Birmingham’s Beth-El to mark Rabbi Mesch’s 50th yahrzeit

An entire generation in Birmingham’s Jewish community grew up under the leadership of Rabbi Abraham J. Mesch, and his memory will be honored next month at his long-time congregation.

Temple Beth-El will mark his 50th yahrzeit with a weekend of events featuring his son, Barry Mesch, as scholar-in-residence.

Barry Mesch is provost and Stone/Teplow Families Professor of Jewish Thought at Hebrew College. In 2001, he guided the creation and administration of the first online Master of Arts program in Jewish Studies on the Internet.

Before going to Hebrew College in 1990, he was at the University of Florida for 20 years and was founding director of the Center for Jewish Studies.

On Dec. 7, Barry Mesch will speak on “Mesch Memories: Reflections from a Son and his Father” at the 5:45 p.m. Shabbat service. A dinner will follow, with reservations needed by Dec. 3.

On Dec. 8, he will speak during the 9:30 a.m. service on “The Real Chanukah Story: Religion, Politics and Money.” A luncheon will follow services, after which he will speak on “Rabbi or Prophet: Who is Superior? Perspectives from the Talmud and Maimonides.”

The Sisterhood’s annual Chanukah latke lunch will be Dec. 9, and Mesch’s descendants will visit his grave at Elmwood Cemetery with members of the local AZA chapter of B’nai B’rith Youth. The AZA chapter is named in Mesch’s memory.

Rabbi Mesch was ordained in 1934 in Jerusalem by Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook after studying at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav. He had studied at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary in New York and Hebrew Theological College in Chicago.

He came to Birmingham in the summer of 1935 and began to build Beth-El into the largest Jewish congregation in the state.

In the 1950s he oversaw the congregation’s transition from Orthodox to Conservative, and the addition of an education wing that would later be named for him.
Rabbi Mesch was also known for the first English translation of “Abyss of Despair,” known in Hebrew as “Yeven Metzulah.” The 17th-century work by Nathan Hanover is an eyewitness chronicle to the Chmielnicki massacres in Poland and Ukraine in 1648 and 1649. Historians regard the massacres as a precursor and template for the Holocaust.

The book, originally published in 1950, was re-released in 1983 and is available today, with a new introduction by William Helmreich of Queens College and City University of New York. Helmreich notes how the book describes the period of relative peace and prosperity for the Jewish community before the massacres, and how the massacres helped spur Hasidic movements, the emergence of failed messiah Shabbetai Zevi, and the migration of Jews to western Europe.

He undertook the translation in commemoration of the 300th anniversary of the massacres. It is still used in some college courses.

In 1948, he published “The Rebirth of Israel: A Confirmation Program,” and in 1955 published “The Bar Mitzvah Platform: Complete Sermonettes for the Bar Mitzvah, Based on the Weekly Portions of the Torah, and Special Sabbaths Coinciding with the Festivals.”

In April 1958, there was an attempted Klan bombing of Beth-El, which was never officially solved. As the Civil Rights battles began to ramp up in Birmingham, Rabbi Mesch died suddenly in December 1962.

When a coalition of 19 rabbis left the Rabbinical Assembly convention a few months later to make a public show of solidarity with demonstrators in Birmingham, it was noted to them that the local pulpit was open and if they truly wanted to take a stand, they would apply for the position.

The anniversary events are open to the community, and anyone with recollections or memorabilia is encouraged to contact Beth-El.