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“We were there at the ground floor,” Victor said. “We were involved in all the things that have happened in Savannah history: the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression.” The synagogue continues to contribute to Savannah: every year, Mickve Israel hosts the Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival in Forsyth Park, which attracts some 15,000 hungry visitors.
Despite the community’s longevity, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing since that ship first docked in Savannah. Although most of the early Jews were Sephardic, many of those who joined later were Ashkenazi. Reverend John Martin Bolzius, a Lutheran pastor, detailed the differences between the two groups — from language spoken to dietary laws observed — in a letter to a friend in Germany.
Although the Jews “enjoy all privileges the same as other colonists,” Bolzius wrote in 1739, “they have no synagogue, which is their own fault; the one element hindering the other in this regard. The German Jews believe themselves entitled to build a synagogue and are willing to allow the Spanish Jews to use it with them in common, the latter, however, reject any such arrangement and demand the preference for themselves.”
It brings to mind the old Jewish joke about the man rescued from a desert island. While giving his saviors a tour of the land, he points out his home and his shul. When his rescuers ask what the third building is, he replies, “That’s the shul I don’t go to.”
Despite these disputes — and, no doubt, many others, if Jewish jokes are anything to go by — the Mickve Israel synagogue has stood in its current place since 1878, making it the third oldest synagogue building still standing in the U.S. Today, its tower rises regally over the flat, tree-lined streets of Savannah, presiding alongside the green spires of its fellow monarch, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
Some 280 years after those few dozen Jews arrived in Savannah, the city boasts several synagogues and day schools that cater to all tastes among its population of 3,800 Jews — about 1% of the city’s total population. Some 350 households make up Mickve Israel’s membership. Kerness estimates that Mickve Israel attracts between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors each year, of whom slightly less than half are not Jewish.
“The Mickve Israel Temple tour was one of the highlights of our long weekend in Savannah!” QuincyKid, from Austin, Texas, wrote on TripAdvisor. “We are Christians and had never been in a Jewish house of worship for any appreciable time. Our outré guide was extraordinarily knowledgeable and patient with our many questions.”
Mickve Israel offers guided tours of its sanctuary, an ornate cream-colored chapel with an organ, majestic stained-glass windows almost a century old, and gothic revival cast iron pillars painted in café au lait marble. “Rumor has it that we bought the building from a bishop,” the tour guide explained, “but we did it all ourselves.” The giveaway is the ark, designed to look like the walls of the old city of Jerusalem.
The synagogue also houses a museum, which contains a 15th-century deerskin Torah scroll that is believed to be the oldest Torah scroll in the U.S. The congregation reads from this Torah each year on its anniversary, on July 11. As well as other historical Judaic artifacts, such as a haggadah dating to 1784 Amsterdam, the museum displays letters from about a dozen U.S. presidents. Upon his presidential appointment, George Washington addressed a letter “To the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Savannah, Georgia.”
“May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and make the inhabitants of every denomination partake in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people, whose God is Jehova,” President Washington wrote.
For a suggested donation of $6, visitors can see these items on a guided tour, which runs twice daily from Monday to Friday. The synagogue is closed for business, as it were, on Shabbat and Jewish festivals, but as Kerness said, “That doesn’t mean tourists don’t try and sneak in.”
They might not get an official tour of the premises, but tourists who show up on Shabbat might at least get a good show. “Our rabbi is a riot,” synagogue member and docent Gail Kaplan said of Rabbi Robert Haas. And if that doesn’t do the trick, there’s the kiddush.
“If they come on a Saturday at 11, [the service] is always followed by a full lunch. We invite everybody who’s there,” said Kerness. “We’re a very hospitable, haimishe place — that’s our trademark.”
Lauren Davidson is a frequent contributor to the Forward.