Congregation Beth Israel (Gadsden, Alabama)

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Beth Israel
Basic information
Location 761 Chestnut Street,
Gadsden, Alabama,
 United States
Geographic coordinates 34°00′51″N 86°00′39″W / 34.014076°N 86.010783°W / 34.014076; -86.010783Coordinates: 34°00′51″N 86°00′39″W / 34.014076°N 86.010783°W / 34.014076; -86.010783
Affiliation Reform Judaism
Status Inactive
Architectural description
Architectural style Classical Revival[1]
Groundbreaking 1922[2]
Completed 1923[2]

Congregation Beth Israel (Hebrew: בית ישראל‎‎) was a Reform synagogue, located for most of its history at 761 Chestnut Street in Gadsden, Alabama.[3] An outgrowth of Gadsden's Jewish religious school, it was founded in 1908 and incorporated in 1910.[4][5] It moved into its Chestnut Street building in 1922,[1][4] and joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1924.[4]

From 1911 to 1944 it had no rabbi, and was led by "lay-religious-leader" Hugo Hecht.[2][4] In 1944, Beth Israel hired its first full-time rabbi, Ernest Appel.[2]

The synagogue was fire-bombed and its windows smashed in 1960, during a Friday night service. Two members who rushed outside were wounded with a shotgun by the attacker, a young Nazi sympathizer.[6]

Membership was never high; the congregation had 38 members families in 1918,[5] and this grew to 60 families in 1960.[2] Membership fell as major employers closed operations, and Jews emigrated from Gadsden. By 2008, family membership was down to 26.[2] The synagogue closed in 2010.[2]

Early history[edit]

Founded in 1908,[4] and incorporated in January 1910,[5] Beth Israel grew out of Gadsden's Jewish religious school, which was established in 1903.[4] Initially the congregation had no rabbi. Every second Sunday from 1910 to 1911, Ferdinand Hirsch, a student rabbi, would come to Gadsden and teach the Sunday School in the morning and hold services in the afternoon.[4]

Hugo Hecht, a young immigrant from Germany, acted as "lay-religious-leader" from 1911 to 1944.[2][4] He conducted Shabbat and funeral services, wrote sermons, taught the Sunday school, and acted as secretary and treasurer. After a number of years, officers of the temple decided he should be given a remuneration of $20/week for his work.[2]

Membership was 38 families by 1918. The congregational school held classes weekly, and had 15 students and 3 teachers. That year the synagogue's total income was $700 (today $11,100).[5]

Beth Israel broke ground and laid the cornerstone for its Classical Revival building at 761 Chestnut Street in March 1922, and moved in the following year.[1][2][4][7] The Masonic dedication service was attended by hundreds of Gadsden citizens, and the main speaker was Reverend W.R. Rigell of the First Baptist Church.[7] The completed structure had a stained-glass window with the Biblical verse fragment "LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF" (Leviticus 19:18) above the front door.[2]

The congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1924.[4] Gadsden's Jewish community was not as badly affected by the Great Depression as others in more agriculturally-based towns, and benefited from an influx of Jewish servicemen from nearby Camp Sibert during World War II.[2]

Full-time rabbis[edit]

In 1944 Beth Israel hired its first full-time rabbi, Ernest Appel. From a long line of rabbis from Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), Appel emigrated to the United States in 1936 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. By 1946, when he moved to a synagogue in Maryland, the congregation had grown to nearly 30 families.[2]

After receiving ordination from Hebrew Union College, Saul J. Rubin became Beth Israel's rabbi in September, 1958.[8] There he met and married Elsie Parsons, Hecht's granddaughter.[9] Rubin served until 1960, when he became assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia.[8]

Antisemitic attack[edit]

On March 25,[10] 1960, the synagogue and its members were subject to an antisemitic attack. About 180 members were attending a Friday evening service to dedicate the new Zemurray Social Hall, and led by then-rabbi Saul Rubin and Rev. John Speaks and Dr. Franklin Denson of First Methodist Church, when windows were smashed and the synagogue fire-bombed. Two members—Alvin Lowi and Alan Cohn—who rushed out to see what was happening were met by Jerry Hunt, a 16-year-old Nazi sympathizer, who wounded them both with a shotgun, then fled. Lowi was just shot in the hand, but one of Cohn's aortas was nicked, and he almost died, requiring 22 US pints (10 l) of blood.[2][6][7] Earlier that week Hunt had attended a rally for antisemitic and white supremacist politician John G. Crommelin, and had had a fight with a Jewish boy over a chess game at the Gadsden Community Centre.[2]


Membership peaked in 1960, at 60 families. In the 1970s and 1980s factories of major employers such as Republic Steel, and many Jewish-owned stores closed and younger members emigrated in search of employment.[2] Following a significant period without a full-time rabbi, the congregation engaged Rabbi Arnold Fertig from 1977-1979. In the 1980s and early 1990s the rabbis were Fred Raskind[11][12][13][14] and Mark Peilen.[14][15][16] Family membership was still 57 in the early 1980s,[15] but dropped to 43 in 1993, 38 in 2000, and only 26 by 2008.[2] That year the youngest member was 48, and there were no children for the educational programs.[2]

As of 2009, the rabbi was Scott Saulson of Atlanta, who came in once a month to provide services.[2][3] A former member of the Peace Corps, graduate of Hebrew Union College, and PhD in Semitics from the University of South Africa, Saulson was also chaplain at the Atlanta Jewish Family & Career Services, and was a speaker for the Darfur Coalition of Georgia.[17] The congregation still held services weekly, but, as was the case during most of its early history, they were lay-led.[2]

In 2010, the congregation ceased operation.[2] The congregation's website stated that the synagogue had closed, effective July 1, 2010.[18]



External links[edit]