27 September 2009

Mississippi: Last holiday in Lexington

All over the Southern US, there are small towns with synagogues barely keeping their doors open, and other communities whose congregations disbanded long ago. In Lexington, Mississippi, this will be the last Yom Kippur at Temple Beth El after 104 years of services.

The Dixie Diaspora's disintegration makes such archives as the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life even more important.

In Andrew Muchin's article in the Forward, the story of Lexington is detailed.

As the members of Temple Beth El in Lexington, Miss., pray this Yom Kippur for inclusion in the Book of Life, they’ll be attending a funeral of sorts. The Ne’ilah, the day’s traditional closing service, will be the last scheduled worship to be held in their 104-year-old white wooden synagogue.

“Our last regular service had four people,” said Phil Cohen, 72, operator of Cohen’s department store which his grandfather founded on Lexington’s town square in 1908.


“This is it,” agreed Henry Paris, 79, who has led Beth El’s High Holy Day services for the past 39 years. “We can’t continue to have a temple for four people. This is it.”

Lexington is a city of about 2,000 people and covers just 2.5 square miles in west-central Mississippi. It’s the smallest community in the state to have supported a synagogue for scores of years.

Jews have lived in Lexington since the 1830s, when German-Jewish immigrants arrived and soon found success as merchants, according to Stuart Rockoff, historian at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss.
In the late 19th century, Russian Jews arrived; a Reform congregation was founded in 1904, and a synagogue built in 1905. There were 80 Jews in 1927, but the Depression caused a decline in numbers. During World War II, 16 Jewish men served in the armed forces; two returned in 1945, 13 moved elsewhere and one was killed.

Lexington took a hit during the 1960s civil rights movement. While Lexington's African-American citizens praised the Jewish businessmen for treating them correctly - as recorded in oral histories - Freedom Summer volunteers registered African-Americans to vote, and several economic boycotts in the late 1960s-70s also impacted Jewish merchants.

Some 40 people attended Rosh Hashanah services - most of them live elsewhere but showed up for the final services.

The synagogue’s well-maintained interior is 90% sanctuary. Each side wall features four tall stained-glass windows with intricate Tiffany-style patterns.

The simple symmetrical exterior with its tall, gabled front porch resembles a rural church. The only visible Jewish symbol is a round window with a small, six-pointed star above the entry.
One former congregant declared there’s “a time to open the synagogue doors and a time to close them. I guess this is the time to close them.”

Cohen and another former town businessman have ideas for moving the building to the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, but nothing has been formalized.

Apologies were not needed for the synagogue's closing, said congregants, and another attendee said they shouldn't sing the blues: “I’m happy that this small congregation survived for 104 years,” she said. “Who would ever have believed it?”

Thanks, Andrew, for a great look at this community. Read the complete article at the link above.

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