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A Final Yom Kippur in the Delta for Mississippi Community Begun in 1830s

As the members of Temple Beth El in Lexington, Miss., pray this Yom Kippur for inclusion in the Book of Life, they’ll be attending a funeral of sorts. The Ne’ilah, the day’s traditional closing service, will be the last scheduled worship to be held in their 104-year-old white wooden synagogue.

The Long Goodbye: Phil Cohen, above, remembers when eight Jewish-owned businesses dotted Lexington?s town square in the 1960s. Today, only his remains. Image by ANDREW MUCHIN

“Our last regular service had four people,” said Phil Cohen, 72, operator of Cohen’s department store which his grandfather founded on Lexington’s town square in 1908.

“This is it,” agreed Henry Paris, 79, who has led Beth El’s High Holy Day services for the past 39 years. “We can’t continue to have a temple for four people. This is it.”

Lexington is a city of about 2,000 people and covers just 2.5 square miles in west-central Mississippi. It’s the smallest community in the state to have supported a synagogue for scores of years.

Jews have lived in Lexington since the 1830s, when German-Jewish immigrants arrived and soon found success as merchants, according to Stuart Rockoff, historian at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss.

A wave of Russian Jews arrived in the late 19th century, the expanded community established a Reform congregation in 1904 and a synagogue was built the following year. In 1927, Lexington’s Jewish population was about 80, but this number began to decline during the Depression. Of the 16 Jewish men who left the city to serve in the armed forces during World War II, only two returned in 1945. Thirteen settled elsewhere, and one was killed in the war.

Lexington is the county seat of Holmes County, located in the Delta region, where 79 % of the population is African American and 42% of residents were living below the poverty level in 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Lexington?s synagogue.

In oral histories, longtime African-American residents of Lexington praised the Jewish merchants for treating them respectfully. But those merchants couldn’t avoid fallout from the civil rights movement that peaked in the 1960s. In 1964, Lexington was one of the Mississippi communities in which Freedom Summer volunteers registered African Americans to vote. Economic boycotts by local African Americans in 1967, 1971 and 1978 targeted Lexington merchants, including Jews.

Cohen remembers when eight Jewish-owned businesses — five of them retail stores — were open on or near the town square through the 1960s. Now he’s the only Jewish businessman in town. As author Eli Evans noted, one of the themes of small-town Southern Jewish life is fathers building businesses for sons who don’t want them.

The Rosh Hashanah worship service on September 19 attracted some 40 people, mostly expatriate Lexington Jews and their spouses, all of whom were making a point of attending the final High Holy Day services. Beth El congregants filled about a third of the wooden pews, which face a small bimah that rises two steps above the painted plank floor.

The synagogue’s well-maintained interior is 90% sanctuary. Each side wall features four tall stained-glass windows with intricate Tiffany-style patterns.

The simple symmetrical exterior with its tall, gabled front porch resembles a rural church. The only visible Jewish symbol is a round window with a small, six-pointed star above the entry.

“It’s the first time I’ve been here in years,” said Sylvia Berenson of Dallas, Cohen’s sister. “It’s very nostalgic, to say the least…. This is where I grew up. Everything is familiar. I don’t guess anything has changed since I was a girl.” Well, she might have missed the introduction of the Union Prayer Books, published in 1950, that were used for the services.

Beth El relied on student rabbis, visiting rabbis and congregants to lead worship and teach religious school. The congregation met for monthly services from October 2008 to June this year. “We’re on good behavior over the summer,” added Cohen, one of three Jews who remain in Lexington. Paris, a Lexington native, lives in Indianola, Miss., about 60 miles away.

Paris spoke about the impending closing “with a smile on my lips for fond memories and a tear in my eye for nostalgia.” Alluding to the Bible’s Ecclesiastes, he declared that there’s “a time to open the synagogue doors and a time to close them. I guess this is the time to close them.”

Phyllis Stern, 80, who moved to Lexington in 1946, said the closure “hasn’t sunk in yet. I guess it will.”

To her daughter, Susan Hart of Jackson, Miss., the synagogue was “an extension of my home.” She has seen several Mississippi synagogues close in recent years. “It’s sad that it’s happening to us,” she said.

Cohen admitted to having “very mixed emotions…. But we know all good things come to an end.”

Next year, he and the other local congregants will attend synagogues in nearby Mississippi cities. Meanwhile, he expects that Beth El will open its doors for an occasional lifecycle ceremony.

Cohen and former Lexington businessman Bob Berman have ideas for moving the building, or perhaps its contents and windows, to the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, but they have no formal plan.

As Yom Kippur approaches, Beth El’s congregants agree that nobody needs to apologize for the synagogue’s closing. “It’s a situation that happens in many small towns,” Paris said. To a person, they said they’ll continue to carry out the ethical lessons they learned at Beth El, particularly the importance of contributing to the community’s welfare.

None was speculating how he or she will feel on Yom Kippur, but Berenson advised against singing the blues. “I’m happy that this small congregation survived for 104 years,” she said. “Who would ever have believed it?”

Contact Andrew Muchin at [email protected]

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