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.
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In 1989, the local Episcopal Church in Demopolis took over Temple B’nai Jeshurun, and eventually donated its remnants to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, in Jackson. Rosenbush said the building is now a food bank. He drives 60 miles to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to attend services on the High Holy Days.

The first Jewish resident arrived in Demopolis in 1844. At its peak, in 1927, the western Alabama town had about 150 Jewish residents. The town has a Holocaust memorial and was an inspiration for the setting of “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman, whose mother came from there but later moved to New Orleans, where Hellman was raised. Rosenbush’s family owned the oldest furniture store in Alabama for 108 years, until it closed in 2002.

Phil Cohen
Andrew Muchin
Phil Cohen

“It makes me sad, but it’s just the way the good Lord happened to do,” Rosenbush said of the shrinkage of Demopolis’s Jewish population to just him. “I just don’t know what else I could do.”

Unlike Rosenbush, Cohen is still able to attend occasional services at Lexington’s Temple Beth El. The Lexington Foundation, a local not-for-profit organization, maintains the building and allows past and current Jewish residents to hold meetings, funerals or other religious services at any time.

“It means a lot,” Cohen said.

In Lexington, the first Jewish resident arrived shortly after the central Mississippi town was incorporated in 1836. Cohen’s family has lived in town since 1900.

Cohen said he doesn’t feel lonely, as his friends have always transcended race and religion. “I grew up here. I was born and raised here,” he said. “I know everyone in the community, and it’s been that way most of my life.”

Though both blacks and whites often accepted these Southern Jews, the Jews had to carefully negotiate their position during times of unrest. Former Lexington resident Robert Berman, author of the 2009 book “A House of David in the Land of Jesus,” said that in their own stores, many Jewish business owners employed black workers and served blacks as customers equally with whites. But when it came to larger segregation issues, local Jewish residents felt it was best to stay neutral.

“They did not strive to preserve segregation, nor did they speak out about it,” said Berman, whose book examines the relationships between Jews and other faiths and races in Lexington. Berman’s great-great-grandfather, Jacob Sontheimer, was Lexington’s first Jewish settler.


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