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A Congregation Sings the Blues As Synagogue Goes on Market

CLARKSDALE, Miss. — This Delta town is perhaps most famous for its crossroads, the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61, where, according to legend, 1930s bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.

Today, about a mile from that notorious site, a different kind of shocking transaction is underway: Like Johnson’s soul, Congregation Beth Israel — once home to the largest Jewish congregation in the state — is on the market, devil be damned.

The last Sabbath services at Beth Israel were held in May. More than 100 former congregants and their families came to pay their respects to the Reform synagogue. It was a throwback to the congregation’s glory days, back when the pews were full, the Sunday school enrollment topped 100 and a rabbi was employed full time.

Now, however, active membership in the synagogue has dwindled to less than a handful, making a minyan all but unthinkable. There are no Jewish children left in town; the congregation’s average age hovers around 60. A Memphis rabbi visits the community four times each year. And so, the synagogue — once filled with the clamor of children running the hallways, exuberant revelers shouting “mazel tov!” at weddings and gossip over “covered dish” dinners featuring fried chicken and kugel — stands empty, available to the highest bidder.

Or any bidder.

So far, after months on the market, there are no takers; the congregation isn’t the only part of town that has fallen on hard times. Once a thriving farm town, Clarksdale’s population has withered, like much of the rural South, as small-town superstars seek better opportunities in the nation’s big cities. Once a hotbed of activity in the civil rights era — it is the hometown of the famed civil rights leader Aaron Henry, whom Senator Joseph Lieberman recently called “a heroic man” — Clarksdale today is best described as quiet, sleepy and downright depressed. Cotton is no longer king, downtown shops have shut down while buyers stream to the Wal-Mart on the highway and the middle class has all but abandoned the place.

Jews — who are, as they say, like everyone else, only more so — have been hit perhaps hardest of all. Their numbers have declined past the point of no return.

Arnold Himmelstein, an accountant by trade and the de facto president of Beth Israel, took the Forward on a short tour of Clarksdale in his air-conditioned car beneath the scorching Mississippi sun. He drove past the Jewish cemetery, just outside town, and declared, “That’s the only part of the Jewish community that’s growing.”

He continued onward to Beth Israel, which sits on a quiet, residential street. The building has seen better days; the wear and tear of years have eaten away at the somewhat dirty synagogue’s wide front steps. Himmelstein’s wife, Gloria, sat in an empty pew and surveyed the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows onto the olive green carpet. “It’s the end of an era,” she said.

The closure of the congregation is only the latest confirmation of what many locals have long known: Clarksdale is not the town it used to be.

Fred Grimm, a columnist at the Miami Herald who lived in the town from 1965 to 1972, recalled a vibrant — if racially divided — town of decades past: West of the railroad tracks, the white part of town was filled with quality stores; the black side of town was alive with music and political activity.

On a recent trip back to the Delta, Grimm said the change in Clarksdale was startling. “The black downtown looked like it had been bombed,” he said. “The white business area — and both of these were dominated by Jewish merchants — looked like how the black area had looked 20 years before. It didn’t have the feel it once had; there used to be so much going on. In the civil rights era there was hope that there would be economic success. It hasn’t happened.”

“The climate I grew up in — and some of it was bad — doesn’t exist anymore,” Beth Israel’s Himmelstein recalled. “The front door was never locked. We all have alarm systems on our houses now.”

Himmelstein and his wife, both approaching retirement, are looking to relocate to Hot Springs Village, Ark. Their two adult children live in California and Florida. “The young people didn’t come back. They went places with more opportunities — can’t fault them for that,” he said. “It’s been a steady decline.”

Not everyone is ready to move away, however. Just down the street from the synagogue is Aaron Kline’s house. He arrived in the Delta as a teenage immigrant from Lithuania in 1937. At that time, Clarksdale had a “pretty large” Jewish community, said Kline, the owner of the Whale Store, a general store in nearby Alligator, Miss.

“It was a great adjustment socially, mentally and religiously, coming to a small town,” he said, but he soon made Clarksdale his home. “Here, as long as things were coming along well, the community was okay; we still had an active life,” he said. As the community has shrunk in recent years, Kline, yeshiva-trained in Europe, has served as the unofficial rabbi of the community, pinch-hitting as an educator and leading services numerous times.

Despite the declining Jewish population and the fading fortunes of the town, Kline — who lives with his second wife, Adele — wants to stay put. “Our families are trying to persuade us to move to an assisted-living facility in Memphis. They say we’ll have a richer life; we can go to synagogue, hear a lecture, go to the cinema,” he said. But he doesn’t want to move. “It’s not easy to break up your home.”

Adele arrived in the Delta from New York City at age 18. Her first husband, the owner of the Madeira Dress Shop in downtown Clarksdale, had come to the big city on a buying trip. “I like to joke that he came to New York and bought me,” she said. “From the moment I got off the train in Clarksdale, I never regretted it. Every person, Jew or gentile, came to the train and welcomed me. They all had open arms. It was wonderful, and it went on for months.”

Like her husband, she is content to remain in Clarksdale. “I’m happy where I am,” she said. “This is my home. I have my store.”

Still, she conceded: “There ain’t no social life.”

The town’s social life will not be helped by the synagogue’s closure after nearly 75 years. “It’s a pitiful thing,” Adele said.

Himmelstein went even further: “The truth is, it’s like a death in the family,” he said. “The synagogue has been here for just about all of us, all of our lives. It’s one of those things you can count on. These are difficult decisions that have to be made. It’s hard on us. But it’s also hard to go to services and see four, five people there.”

On one level, he added, the sale will be an enormous relief. “I won’t have to worry about it anymore,” Himmelstein said. “It does feel like a burden.”

The congregation hopes to sell the building for $250,000, although Himmelstein noted, “We’ll be happy if we get $200,000.” Proceeds from the sale will go toward preserving the largest reminder of Clarksdale’s once-thriving Jewish community: the cemetery.

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