If you were asked to guess the top tourist destination in each state, you might go with the Bellagio Fountains in Las Vegas, the “Bean” monument in Chicago, or Central Park in New York City. Your local synagogue might not immediately spring to mind.
Unless you live in Savannah, Georgia, that is. The reform congregation Mickve Israel has been named the most popular travel attraction in its state, up there with the world-famous attractions mentioned above, according to TripAdvisor’s popularity index.
“We find that very hard to believe — but we’ll take it!” said Phoebe Kerness, a longtime member of Mickve Israel and co-chair of its museum committee.
Savannah might be better known for the Georgia State Railroad, the U.S.’s oldest antebellum railroad facility still in existence; Chippewa Square, where Forrest Gump sat on a bus stop bench and shared his life story; or the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, a striking piece of architecture built in the 1870s. But the Jewish community in Savannah has 150 years even on that.
“We’re probably one of the most surprising locations in the state of Georgia,” Herbert Victor, co-chair of Mickve Israel’s museum committee, told the Forward. “People who are not from the South — from the north of the Mason-Dixon line — are shocked to hear that there are Jews in Georgia at all, other than maybe Atlanta.”
That discovery is one of the reasons that so many tourists are attracted to the Mickve Israel synagogue: Their interest is piqued by the novel idea of a community of Jews living in the Deep South. (Stumbling across a synagogue in New York’s Upper West Side might be less of a revelation.) There’s another reason Mickve Israel keeps bringing in visitors: It’s a well-oiled tourism machine, replete with guided tours, a museum and knowledgeable docents, whom reviewers on TripAdvisor shower with praise.
But the Mickve Israel synagogue is much more than a curious congregation or remarkable museum — it’s emblematic of the very story of American Jewry and a testament to almost three centuries of U.S. history.
“The story of the Jews and the part they played in the settling of the South and even Monticello is very interesting,” Robyn B, a TripAdvisor user from Denver, Colorado, wrote on the review site. “An unlikely story [is] brought to light here.”
The first Jews arrived in Savannah on July 11, 1733, five months after General James Oglethorpe, the British colonialist and social reformer, established the colony of Georgia. The second ship that arrived in Georgia from England, called the William and Sarah, carried 42 Jews — although one Jew did not survive the journey — including eight German Ashkenazim and 34 Spanish Portuguese Jews from London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the U.K. This was the largest Jewish group to arrive in the colonies by that time and the first to land in the South.
After two years, during which they probably held private services in their homes, the Jews of Savannah agreed to open a synagogue called Kahal Kodesh Mickva Israel, or the Holy Congregation Hope of Israel. Dedicated in 1735, was the third congregation to be established in America, following New York City’s Shearith Israel in 1654 and Jeshuat Israel in Newport, Rhode Island, a few years later.
Jews in early Savannah had a unique experience. Some other colonies did not grant Jews equal rights; in Connecticut, for example, Jews were banned from public worship until 1843, and the last state to lift its ban on non-Protestant state officials (New Hampshire) did not do so until 1877. But “thanks to Oglethorpe,” Kerness said, “Savannah is one of the only Jewish settlements that received immediate equal rights, [such as] land grants and voting rights — and they had freedom of religion.”
“From the very beginning, we were part of the conversation,” Kerness said. “It’s not like we’re another community that has worked its way in — we continue to be part of the growth and development of the [city’s] economic, religious and political [landscape].”
Georgia’s Jews helped to found Solomon’s Lodge, the oldest operating Masonic lodge in the U.S. America’s oldest orphanage still in existence, Bethesda Home for Boys — now a residential education program called Bethesda Academy — is funded by the Union Society, which was co-founded by Benjamin Sheftall, an Ashkenazi Jew who arrived in Savannah on the William and Sarah and whose descendants still belong to the city’s Jewish congregation.
Mickve Israel also helped support the Girl Scouts, an organization that now boasts millions of members across the world, which was founded in Savannah in 1912. Three of the first Girl Scout leaders were from Savannah’s Jewish community, as were many of the girls who made up the early troops.
Mickve Israel also gave Savannah a mayor, Herman Myers, at the turn of the 19th century, and Mordecai Sheftall — son of the aforementioned Benjamin Sheftall — became the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the American Revolutionary forces during the Revolutionary War. Dr Samuel Nunez, who arrived on the William and Sarah in 1733, became Georgia’s first practicing physician.