10 July 2008

Georgia: Jewish Savannah's 275th anniversary

The New York Jewish Week's Carolyn Slutsky details the Jewish history of Savannah,Georgia in this article, "Southern Comfort, 275 Years On." Savannah’s Congregation Mickve Israel, an imposing Gothic building constructed in the mid-1870s, is the home of the third oldest Jewish congregation in the US. This weekend the Reform synagogue celebrates its milestone anniversary, welcoming 100 descendants of congregation founders, reading from the original 1733 Torah and enjoying speeches and performances by personalities.
On July 11, 1733, 42 Sephardic Jews from Portugal arrived on a ship to start a new life in what would become one of the most graceful cities in the Southern United States. The colony of Georgia had been founded earlier that year, and with a total population of 116 settlers, one third of the population of the new colony was Jewish.
Tracing the Tribe has written previously about Savannah's Jewish community, including the name list of the original Jewish settlers, such as Jewish doctor Samuel Nunez who arrived during an epidemic and cured inhabitants.

“Every 25 years is a generation and we feel it’s important that the congregation celebrate and commemorate important events in its history,” says Rabbi Belzer, who is originally from Westchester County. “Telling our story is a very Jewish thing, it’s what we do.”

Where smaller Southern Jewish communities have struggled or folded and Atlanta, a young but growing city now home to more than 100,000 Jews and poised to have a quarter of a million by 2020, Savannah occupies a stable middle ground. Many of its young professionals have left for Atlanta and other Sunbelt and northern cities for jobs, and at the same time it is attracting young retirees who are moving to the area in significant numbers and getting involved in all aspects of civic and Jewish life.

The original Sephardic settlers were joined by German and Eastern European Jews, while the Sephardim soon migrated to other Southern cities like Charleston. Savannah Jewish Federation executive director Adam Solender characterizes Savannah as, “a small Jewish community that acts like a large one.”

During the Civil War, Rabbi Belzer describes that Jews were just as Southern as any Southerner, with 17 percent of Savannah’s Jews owning slaves as compared with 14 percent of the general population. They fought for the Confederacy, and everyone harbored a penchant for duels.

“Duel, shmuel,” quips Rabbi Belzer, at his desk in his corner office adjacent to the synagogue’s museum, which houses historical letters and artifacts, of how he’d have liked to see differences handled, bringing a Yiddish flair to an old-South convention. “Let’s have a sandwich, work it out.

He says there are between 2,800 and 3,400 Jews in Savannah and points to the high per capita giving to federation, the heavy involvement of Jews in civic organizations and the fact that numerous families belong to all three of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox congregations as a way of supporting the community as a whole. The Orthodox Synagogue, Congregation Bnai Brith Jacob, with close to 600families, is about double the size of the Reform congregation.

Deep South Jewish Voice editor/publisher Larry Brook - whom I have met at several American Jewish Press Association annual conferences - spoke about Jewish life in the 13 Southern states his paper covers:
Woodville, Miss., he says, was called “Little Jerusalem” 120 years ago because of the proportion of Jews there; by the 1920s, that community was pretty much gone. In Selma, Ala., in the early 1900s it was said you could roll a bowling ball down main street on Rosh HaShanah and not hit anyone for all the Jewish businesses. Today, Selma has a gorgeous synagogue building, but only holds services a few times a year because there are a few dozen elderly Jews left. Congregations in Clarksville, Miss., and Demopolis, Ala., have had to close their doors because of Jewish migration to cities with more opportunities.
Brook describes Atlanta as a magnet, and Slutsky comments that If the number of Jews reaches 250,000 in the next 12 years, a figure cited by federation officials, Atlanta will be the fourth largest Jewish community in the US. Do read the complete article.

1 comment:

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