Experiencing A Rich History

Published 6:24 pm Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Although small in number, Jews have had a significant impact oncommunities around the South, including Brookhaven, a Jewishhistory professor said Tuesday during a Lincoln County Historicaland Genealogical Society gathering.

Speaking to a receptive audience of more than 50 at the JimmyFurlow Senior Citizen Center, Dr. Stuart Rockoff offered a historyof Jewish settlement in Mississippi, their adaptation to theircommunities and their contributions to Southern society. He saidJews have become an integral part of the social and economic fabricof their communities.

Rockoff, director of the history department at theGoldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) andthe Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, said the first Jewishsettlements in Mississippi were in Natchez and Vicksburg, tradingtowns along the river. He added it took time for settlements todevelop because there was a lot of population turnover due tomovement of Jewish traders and merchants.

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By the 1850s, a small number of Jews had settled in LincolnCounty near the Bogue Chitto River. Rockoff indicated the railroadwas instrumental in attracting Jews and others to the area.

“The history of many cities is keyed to the arrival of therailroad,” Rockoff said.

Jews found a “remarkable welcome” in Brookhaven, Rockoff said.Mentioning Milton Whitworth’s leadership, Rockoff said Brookhavenbecame home to a number of aspiring Jewish merchants.

Coming mainly from Germany and Russia, most Jews settledelsewhere in the United States and about 15 percent settled in theSouth, Rockoff said. A smaller percentage came to Mississippi andan even smaller total wound up in Brookhaven.

“That small number of Jews has had a profound impact,” Rockoffsaid.

By the 1890s, Jewish families, numbering 18 at the time, wereliving in Brookhaven and worshiping in private homes. Rockoffmentioned the efforts of the “Ladies Hebrew Society” in religiousactivities.

“Despite their small number, they were committed to building ahouse of worship,” Rockoff said.

In 1896, the cornerstone was laid for Temple B’nai Shalom, onthe corner of South Church and West Chickasaw streets.

Rockoff discussed the significance of the arrival of thetemple’s two Torahs, including one that came from Czechoslovakiafollowing World War II. Many Torahs from that era were distributedto temples around the world, including many in the U.S., Rockoffsaid.

“It was symbolic of the survival of the Jews even after theHolocaust tragedy,” Rockoff said.

Rockoff said the Jewish community in Brookhaven never exceeded100 people and the temple never had a full-time rabbi. In the early1900s, there were 75 Jews in Brookhaven, which had an overallpopulation of around 7,000.

The local temple was part of a reform Judaism movement that wasnot orthodox and less focused on the old rules of worship. As such,Rockoff mentioned services that were held in English; changes thatallowed work on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath; and even theadoption of some Christian practices like confirmation.

“This kind of reform Judaism better fit in Mississippi,” Rockoffsaid.

One example Rockoff cited of the Jewish-Christian interactionwas former Mayor Harold Samuels’ longtime involvement in organizingthe city’s annual Christmas parade. Samuels, one of three Jewishmayors in Brookhaven’s history, was honored as the parade’s grandmarshal a couple of years ago.

Rockoff mentioned a number of Jewish retail merchants, includingAbrams Mercantile and its slogan, “If you can’t find it here, gohome.”

“Jews were welcome in Brookhaven and worked to improve thelarger community,” Rockoff said.

Eventually, Jews across Mississippi moved to larger cities andout of the merchant class. Rockoff cited state Jewish populationtotals of around 6,400 in 1927, 4,000 in 1960 and 2,400 today.

In Brookhaven, the Temple B’nai Shalom was used for services formore than a century. It was deconsecrated as a temple last year andturned over to the historical society for use as a historymuseum.

Society President Rita Rich said members hope to have the museumopen by December. Currently, members are collecting artifacts andsetting up cases for their eventual display.

“That’s going to be very time-consuming,” said Rich about museumpreparations in the coming months.