Southern Jews a Dying Breed as Small-Town Communities Dwindle Fast
Bert Rosenbush Jr. enjoys a bittersweet form of celebrity in his hometown of Demopolis, Ala.: He’s the last living Jew there.
It’s a form of prominence he shares with Phil Cohen of Lexington, Miss. In Natchez, Miss., Jerold Krause is one of just a dozen Jews left. And Selma, Ala., a town that was central to the civil rights movement, is down to its last dozen, too.
It’s a paradox, in a way. Because, as Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Life, in Jackson, Miss., observed, “More Jews live in the South today than ever before.” But today those Jews are almost all living in the region’s cities. “Smaller communities,” Rockoff said, “have really undergone a significant decline.”
From the early 19th century, Jews built synagogues alongside the cotton fields and plantation houses of the Deep South. Today, the vibrant communities they built are dwindling down to their final members. Yet even now, many of these Jews bask in a certain aura of accumulated high regard, built over generations, thanks to forbears who filled a niche as successful local businessmen, which they themselves continue to fill today.
In Demopolis, for example, 83-year-old Rosenbush lives on Bert Rosenbush Road, a country road outside the city center, next to a small lake. It’s named after Rosenbush Jr.’s father, who owned the family furniture store and worked part time as a funeral embalmer. According to 2010 U.S. census figures, the town’s 7,000-plus population is about 50% black.
In Lexington, where the first Jewish resident arrived in the late 1830s, Cohen, who is 75, still runs Cohen’s Department Store, on Court Square in the town center, its red-brick front still proudly displaying the family name in large letters for all to see. His grandfather founded the store, which opened in 1900. The town, with a population of 1,731 in 2010, has a historically large black majority and is the seat of a historically black majority county. Its population today is 1,731, almost 80% of which is African American.
During the early 1900s, Jews owned a variety of businesses in Lexington, including tailors, groceries and factories that provided goods not just for the town, but also throughout the state.
By the mid-1900s, throughout the region, a majority of the younger generation of Southern Jews began attending colleges outside the area or moving to larger cities. They left family-owned businesses behind. Congregation members began to dwindle, leaving synagogues that were infrequently used and often costly to maintain.
In 1989, the local Episcopal Church in Demopolis took over Temple B’nai Jeshurun, and eventually donated its remnants to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, in Jackson. Rosenbush said the building is now a food bank. He drives 60 miles to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to attend services on the High Holy Days.
The first Jewish resident arrived in Demopolis in 1844. At its peak, in 1927, the western Alabama town had about 150 Jewish residents. The town has a Holocaust memorial and was an inspiration for the setting of “The Little Foxes” by Lillian Hellman, whose mother came from there but later moved to New Orleans, where Hellman was raised. Rosenbush’s family owned the oldest furniture store in Alabama for 108 years, until it closed in 2002.
“It makes me sad, but it’s just the way the good Lord happened to do,” Rosenbush said of the shrinkage of Demopolis’s Jewish population to just him. “I just don’t know what else I could do.”
Unlike Rosenbush, Cohen is still able to attend occasional services at Lexington’s Temple Beth El. The Lexington Foundation, a local not-for-profit organization, maintains the building and allows past and current Jewish residents to hold meetings, funerals or other religious services at any time.
“It means a lot,” Cohen said.
In Lexington, the first Jewish resident arrived shortly after the central Mississippi town was incorporated in 1836. Cohen’s family has lived in town since 1900.
Cohen said he doesn’t feel lonely, as his friends have always transcended race and religion. “I grew up here. I was born and raised here,” he said. “I know everyone in the community, and it’s been that way most of my life.”
Though both blacks and whites often accepted these Southern Jews, the Jews had to carefully negotiate their position during times of unrest. Former Lexington resident Robert Berman, author of the 2009 book “A House of David in the Land of Jesus,” said that in their own stores, many Jewish business owners employed black workers and served blacks as customers equally with whites. But when it came to larger segregation issues, local Jewish residents felt it was best to stay neutral.
“They did not strive to preserve segregation, nor did they speak out about it,” said Berman, whose book examines the relationships between Jews and other faiths and races in Lexington. Berman’s great-great-grandfather, Jacob Sontheimer, was Lexington’s first Jewish settler.
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.’ ”