Jews in the Delta: Congregation Beth El celebrates its 100th anniversary weekend in 2005. The congregation, established in 1905, closed in 2009.

How a Small Mississippi Town Helped Build Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism, America’s largest denominational stream, boasts some 900 congregations in America, including some with thousands of member families.

So what possessed Rabbi David Ellenson, the renowned scholar and then-president of Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, to travel to tiny Temple Beth El, in Lexington, Mississippi, — population 2,000 — for that 12-member congregation’s 2005 centennial celebration?

Ellenson himself noted that colleagues had raised eyebrows when he told them where he would be spending that weekend. But the Reform leader had no hesitation in explaining why: It was two brothers from this overwhelmingly African-American town whose combined gifts to HUC-JIR constituted the largest donation his school had ever received up to that time.

Beth El was established in 1905 by the town’s small community of Jewish merchants. Their communal forbears first came to Lexington in the mid-19th century, when it was a bustling river port center for the antebellum plantation economy. But the congregation had never been large enough to support a resident rabbi. The community’s Jewish population peaked at around 80 in the 1920s.

But Lexingtion did have the Herrman family. They were part of the prosperous Lewis-Herrman grocery business, and Beth El was built on land donated by the Lewis and Herrman families.

In the late 1940s, James Wax, who would go on to become the longtime senior rabbi at Memphis, Tennessee’s Temple Israel, was serving the congregation as a student rabbi. It was while having a High Holiday meal with the Herrman family that Wax turned to the two young sons, Cecil and Gus, and commented casually, “If you boys ever amount to much, you should give some money to the college, because it takes a lot to educate those boys” who go on to become rabbis and educators.

That advice stuck with the brothers. When Cecil Hermann died in the early 1990s, he left his estate — some $3.3 million — to HUC-JIR. Most of the funds were used to renovate the main classroom building, which was renamed the Cecil W. Herrman Learning Center.

Gus Herrmann died in 2002, leaving most of his estate to HUC-JIR. His $6.7 million gift was, like his brother’s, unconditional.

The combined unsolicited — and unexpected — gifts amounted to a $10 million contribution. Part of it was used to name the Gus Waterman Herrman presidential chair. Ellenson, who served as president of HUC-JIR from 2002 to 2014, was the first holder of that chair.

As a young man, Cecil Herrman was a football star for Lexington High School. His brother played for the University of Alabama tennis team. Neither Herrman son ever married, but the brothers traveled the world together. They were never business owners or industrialists; they simply saved and invested the money and stock they had inherited, and amassed their fortunes.

Gus Herrman served in the 82nd Airborne in World War II and in the Korean War, receiving a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He then lived in New Orleans and in Houston, working for the U.S. Customs Service for 37 years. Cecil Herrman worked his whole life in sales for Abe Lewis Wholesale Liquor, in Memphis, where he remained friends with Wax.

Beth El closed in 2009, and Lexington’s Jewish community is chronicled in Robert Berman’s 2007 book “A House of David in the Land of Jesus.” Currently, a proposal is being explored to move Beth El’s building to serve the newly organized Jewish community of Oxford, home to the University of Mississippi.

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