidence, the congregation’s associate rabbi lives in a neighborhood called Brookhaven.

By the time the congregation held its final service on Aug. 30, 2009, only one older Jewish family remained in town, and care of the building had been left to them and one other family in a nearby town.

In the bulletin of Pensacola’s Temple Beth El, Jody Schlesinger wrote about the deconsecration service in his hometown, saying Rabbi Marshal Klavin of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life led a “beautiful and fitting service” in tribute to those who built the congregation.

“As the memorial list was read for the last time, I heard the names of my great grandparents and grandparents,” he said. “And as the community recited the Kaddish, I realized this was the last time we would honor their memory in this sacred space.”

“This Jewish house of worship becomes what Isaiah had envisioned — a house for all people,” Klaven said.

The ISJL is helping facilitate the preservation of B’nai Sholom’s items, those that will stay in the museum and those that are going to other congregations.

The historical society began accepting items for the museum in February, and has had several “selection sessions.”

Rich said glass display cases will be moved in shortly, after which will come the task of setting up exhibits and making cards for all the items.

The pulpit will be kept intact, with the congregation’s older Torah staying in the ark. Rich said the memorial boards and framed certificates at the building’s entrance will be kept where they are, to lend authenticity.

The former principal of the school across the street from B’nai Sholom, Rich said she was “real excited” about preserving the building.

Her first task, she noted, was to rectify something that had bothered her for years — the lack of an identifying sign outside the building. That was taken care of last summer.

It is believed that the first Jews in the area arrived in the 1850s as the railroad arrived. The community met in private homes, but by the 1890s there were sufficient numbers for a synagogue to be built.

Temple B’nai Sholom was constructed in 1896, and until it closed last year was the oldest synagogue building in Mississippi still in continuous use.

The community peaked at around 90 in the early 1900s, and never was large enough for a resident rabbi. Congregants led services, and occasionally rabbis from the area or students from Hebrew Union College would visit.

Services were held weekly until the 1970s, after which only High Holidays were held, and the religious school disbanded. The building was also used for the occasional wedding or Bar Mitzvah.
Despite the small numbers in the Jewish community, Brookhaven has had three Jewish mayors, and Natalie Cohn led fundraising for the town’s first library a century ago.

In 1926, George Bowsky purchased a monument honoring 22 unknown Confederate soldiers who were buried in Rose Hill Cemetery. The monument was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then repaired by a local monument company and re-dedicated in 2007. On Feb. 24, 2008, a historic marker was dedicated by the Brookhaven Light Artillery, with Rabbi Batsheva Appel, then of the ISJL, representing the Jewish community.

Rockoff will be in Brookhaven on Sept. 14 for a 6:30 p.m. program at the Jimmy Furlow Senior Citizens Center.

Lexington, Miss.: Small congregation, big history

To the casual observer, the bigger surprise isn’t that Lexington’s Temple Beth El closed, but that it continued for 105 years.

With the end of Yom Kippur last year, the small congregation closed its doors for the last time. Phil Cohen, owner of Cohen’s on the city square, said his is the last Jewish family in Lexington, and it was time to plan for the future. And for Beth El, that future may be elsewhere in the state.

Henry Paris led the High Holy Day services, as he has done for four decades. About 40 attended the last Rosh Hashanah service.

Since last High Holidays, though, the building hasn’t been completely without activity. A couple of times in the past year, groups from other parts of the state have visited Lexington on a tour of houses of worship. “Most of them had never seen a synagogue before, never been in one.”

There has also been some Jewish activity in the town of just over 2000. Last year, there were 27 Teach America workers who arrived in town, three of whom were Jewish. Cohen hosted them for Seder, and said he’s inviting them to go to High Holy Day services in Jackson, where he has also been a member for 30 years.

The Jewish community of Lexington began with Jacob Sontheimer, who arrived in the late 1830s. By the end of the 19th century, there were about 50 Jews living in the Lexington area.

In 1904, land was donated by Morris Lewis Sr. and Sam Herrman for a cemetery and a building. The community’s cemetery is part of Odd Fellows Cemetery.

There were numerous fundraisers held to fund construction of the building. A performance at the Opera House, which was talked about for years to come, raised about $160.

The building was dedicated on Nov. 1, 1905, and there were 30 charter members.

In the 1930s, the congregation hit its peak with 89 congregants. There were 13 Jewish stores on the square or just off it. Today, Cohen’s is the only one that remains.

In the congregation’s 50th anniversary booklet, it noted that there had been 50 children confirmed, and five weddings in the congregation. The booklet listed 24 member families and 11 students.

The congregation was never large enough to have a full-time rabbi, and instead relied on the student rabbis from HUC in Cincinnati.

There were 16 congregants who fought in World War II. Only three of them came back to Lexington — not because of casualties, but because of opportunities elsewhere.

As the membership began to decline, it became prohibitive to bring student rabbis in from Cincinnati. The congregation turned to rabbis from nearby congregations in Vicksburg, Greenville and Jackson to help.

Cohen said one of the congregation’s most important decisions at annual meetings is “what day the Sabbath would fall on, and it’s whatever day the rabbi could come up.”

By 2005, when the congregation held its centennial, there were only four Jewish families left in Lexington, though the congregation numbered about a dozen families in its membership. Services were held once a month, usually on Sunday evenings. Sometimes, the services were held on Wednesday nights.

Cohen noted that at the last non-holiday service, held in May 2009, there were only four in attendance.
Though the congregation was never large, it had a huge impact on the Reform movement, due to a local family’s bequest. In the late 1940s, Rabbi James Wax served the congregation as a student rabbi. He would go on to become senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis.

While having a High Holy Day meal with the Herrman family, he turned to the two sons, Cecil and Gus, and commented that “if you boys ever amount to much, you should give some money to the college, because it takes a lot to educate those boys” who go on to become rabbis and educators.

That advice stuck with them, and when Cecil died in the early 1990s, he left his estate — some $3.3 million — to HUC. Most of the funds were used to renovate the main classroom building, which was renamed the Cecil W. Herrman Learning Center.

Gus died in 2002, leaving most of his estate to HUC. His $6.7 million gift, like his brother’s, was unconditional.

The combined $10 million gift is the largest ever received by HUC. Part of it was used to name the Gus Waterman Herrman Presidential Chair.

Robert Berman wrote a history of the community and the congregation, entitled “House of David in the Land of Jesus.”

Cohen said there are discussions with the University of Mississippi about establishing a Museum of Tolerance, which could complement the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

The idea is to have a 5,000-square-foot main building, with a replica of the Lexington Temple inside. The bimah, furnishings and stained-glass windows would be moved to Oxford, and the new building would give the small but growing Jewish community of Oxford a place to meet.

Rockoff said such a project would be “great for Lexington and even better for Ole Miss.”

The remaining Lexington congregants have met with Ole Miss Chancellor Daniel Jones, but as this is Jones’ first year leading the university, there are many projects on his agenda. Cohen said there will likely be a three-year window to look at the Lexington project.

There is also a question of fundraising, as the planned museum’s pricetag will be well into seven figures.

Beth El’s closing has received international attention, with articles in Forward and Ha’Aretz. Last month, Cohen said, a man from New York came through town, saw the building and contributed $1,000 toward the building’s upkeep.

Gadsden: Love Thy Neighbor

In 2008, Gadsden’s Temple Beth Israel had a full house for the congregation’s centennial. On May 14, the congregation held its last service, “under the stars” at the Riverwalk pavilion. This followed a congregational meeting on May 5 where the decision was made to close the congregation.

Judi Drew said “it’s been heartbreaking for all of us.”

A merger agreement is currently in the works with Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El, similar to one made by Temple Emanu-El in Jasper when it closed five years ago.

Many of Gadsden’s members were already members in Birmingham, while some are starting to attend services in Anniston.

Geofrey Drew said that with only 20 families remaining, “like a lot of other congregations, we ran out of money and had to close. We didn’t really have any other choice.”

In April, part of the congregation’s bulletin was a letter entitled “we are facing the end of Beth Israel as we have known it for many years now.” Rabbi Scott Saulson cautioned that “the transition… will be neither painless or easy.”

Anne Cohn said “It’s hard to lose our dear Temple. Memories are all that remain to comfort the bereaved, but we also share gratitude for those memories”

Gadsden started attracting Jewish residents as the town grew into an industrial center at the beginning of the 20th century. Originally meeting at the home of Jacob and Bertha Nadler, the group formed a congregation and had the first High Holy Day services in the Gadsden National Bank Building in 1908.

Numerous Jewish merchants opened up shop, including brothers Sam and Isadore Zemurray, who had a fruit shop. Sam Zemurray would later move to New Orleans and become head of the United Fruit Company, which has a colorful history throughout Latin America. The Cohn family later started Marvin’s Home Centers, which still has locations across the Deep South.

The merchants held weekly poker games with other leading citizens of Gadsden, and set aside part of their winnings for an eventual synagogue. The Sisterhood contributed with sandwich fundraisers, and in March 1922, ground was broken on the congregation’s only permanent home. Many non-Jewish leaders attended, and the congregation decided to inscribe “Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself” above the front door.

Nearby Camp Sibert brought large numbers of Jewish servicemen to the area during World War II, and after the war the congregation numbered about 30 families, and hired its first full-time rabbi.

With a community numbering 145 by 1960, plans were made for an addition to the building, donated by the Zemurray family. The dedication on March 26 that year was shattered by an attack. Jerry Hunt, a 16-year-old, had attended a rally for the fiercely anti-Semitic politician Admiral John Crommelin. He decided to seek out the Jewish community, and just after the minister of First Methodist Church spoke at the dedication, Hunt threw a Molotov cocktail that shattered against one of Beth Israel’s windows but failed to ignite. Rabbi Saul Rubin urged the interfaith crowd to stay inside, while Alvin Lowi and Alan Cohn ran outside to see what had happened. Gunfire was heard, as Hunt shot both with a .22-caliber rifle. Lowi was hit in the hand; Cohn was hit in the aorta and managed to pull through the life-threatening injury.

Hunt was apprehended, but shortly thereafter drove into a tree and died. The general community flocked to the next Shabbat service to show concern and support.

In the 1970s, much of Gadsden’s heavy industry hit hard times, and the Jewish community began to dwindle. By 2000 there were 38 member families, and in recent years there were occasional discussions with Temple Beth El in Anniston, to see if some type of partnership was possible.

The congregation had a moment of national note in the early 1990s, in Moment Magazine’s “Spice Box” page. The page is dedicated to unusual typos or usages of Jewish terms in bizarre settings. The editors chose to run a headline from The Southern Shofar (predecessor to this publication) about how the Gadsden congregation was going to “experiment” with Shabbat morning services. The magazine’s comment was “might start a trend!” Moment received several letters from across the country, chastising them for making fun of a small congregation, and for their lack of understanding about the struggles of small-community congregations.

In January, a decision was made to hold services only on weekends when Saulson was visiting, which was once a month. Even so, the monthly services drew about 10 people. That, combined with the financial picture and the expense of maintaining an old building, led to the decision.

Some of the pulpit furnishings went to the new Temple Emanu-El in Tuscaloosa, while the Torah and other items will go to Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham once the merger is completed.

As for the building, a decision has not been made yet. One idea that has been mentioned is for the city to take the building and use it as a museum.