Rolling Fork Temple building still stands after devastating tornado

Henry Kline Memorial Congregation building in Rolling Fork on April 1, as roof tarps cover the remaining houses in the area. Photo by Nadav Herman

The March 24 tornado that devastated most of Rolling Fork was the third incident in as many months where a tornado passed near a synagogue in the region.

Though the powerful storm leveled most of the rural Mississippi town, the building that housed the Henry Kline Memorial Congregation was still standing. Established in 1953, the small congregation closed in 1992, with most members shifting to Hebrew Union Temple in Greenville.

Rabbi Debra Kassoff of Hebrew Union reported that all members in the Rolling Fork survived, with their homes still standing. “Considering what most of the rest of the town looks like, it feels like a miracle well worth celebrating,” she wrote in the congregation’s newsletter.

Many early articles focused on the complete devastation on 7th Street. The Temple building is on 3rd Street.

Fred Miller said those wanting to help the area should send monetary donations to the Community Foundation of Washington County, “which has established a great track record for emergency response and resource management.”

Miller, who was Rolling Fork’s mayor from 2017 to 2021, said when the tornado approached, he and his wife took refuge in a bathroom in the middle of the house, which “just shook.”

After the tornado passed, there was a large oak tree on the house and windows in the back of the house had been blown out, and the front porch had blown away, but he noted that 100 yards away, homes were completely destroyed.

Miller was the town’s second Jewish mayor, as Sam Rosenthal was the mayor of Rolling Fork from 1924 to 1969, including during the devastation from the Great Flood of 1927.

On April 1, delegates to the National Federation of Temple Youth’s Southern Region convention at the Henry S. Jacobs Camp went to Rolling Fork to assist in recovery efforts, bringing items donated by several Jewish communities that week, including New Orleans and Jackson.

Miller greeted the NFTY delegates, and is the uncle of one of the teens. He told them about Rolling Fork’s history and the Jewish history of the Delta region. The teens then took different roles, unloading and organizing donations, loaded vehickes with essential items and broke down boxes. There were several other volunteer groups beyond the 80 teens.

Another Jewish connection to Rolling Fork is the Teddy bear. President Theodore Roosevelt went on a hunting trip, which was particularly unsuccessful, in the area in 1902. Because of the lack of success, aides cornered a black bear and tied him to a tree for Roosevelt to shoot. He refused, as it would be unsportsmanlike.

A Russian Jewish immigrant in Brooklyn saw the resulting publicity, and asked the White House for permission to do a stuffed bear. The White House figured nothing would come of that, but “Teddy’s Bear” became an instant hit.

Among the things scattered by the tornado were several 12-foot wooden bears that are carved each year to commemorate the story.

Damage in Shreveport

Earlier in the month, around 5:30 p.m. on March 2, a tornado touched down in Shreveport, damaging a Valero station about 500 feet from Agudath Achim. Mayor Tom Arceneaux’s office reported that the hardest-hit area was the intersection of Youree Drive and Sophia Lane, which is where one turns to reach Agudath Achim and where the Valero is located. Several businesses were damaged in that area.

According to Dave Ginsburg, chair of building and grounds for the congregation, the synagogue had some roof damage, which is still being assessed, but the preliminary indication was that only a portion of the roof was damaged. The power feed line also had to be replaced.

The congregation also lost six small trees and part of a large tree, and the picnic table at the back of the garden area was swept away by the tornado. The seat from one side was found in a lot behind the garden. It took workers two days to remove the tree debris, which is not covered by insurance.

“Any assistance towards covering this unbudgeted expense would be very welcome,” he said.

On Jan. 12, a large tornado went through Selma, cutting a path along 23 miles. It passed a couple of blocks north of Mishkan Israel, which had some “roof issues” that are being worked on, but the congregation has welcomed numerous tourists in recent weeks.

In 2012, a Christmas Day tornado damaged Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, lifting the roof an inch or so off the building then putting it back down, necessitating extensive repairs.