Monday, July 28, 2008

The Jews of Natchez

Temple B'nai Israel, 213 South Commerce Street

It is obvious to one who examines the history of Natchez that the importance of the Jewish community was notable. Jewish merchants were among the most important that established Natchez as a major center of trade, beginning in the late 18th Century. Several decades later in 1843, many of the wealthy Jewish families of Natchez banded together and founded the first permanent Jewish house of worship in Mississippi, Temple B'nai Israel (Children of Israel). Just after the Civil War ended, the congregation purchased a plot of land in downtown Natchez at South Commerce and Washington Streets. Quickly affiliated as a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations that led the Reform movement, Temple B'nai Israel continued to serve the needs of the Jewish community there until a fire destroyed the building in 1903. As a testament to the commitment on the part of the Jews to reestablish their presence in Natchez in short order, a new structure was hurriedly erected just two years later in 1905 paid for by funds raised in both the Jewish and Christian communities. But the lasting spirit of the Jews of Natchez failed to consider the possibility that their community might one day leave their city perched high on the banks of the Mississippi River. Events in 1908 set a trend that has, unfortunately, continued to this day. After the ubiquitous cotton crop so essential to Natchezians was hit hard by the boll weevil and the Mississippi River overflowed its banks, flooding the downtown area, Jewish merchants and their families began to flee for the safety of other cities. In less than 25 years only one third of its former 450 Jewish families remained. The once large, burgeoning Jewish community in Natchez is down to as few as 10 families. As it turns out, religious services are held just twice a month on alternating Sabbaths with the help of a traveling rabbi. On several occasions the synagogue was in peril of losing its status as one of the founding members of the UAHC (now the Union for Reform Judaism) due to its inability to pay dues. In recent years the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has taken over the physical plant and installed an exhibit on the Jews of Natchez. The museum plans to operate it as a satellite facility once it is no longer utilized for regular worship services. In this way the historic temple will continue to serve as a source of information and a font of historical research for those who are interested in the glorious past of a community that has all but disappeared. For more details on Temple B'nai Israel, check out the digital archive from the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life: Digital Archive

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