Congregation Beth Israel (Gadsden, Alabama)
|Location||761 Chestnut Street,
|Architectural style||Classical Revival|
Congregation Beth Israel (Hebrew: בית ישראל) was a Reform synagogue, located for most of its history at 761 Chestnut Street in Gadsden, Alabama. An outgrowth of Gadsden's Jewish religious school, it was founded in 1908 and incorporated in 1910. It moved into its Chestnut Street building in 1922, and joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1924.
Membership was never high; the congregation had 38 members families in 1918, and this grew to 60 families in 1960. Membership fell as major employers closed operations, and Jews emigrated from Gadsden. By 2008, family membership was down to 26. The synagogue closed in 2010.
Founded in 1908, and incorporated in January 1910, Beth Israel grew out of Gadsden's Jewish religious school, which was established in 1903. 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.
Hugo Hecht, a young immigrant from Germany, acted as "lay-religious-leader" from 1911 to 1944. 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.
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).
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. 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. 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.
The congregation joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1924. 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.
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.
After receiving ordination from Hebrew Union College, Saul J. Rubin became Beth Israel's rabbi in September, 1958. There he met and married Elsie Parsons, Hecht's granddaughter. Rubin served until 1960, when he became assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia.
On March 25, 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. 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.
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. 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 and Mark Peilen. Family membership was still 57 in the early 1980s, but dropped to 43 in 1993, 38 in 2000, and only 26 by 2008. That year the youngest member was 48, and there were no children for the educational programs.
As of 2009[update], the rabbi was Scott Saulson of Atlanta, who came in once a month to provide services. 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. The congregation still held services weekly, but, as was the case during most of its early history, they were lay-led.
- Preisler (2008).
- Gadsden, Alabama, Institute of Southern Jewish Life website.
- Leaders and Contact, Synagogue website (January 11, 2008).
- History, Synagogue website.
- American Jewish Yearbook, Vol. 21, p. 338.
- Webb (2003), pp. 142-143.
- Alabama Historical Association Newsletter, Vol. 25 Iss. 1, p. 13.
- Shinedling (1963), p. 1491.
- Rubin (1983), p. 332.
- Webb (2003), pp. 142-143 and Alabama Historical Association Newsletter, Vol. 25 Iss. 1, p. 13 state that the attack was on March 25, when people were gathered for a Friday evening service. Gadsden, Alabama, Institute of Southern Jewish Life website gives the date as March 26. Friday evening that year was March 25.
- Central Conference of American Rabbis (1984), p. 394.
- Central Conference of American Rabbis (1991), p. 380.
- Webb (2003), p. xi.
- Central Conference of American Rabbis (1991), p. 367.
- Rosen (1983), p. 4.
- Central Conference of American Rabbis (1991), p. 378.
- Speakers Bureau, Darfur Coalition of Georgia website.
- Leaders and Contact, Synagogue website.
- "Alabama Historical Association Newsletter" (PDF). (3.48 MB)], Alabama Historical Association, Alabama Department of Archives and History website, Volume 25, Issue 1, Spring 2010.
- American Jewish Committee. ""Directories"" (PDF). (6.06 MB), American Jewish Year Book, Jewish Publication Society, Volume 21 (1919–1920).
- Central Conference of American Rabbis Ninety-Third Annual Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1984. ISBN 978-0-916694-93-7
- Year book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Volume 96, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1987.
- Central Conference of American Rabbis Annual Convention: One-Hundred-First Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1991. ISBN 978-0-88123-031-4
- Congregation Beth Israel website.
- Speakers Bureau, Darfur Coalition of Georgia website. Accessed August 19, 2009.
- Gadsden, Alabama, Goldring / Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life website. February 13, 2011.
- Preisler, Julian H. Alabama Sample Page, American Synagogues: A Photographic Journey, 2008. Accessed November 12, 2010.
- Rosen, Oded. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Institutions: United States & Canada, Mosadot Publications, 1983.
- Rubin, Saul Jacob. Third to None: The Saga of Savannah Jewry, 1733–1983, S.J. Rubin, 1983.
- Shinedling, Abraham Isaac. West Virginia Jewry: Origins and History, 1850–1958, Volume 3, Press of M. Jacobs, 1963.
- Webb, Clive. Fight Against Fear: Southern Jews and Black Civil Rights, University of Georgia Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-8203-2555-2