Beth Israel Congregation (Jackson, Mississippi)

Beth Israel Congregation (Jackson, Mississippi)

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building_name =Beth Israel
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location =5315 Old Canton Road, Jackson, Mississippi, flag|United States
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religious_affiliation =Reform Judaism
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leadership =Rabbi: Valerie Cohen
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Beth Israel Congregation is a Reform synagogue located at 5315 Old Canton Road in Jackson, Mississippi. Organized in 1860Goldring/Woldenberg (2008).] by Jews of German background, it has always been, and remains, the only synagogue in Jackson, [ History] , Synagogue website. Accessed July 18, 2008.] [ Synagogue website] . Accessed July 18, 2008.] with a membership of approximately 200 families. Beth Israel built the first synagogue in Mississippi, and at one time its building was the oldest in Jackson.

Dr. Perry Nussbaum, Beth Israel's rabbi from 1954 to 1973, was active in the Civil rights movement, and both the synagogue building and his house were bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1967.

As of|2006, the congregation was led by Valerie Cohen, Beth Israel's first female rabbi, and had a growing membership of 200 families.

Early years

The congregation was originally established in 1860 by Jews of German background, primarily for the purpose of creating a Jewish cemetery, which it immediately did, on State Street. Once established, the congregation's next goal was provide a Jewish education for the congregation's children.

In 1867 the congregation constructed its first building, a wood frame structure at the corner of South State and South streets, the first synagogue in Mississippi. Beth Israel hired its first Rabbi, the Reverend L. Winter, in 1870, but he left soon afterwards.

Beth Israel's building burned down in 1874, and was replaced by a stone and brick building at the same location. Originally Orthodox, the congregation experienced tensions between Orthodox and Reform members, and in 1875 Beth Israel joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The congregation grew very slowly; by 1908 there were still only 37 members, and 16 children in the religious school.

The congregation built a new building on Woodrow Wilson Drive in 1940, moved into it in 1941, and dedicated it in January 1942. At the time of the move, Beth Israel's old building at South State and South was the oldest building in Jackson.

In its first few decades Beth Israel went through a number of rabbis, whose tenures were all short-lived, and endured many periods without any rabbi at all. In 1929 the congregation hired Meyer Lovitt as rabbi, and with him achieved a measure of stability; Lovitt would remain with Beth Israel until 1954. [Evans (2005), p. 95.]

Perry Nussbaum

In 1954 Lovitt was replaced by Dr. Perry Nussbaum, who had been born and raised in Toronto. Nussbaum found the membership highly assimilated, and slowly re-introduced Jewish rituals such as bar mitzvahs to the congregation's practice.American Jewish Archives (2008).] In 1955 he organized the Mississippi Assembly of Jewish Congregations, which had representatives from all twenty-five of Mississippi's synagogues, and was elected its president.Zola (1997), p. 241.]

Following the Bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in 1958, Nussbaum wrote an article in Beth Israel's bulletin titled "It Can Happen Here", in which he expressed the view that such a bombing was quite possible in Jackson. A copy of the article was reprinted in Jackson's secular press, and raised considerable opposition amongst Jackson's leadership. This in turn led to Nussbaum's first battle with his congregation; at the next board meeting it was proposed that Nussbaum be required to clear all public statements with the board before making them. The rabbi's supporters were able to defeat the resolution, but the attempt shook Nussbaum, though he did not end his activism.Zola (1997), p. 246.] In 1961 Nussbaum provided considerable support to the early Freedom riders imprisoned in Mississippi jails,Zola (1997), p. 249.] and in 1966 Nussbaum began sponsoring annual "Clergy Institutes" at Beth Israel, to which he invited local black ministers.


As tensions in the South heightened over the Civil rights movement, the Jews of Jackson came under threat, being targeted by both the Ku Klux Klan and the Americans for the Preservation of the White Race (APWR). The latter set up a booth at Jackson's state fair selling antisemitic literature, and Sam Holloway Bowers Jr., the KKK's Imperial Wizard in Mississippi, ordered attacks on both the synagogue and Nussbaum.Sparks (2001), p. 239.]

The congregation moved to Old Canton Road (its current location) in 1967; at the dedication in March of that year,Zola (1997), p. 253.] both black and white ministers participated. On September 18, 1967 the new building was wrecked by a dynamite bomb placed by Klan members in a recessed doorway, and in November of that year the same group planted a bomb that blew out the front of Nussbaum's house, while he and his wife were sleeping there.Chalmers (2003), p. 82.] Nussbaum blamed the bombings on local antisemitism and bigotry, but most of his congregation blamed it on Nussbaum's anti-segregationist activism.Zola (1997), p. 231.] In the wake of the bombings, Nussbaum wanted to leave Jackson, but as a 60-year-old rabbi was unable to find another posting. He stayed at Beth Israel till his retirement in 1973, when he and his wife moved to San Diego.Zola (1997), p. 256.]

21st century

In 2003, Beth Israel hired its current rabbi, Valerie Cohen, Beth Israel's first female rabbi. As of|2006 Beth Israel had a membership of approximately 200 families which, in contrast with other Mississippi congregations, is slowly growing. It remains the first, and only, synagogue in Jackson.



* [ Synagogue website] . Accessed July 18, 2008.
* [ History] , Synagogue website. Accessed August 5, 2008.
* [ History of Beth Israel, Jackson, Mississippi] , Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life website, History Department, Digital Archive, Mississippi, Jackson, Beth Israel. Accessed August 5, 2008.
* [ An Inventory to the Perry E. Nussbaum Papers, 1947-1972] , Manuscript Collection No. 430, American Jewish Archives. Accessed August 5, 2008.
*Chalmers, David Mark. "Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement", Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. ISBN 0742523101
*Evans, Eli N. & Morris, Willie. "The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South", University of North Carolina Press, 2005. ISBN 0807856231
*Sparks, Randy J. "Religion in Mississippi", University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1578063612
*Zola, Gary Phillip. "What Price Amos? Perry Nussbaum's Career in Jackson, Mississippi", in Bauman, Mark K. & Kalin, Berkley. "The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s", University of Alabama Press, 1997. ISBN 081730892X

Further reading

*Cohen, Edward. "The Peddler's Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi", University Press of Mississippi, 1999. ISBN 1578061679

External link

* [ 40th Anniversary of Beth Israel Bombing] , WLBT, September 18, 2007.

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