Symposium to help efforts to chronicle Alabama Jewish history

Efforts to chronicle Jewish history in Alabama will be boosted by the first-ever Alabama Jewish Culture and History Symposium, July 25 at Temple Beth Or in Montgomery.

Coordinated by the Alabama Folklife Association, the symposium’s goal is to have historians and laypeople network, to get a sense of what historical projects are being done, how to properly preserve historical items that will be of interest to researchers, and assess what is already available and where.

Emily Blejwas, director of the AFA, said the symposium grew out of a Jewish Folklife in Alabama working group, which has met quarterly online since 2022. That group was started after the organization’s 2022 Cauthen Fellowships grant applications were reviewed, as there were three different Jewish history projects among the 21 applicants.

“The AFA connected the three applicants, who agreed a regular convening mechanism for communities and academics doing work in Jewish culture in Alabama would be helpful,” Blejwas said. At an early meeting, a list of priorities was established, one of which was a statewide symposium, and the AFA applied for and received a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts for a symposium.

The symposium will start at 9:30 a.m. with greetings from Rep. Phil Ensler, the first Jewish member of the Alabama House in four decades, and director of the Jewish Federation of Central Alabama. Rabbi Scott Looper of Beth Or will also greet attendees.

There will be a community roundtable on what is being done to document and preserve Jewish life in the state, including members of the Temple Beth-El Civil Rights Experience in Birmingham, archivist Susan Thomas of Springhill Avenue Temple in Mobile, and Cantor Neil Schwartz discussing an unusual headstone he noticed at a Jewish cemetery.

Another session will explore proper archiving — what to collect and where to store and preserve it. Speakers will include Deborah Gurt of the University of South Alabama, Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life Director of Heritage and Interpretation Nora Katz, and Keri Halford of the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Dan Puckett of Troy University will lead a session where academics will share what they are researching, and what funding opportunities exist. Puckett chairs the Alabama Holocaust Commission and is author of “In the Shadow of Hitler: Alabama’s Jews, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.”

Dahlia Road, a duo in Auburn that recently released their first album, “Our Way Back Home,” will perform.

Amy Milligan of Old Dominion University, who is documenting Selma Jewish history, will lead a discussion on next steps, and the program is scheduled to end at 3:30 p.m.

There will be a kosher lunch served, and ample opportunities for networking. The ISJL will document artifacts that participants bring.

There will also be exhibits of the Jewish Mobile Oral History Project and “We had to know who we were; We had to know who we weren’t” by Emily Williams. The university presses of Alabama and Georgia will also have a Jewish book table.

Registration is $5 and is available here.