Columbus, Georgia Downtown Churches: B'nai Israel (Part 6 of 6)
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Sources: Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr., Historic Columbus Foundation Archive, Columbus on the Chattahoochee by Etta Blanchard Worsley, The Breman Museum collection, 100 People to Remember by the Columbus Ledger - Enquirer, and Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities - Columbus, Georgia.
Located on the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee River, Columbus was created by the Georgia legislature in 1828 as a trading post right across the border of Alabama. Initially, Columbus thrived as a cotton trading town, but soon became an industrial center as a growing number of textile mills and sawmills harnessed the power of the river. According to some reports, Jews lived in the Columbus area as traders even before the town was officially founded in 1828, laying the groundwork for a Jewish community that endures today. As Columbus’ industrial economy blossomed, growing numbers of Jews were attracted to the west Georgia town. By 1859, there were twenty Jewish families in Columbus, most of whom were involved in retail trade. Of approximately 37 Jews listed in the 1859 Columbus City Directory, 17 were dry goods merchants and three were clothing merchants. Another seven were store clerks. Five were skilled craftsmen, including four tinners and one shoemaker. This growing number of Jews banded together in 1854, forming the congregation B’nai Israel. This congregation became the second oldest in Georgia. Many of these founding members were German immigrants. A parcel of land given to the congregation by the city for the construction of a Temple on Chapel Street but was never used. They initially gathered in members’ homes, and later met in a building on the northeast corner of 10th Street and 5th Avenue. The group also used this rented space for a school, which taught the members’ children about Judaism, as well as Hebrew and German. In 1859, B’nai Israel purchased a house on 10th Street and 4th Avenue, which they converted into a synagogue. The women of the congregation raised the money to furnish the new building and sewed the curtains themselves.
Above is a blown-up portion of an historic postcard - you can see a part of the house purchased in 1859 (behind the brick structure) that the Columbus Jewish community converted into a synagogue prior to construction of the new Temple B'nai Israel.
For the next few decades, B’nai Israel rarely had rabbinic leadership. The congregation was still orthodox in its worship practices and its members still observed Rosh Hashanah for the traditional two days in 1866. Eventually, B’nai Israel embraced Reform Judaism, becoming a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1875. The congregation cut back observance of Jewish holidays to one day and incorporated more English into the service. The congregation of 36 members was desperate to hire someone who could speak German and English, lead services, and teach Hebrew to the congregation’s children. In 1886, they hired Rabbi Louis Weiss, who stayed in Columbus only two years. By 1891, they had a co-ed choir and an organ. In addition to B’nai Israel, Columbus Jews began to establish other Jewish organizations in the years after the Civil War. In 1866, they established a local chapter of the Jewish fraternal society B’nai B’rith. In 1870, Columbus Jews founded a Jewish social organization called Columbus Concordia. Later known as the Harmony Club, the organization was created to alleviate the “monotonous evenings and Sundays in this city,” according to its minutes. The group soon rented a room and purchased twelve decks of playing cards, two sets of dominoes, one checkerboard, and five boxes of cigars. A purely social organization, the Harmony Club (pictured below) remained active for over a century. In 1874, Jewish women in Columbus founded the Daughters of Israel to provide charity and assistance to those in need. The group later changed its name to the Jewish Ladies Aid Society.
By 1925, 416 Twelfth Street (southwest corner of Twelfth Street and 5th Avenue) had become the Harmony Club and served in that capacity until 1954. The building was later demolished and is now the site of the 416 Office Building. It was originally the William Beach house.
In 1885, the Daughters of Israel passed a resolution calling on B’nai Israel to build a proper synagogue for the congregation, which had outgrown the house they had been using as a meeting place. Finally, in November of 1886, they broke ground on a new synagogue after moving the house to the lot next door. When the Byzantine-style synagogue was dedicated in September of 1887, the local newspaper called it “one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. It would be an ornament to a city thrice the size of Columbus.” The dedication drew a large crowd, with many non-Jews and Christian ministers in the audience. Rabbi S. Hecht from Montgomery gave the keynote address during the three-hour dedication service. Later that night, the congregation held a banquet at which Columbus’ Mayor was an honored guest. B’nai Israel’s president thanked the non-Jews of Columbus for helping in the effort to build the synagogue, calling it a “monument” to their “liberal sentiment, culture, generosity, and good feeling.”
The Jews who celebrated the dedication of B’nai Israel’s new temple were quite different from the ones who had formed the congregation 33 years earlier. Of the 20 Jewish families who had organized B’nai Israel, virtually none remained in Columbus in the years after the Civil War. These early Jewish settlers had been replaced by a new wave of German Jewish immigrants.
Despite the growth in Columbus’ Jewish population, B’nai Israel soon found itself in financial trouble along with much of the rest of the country in the 1890s. They were having a hard time paying the mortgage on their new synagogue. In response, the Jewish Ladies Aid Society wrote to the widow of the great French Jewish philanthropist Baron DeHirsch to ask for financial help. The Baroness DeHirsch responded to this plea, sending almost $2,000 to the congregation, which was enough to pay off the remaining debt on the synagogue. The congregation installed a memorial window in honor of the Baron and his wife and began to read the DeHirsch’s names during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.
The Ladies Aid Society of B’nai Israel had other creative methods of raising money for the congregation. In 1886, as B’nai Israel was working to raise the funds for a new synagogue, the Ladies Aid Society held a week-long Jewish Fair, at which they sold food and various merchandise. The 1886 Jewish Fair was very successful, and the Ladies Aid Society was able to make a substantial donation to B’nai Israel’s building fund. Over the years, as the need arose, the Ladies Aid Society would hold additional fairs. In 1903, the fair helped to raise money to refurbish the temple’s vestry rooms. The temple suffered a fire in 1907, which destroyed much of its interior. In 1908, the Ladies Aid Society held an elaborate bazaar that sold furniture, dry goods, jewelry, cut glass, and candy, in addition to running a restaurant and Japanese tea garden in the store. They raised over $1,500 from the bazaar. Other bazaars were held in 1910 and 1916.
By the 1890s, increasing numbers of Jews from Eastern Europe began to settle in Columbus. These Jewish immigrants did not feel comfortable in the Reform temple of B’nai Israel and, in 1892, fifteen of them organized their own Orthodox congregation, Chevra Sharis Israel. They first met on the second floor of a downtown building and later in the local Odd Fellows Hall. The small congregation did not have a rabbi in its early years.
In 1915, a group of members each paid $100 to buy land at the corner of 1st Avenue and 7th Street for a permanent synagogue for the congregation. Of the eleven men who pitched in to buy the land, ten were Russian-born immigrants. Nine had come to the United States after 1897. The 40 members of Chevra Sharis Israel dedicated their congregation’s first synagogue in September of 1915. With a stucco exterior, the building could seat 50 people, including a balcony designed for the women of the congregation. They were able to get an ark from the small Jewish community of Eufaula, Alabama, who did not have a synagogue. Most members of the congregation lived in the area around the new synagogue.
If Sharis Israel became the home of Columbus’s Russian Jewish immigrants, B’nai Israel remained the center of the city’s native-born and German Jews. Of eleven members of the 1904 confirmation class, nine were born in Georgia. Of their parents, 36% were native born, while 55% were born in Germany. Most of these immigrant parents had been in the United States for a long time by 1904. The congregation grew as well, from 48 members in 1905 to 85 in 1925. A big reason for this growth was Rabbi Frank Rosenthal who came to Columbus from Baton Rouge in 1907. Rosenthal led the effort to rebuild the synagogue after it was damaged by a fire at the end of 1907. He became very involved with local civic organizations, becoming a charter member of the Kiwanis Club and an active member of the Masons and the Woodmen of the World. Rabbi Rosenthal was also a leader of the local B’nai B’rith and helped to push for the construction of the B’nai B’rith Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Rosenthal served as the spiritual leader of B’nai Israel for 33 years. During this time, the Jewish population of Columbus grew from 300 Jews in the late 19th century to 735 in 1937. Manufacturing businesses thrived during wartime as the world wars helped to transform the city of Columbus. In 1918, the US War Department created Camp Benning just outside of Columbus to provide basic training for new soldiers. Made permanent in 1922, Fort Benning eventually grew into one of the largest military bases in the country. Rabbi Rosenthal led services for soldiers at Fort Benning and served as president of the Jewish Welfare Board during the Great War. Many Columbus Jews hosted Jewish soldiers in their homes during the war. Local Jews would provide various entertainment programs for the soldiers, including parties at the Harmony Club. When large numbers of Jewish soldiers were stationed at Fort Benning in World War II, Columbus Jews responded with hospitality once again. The local Junior Hadassah Chapter hosted Friday night receptions each week at Fort Benning, while the Harmony Club hosted mid-week dances for the soldiers. The Columbus chapter of Hadassah had been organized twice in the 1930's but was dissolved both times. In the fall of 1944 two young women, newcomers to the community, began discussing the possibility of organizing Hadassah, which was involved in the plight of European Jews. A chapter was formed in 1945 with 40 women signing up. Hadassah sold more war bonds than any other organization in the community. By the 1960's, particularly after the 1967 war, Hadassah leadership was held by young women who brought new ideas and fresh enthusiasm and increased the membership. This brought in many women of the reform congregation who had not been willing to join in previous years. Columbus Jews became more united in spirit and fellowship.
The Jewish Ladies Aid Society of Temple Israel observed its seventy-fifth anniversary on November 16, 1949, at the Harmony Club. Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild of the Temple in Atlanta made an address in which “he held up the life, ideals, and accomplishments of the Society as an example of the Jewish way of life.” The work of its twenty-five-year-old Milk Fund (pictured above at North Highland School) which supplied milk to the underprivileged children of the Columbus schools, was also a remarkable example of the splendid cooperation maintained with other churches and organizations in supplying the funds and carrying on the dispensation. Rabbi Goodman called them "an arm of the Temple." Among other projects they have been involved with are the Blind Fund and the Educational Fund. Their works have known neither race, creed, nor color. Both of Columbus’ congregations thrived in the years after World War II. By the 1940s, Sharis Israel, soon to be renamed Shearith Israel Synagogue, had 100 members and a full-time rabbi and shochet. After the congregation’s post-war growth spurt, they had outgrown their building. The religious school couldn’t fit into the available classrooms, and classes started to meet in different corners of the sanctuary. Finally, Shearith Israel, now numbering 124 member households, raised money for a new $150,000 building on Wynnton Road. The new sanctuary could seat 300 people; the synagogue also included a smaller chapel, a social room, a kitchen, and six classrooms. When Shearith Israel dedicated their new synagogue in February of 1951, Columbus Mayor B.F. Register cut the ribbon and Rabbi Alfred Goodman of B’nai Israel gave the opening prayer. Rabbi Jacob Agus of Baltimore gave the keynote address in a ceremony that included the singing of both “America” and “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.
The Breman Museum: Interfaith Tea at the opening of Temple Israel. Left to right: Peggy Hecht, Janet Ann Cohn, Florette Rothschild, and Raye Kiralfy
B’nai Israel, now known as Temple Israel, also thrived in the years after World War II. In 1940, 80 families belonged to the Reform congregation; this figure grew to 119 in 1962 and peaked at 182 in 1982. Like Shearith Israel, Temple Israel outgrew its building. Just as they had done in 1885, the women of the congregation led the way: in 1952, the Jewish Ladies Aid Society passed a resolution labeling their current temple inadequate and calling for the construction of a new synagogue. On January 28, 1955, Temple Israel celebrated a double "Simcha;" its 100th anniversary and the 10th anniversary of the ordination of its Rabbi, with many honored guests attending. In March of 1956, under the leadership of President Albert M. Wise, the membership approved purchase of the Wildwood Avenue site and the sale of the downtown building. Ground was broken for the new Sanctuary in March 1957 and dedicated in March 1958. When they dedicated the building the following year, they led a procession with the Torahs from the old temple to the new one. Rabbi William Silverman from Nashville’s Ohabai Sholom congregation was the keynote speaker during the dedication which drew 350 people. This move to their new home took place during the long tenure of Rabbi Alfred Goodman, who led Temple Israel from 1950 to 1983. The stately old building downtown was sold and demolished in 1958 when the congregation moved into the new Temple on Wildwood Avenue.
For 33 years, Rabbi Alfred Goodman stood on the fence between reality and the ideal. He stood a tall 5-foot-4, speaking out for human rights, asking his congregation and the community how much of the religion they professed they were willing to practice. His sermons and his life talked of love, justice, and kindness. When he wasn't in the pulpit, he was active throughout the city, serving in numerous clerical and civic positions. In an era when civil rights demonstrations were growing violent and the Vietnam War was raging, Goodman said "Man without faith reverts to the law of the fang."
Temple Israel on Wildwood Avenue
While Shearith Israel and Temple Israel remain separate viable congregations, they have also often worked together for the betterment of local Jews and the larger community under the Columbus Jewish Welfare Federation. In 1939, they worked to bring in Jewish refugees from Germany. During Israel’s 1967 War, the Federation conducted an emergency fund drive which raised $110,000 for the Jewish state. When Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur in 1973, the Columbus Jewish Welfare Federation raised $170,000 for the Israeli war effort. In the 1960s, Shearith Israel started a nursery school for the children of the congregation. Later, the school became a Jewish community nursery school under the auspices of the Jewish Welfare Federation. The school closed in 1989. Both congregations also joined the Wynnton Neighborhood Network, an association of six area churches that worked to help the needy. In 1984, Temple Israel established a food bank with St. Thomas Episcopal Church. After a year at Temple Israel, the project moved to the church, which had more room. In 1977, the two Jewish congregations merged their 8th, 9th, and 10th grade religious school classes. Rabbi Goodman of Temple Israel and Rabbi Feldman of Shearith Israel worked together to teach these classes along with members of both congregations. In the early 1990s, both religious schools were shrinking, and they decided to merge them completely. Initially, this merger was a great success, as the total enrollment in the school increased. The schools split apart in 2004, as both congregations began to suffer declining membership. In 2008, there were 45 children in Temple Israel's Sunday School, while Shearith Israel did not have a religious school. In 2013 Shearith Israel found a new home on River Road. Under the leadership of Rabbi Brian Glusman and a very enthusiastic membership, Shearith Israel is now growing once again.
While Columbus has long been overshadowed by Atlanta, it remains a historic and active center of Jewish life in Georgia. Temple Israel has continuously functioned as a reform congregation with religious, educational and community outreach programs. The Temple’s 150th anniversary was celebrated in 2004.
Rabbi Beth Schwartz was named Rabbi of Temple Israel in 2012. She retired in July 2021 and is now their Rabbi Emerita. Rabbi Shmuel Polin became Rabbi of Temple Israel this past summer. Temple Israel is the second oldest congregation in Georgia, a Charter Member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism, and they continue to be pioneers in Reform Judaism. "We work together to build a strong and vibrant Jewish community through helping others a mitzvot at a time. When not helping the community grow and thrive, we celebrate life and come together to enjoy times and company together."
Next Week: The exciting projects of the three finalists (Fourth Street Towers, The Wynn House, and the NIM's WWII Company Street) for HCF's Public Participation Grant. Your vote is so important to help one of these organizations win $100,000!!! You can go see the projects yourself too! The Open House for the NIM's WWII Company Street is Sunday, October 10th 1:00 - 3:00 PM. The Open House for the Wynn House is Tuesday, October 12th 4:00 - 6:00 PM. The Open House for 4th Street Towers hasn't been announced yet. Voting will be on Historic Columbus' website - www.historiccolumbus.com - from Monday, October 11th until Friday, October 15th! The winner will be announced on Tuesday, October 26th at 11:30 AM live on HCF's Facebook page. If you aren't already a member, we hope you will join us! I also want to encourage you to follow Historic Columbus on Facebook and Instagram for more posts on our community's history. Thank you all for your continued support of Historic Columbus! Elizabeth B. Walden Executive Director