Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast

A Way of Life Is Disappearing in Dixie

Last Man: Bert Rosenbush Jr. is a local celebrity of sorts. He’s the only Jew left in the small Alabama town of Demopolis.
courtesy of goldring/woldenberg institute of southern life
Last Man: Bert Rosenbush Jr. is a local celebrity of sorts. He’s the only Jew left in the small Alabama town of Demopolis.

By Seth Berkman

Published April 28, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Bert Rosenbush Jr. enjoys a bittersweet form of celebrity in his hometown of Demopolis, Ala.: He’s the last living Jew there.

It’s a form of prominence he shares with Phil Cohen of Lexington, Miss. In Natchez, Miss., Jerold Krause is one of just a dozen Jews left. And Selma, Ala., a town that was central to the civil rights movement, is down to its last dozen, too.

It’s a paradox, in a way. Because, as Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Life, in Jackson, Miss., observed, “More Jews live in the South today than ever before.” But today those Jews are almost all living in the region’s cities. “Smaller communities,” Rockoff said, “have really undergone a significant decline.”

From the early 19th century, Jews built synagogues alongside the cotton fields and plantation houses of the Deep South. Today, the vibrant communities they built are dwindling down to their final members. Yet even now, many of these Jews bask in a certain aura of accumulated high regard, built over generations, thanks to forbears who filled a niche as successful local businessmen, which they themselves continue to fill today.

courtesy of goldring/woldenberg institute of southern life

In Demopolis, for example, 83-year-old Rosenbush lives on Bert Rosenbush Road, a country road outside the city center, next to a small lake. It’s named after Rosenbush Jr.’s father, who owned the family furniture store and worked part time as a funeral embalmer. According to 2010 U.S. census figures, the town’s 7,000-plus population is about 50% black.

In Lexington, where the first Jewish resident arrived in the late 1830s, Cohen, who is 75, still runs Cohen’s Department Store, on Court Square in the town center, its red-brick front still proudly displaying the family name in large letters for all to see. His grandfather founded the store, which opened in 1900. The town, with a population of 1,731 in 2010, has a historically large black majority and is the seat of a historically black majority county. Its population today is 1,731, almost 80% of which is African American.

During the early 1900s, Jews owned a variety of businesses in Lexington, including tailors, groceries and factories that provided goods not just for the town, but also throughout the state.

By the mid-1900s, throughout the region, a majority of the younger generation of Southern Jews began attending colleges outside the area or moving to larger cities. They left family-owned businesses behind. Congregation members began to dwindle, leaving synagogues that were infrequently used and often costly to maintain.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.