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

(page 3 of 3)

The highest point of tension came in 1978, when local blacks began a boycott of white-owned Lexington businesses. According to Berman’s book, a group of Franciscan nuns who supported the boycott marched in front of Jewish businesses with swastikas. Cohen said their intention was to try and intimidate Jewish merchants, but it did not work; many members of the black community chastised the nuns for their actions. Eventually, Cohen met with a local black leader to quell tensions and end the boycott. Cohen said the president of the local chapter of the NAACP supported the Jewish businesses, while a rabbi from Jackson thought Cohen should lend his support to the boycotters.

Rockoff said Southern Jews often felt pressure from Northeastern Jews during the civil rights era. “Southern rabbis were in a very difficult position,” he said. “Often times, their congregants didn’t want them to speak out, and sometimes they did and got a very negative response. Yet they’d go to a national conference and get criticized for not doing more.”

Southern Jews’ mostly evasive position on segregation did not appear to affect their standing among either the black or white communities. Today, non-Jewish residents of these towns are sympathetic to the demise of Jewish communities.

“Basically, the commercial downtown of the small Southern town I grew up in still stands, and originated thanks to enterprising Jewish merchants,” said William Gantt, a white, non-Jewish Demopolis native who had his first summer job at a Jewish-owned retail store downtown.

In Natchez, the Institute of Southern Jewish Life owns the local synagogue, which congregation leaders hope will be made into a museum after the Jewish population is gone. In Selma, there have been talks with the Institute of Southern Jewish Life about taking over the local synagogue, but hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs would have to be spent, and additional money would need to be raised for an endowment fund, according to 70-year-old Selma resident Steve Grossman.

Grossman said there is constant talk of what will happen to the synagogue when the Jewish population is gone from Selma. The youngest member of the congregation today is in his 60s. All members of the congregation, said Grossman, are opposed to any sale or transfer of the property that would lead to it being taken over by a church, which is what occurred in Demopolis, just one hour away. Today, the congregation still draws up to 60 visitors for High Holy Days services. But a majority of them are non-Jews simply curious about Jewish life.

Rockoff foresees a broader loss once the last Jew passes in these towns. “You won’t have non-Jews growing up around Judaism,” he said. “I have found in my travels, people have expressed to me: ‘We really missed them. They were so involved in things. Our community is poorer without them.’ ”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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 do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • 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.
  • 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.