Judaism and Jews in Georgia
Jews in Savannah
The first Jews to arrive in Georgia were a group of forty-two men and women who came on the schooner William and Sarah. They landed in Savannah on July 11, 1733, soon after founder James Edward Oglethorpe arrived with Georgia's first settlers. Oglethorpe was surprised by the arrival of the new settlers, but at that point he had not received instructions from the Trustees with regard to non-Christian colonists. He was pleased to see among the group a physician, Samuel Nunes, whom he later credited with saving many colonists who were ill with yellow fever. Oglethorpe cited his gratitude to the doctor among his reasons for assigning plots of land to fourteen Jews. Among other reasons mentioned by scholars is the fact that another one of the Jews, Abraham de Lyon, had experience in viticulture, which would be useful to the colonists in their efforts to produce wine.
Strong internal disagreements about religious customs and language prevented these early Georgian Jews from building a synagogue. Their arguments stemmed from a centuries-old cultural division. Jews whose ancestors had lived on the Iberian peninsula until they were expelled during the Spanish Inquisition are known as Sephardim. Those who trace their lineage to other parts of Europe are known as Ashkenazim. The two branches have different liturgies, customs, and linguistic heritages: Sephardim spoke a Latin-based language called Ladino, while Ashkenazim spoke the German-based Yiddish.
Thirty-four of the Jewish arrivals in 1733 were Sephardim, most of them having fled from Portugal to England before departing for the New World. The Ashkenazic Jews felt mistreated by the more numerous Sephardic Jews. Indeed, in 1734 an Anglican clergyman in Savannah noted that, "Some Jews in Savannah complained . . . that the Spanish and Portuguese Jews persecute the German Jews in a way no Christian would persecute another Christian." The internal feuding ended in 1741, during the War of Jenkins' Ear, when the Sephardim, fearing Spanish invasion, fled to Charleston, South Carolina, and New York, leaving only the Sheftall and the Minis families, both Ashkenazim, in Georgia.
Several members of the Sheftall family became prosperous entrepreneurs in the years preceding the American Revolution (1775-83) and took leading parts in the war itself. Benjamin Sheftall was one of the founders of the Union Society, the oldest charitable society in the state. His sons Mordecai, a large landowner as well as a merchant, and Levi, a flourishing tannery owner, joined their father in the influential Savannah Parochial Committee. This group, consisting mostly of merchants and artisans, sympathized with the patriot cause and took upon itself many of the functions of local government. Mordecai Sheftall was elected chair of the group for a term. Some of Savannah's Jews lent considerable sums of money to the war effort, and some were appointed to military positions. Mordecai Sheftall became the highest-ranking Jewish officer on the American side,
Historian Wayne Mixon notes that "Georgia's Jews benefited from the increased religious liberty after the Revolution. Yet if the Jewish community grew, it was still largely confined to Savannah, which from 1786 to the middle of the next century had the state's only synagogue." Thus Jewish Savannahians continued through the decades to make an impact on Georgia and American life. For instance, Herman Myers was mayor of Savannah in the 1890s, and Savannah-born Rabbi Morris Samuel Lazaron served as a chaplain in the U.S. Army during World War I (1917-18); in 1921 he also represented American Jewry as one of four officiating chaplains attending the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Jews in Other Parts of Georgia
Savannah's Jews may have had the first impact on Georgia history, but some Jews settled in other parts of the state and left their mark as well. There is some evidence, for example, that an early governor of the state, David Emanuel, was of Jewish heritage, if not an openly practicing Jew. Emanuel, born in 1742 or 1744 in Pennsylvania, immigrated to Georgia around 1756, settling in Burke County. After serving as justice of the peace before the Revolution, he joined the American cause. He was voted into the assembly in 1783 and then into the constitutional conventions of 1789 and 1795. After a term as president of the state senate in 1797, he was appointed governor in 1801. It seems that he was a Jew in his early years at least, although he eventually became a Presbyterian.
Raphael Moses, a resident of Columbus, was the chief supply officer for Confederate general James Longstreet during the Civil War (1861-65). Prior to the war, Moses participated in efforts to market Georgia's peaches and plums, and he is credited with developing a technique for packing peaches that allowed the fruit to be shipped outside the South.
Morris B. Abram, an attorney, veteran of World War II (1941-45), and lifelong civil rights activist, was born in Fitzgerald. Among his many accomplishments were government appointments under five U.S. presidents and service as the U.S. representative to the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.
Atlanta's Jewish Population
Having been steered away from farming by historical circumstances (for example, many of the governments in Europe imposed restrictions on their owning land), Jews across Georgia tended to gravitate toward nonagricultural work. Thus the history of Georgia's Jews finds most of them clustered in the more urban areas, especially Savannah and Atlanta; the latter has become the center of Georgia's largest Jewish population.
Unlike the cultural split between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, the main area of difference between and among the main Jewish denominations today has to do with the level of adherence to halakhah, the ideal lifestyle characterized by mitzvoth or commandments, with Orthodox Judaism being the most strict, Reform Judaism the least strict, and Conservative Judaism occupying a middle ground between the other two. Contemporary rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin provides an interesting comparison of these three groups by recording what happened when he co-chaired a symposium at which three prominent rabbis—one Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform—were each asked whether he perceived his own movement as the only authentic expression of Judaism. Telushkin reports that the Orthodox representative saw Orthodoxy as the only authentic Jewish religious movement; the Conservative rabbi said that he regarded Conservative Judaism as coming closest to the religion of Moses, though the other two groups were valid; and the Reform rabbi said that all three were sincere and equally legitimate expressions. Telushkin writes, "The three responses adequately summarize the attitudes that the three main Jewish denominations have toward one another." One of the most obvious areas of difference among the movements today concerns gender roles and rights. For example, like the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox Judaism opposes female ordination, while the other two branches allow female rabbis.
A remarkable record of Atlanta's Jewish population is the Jewish section of historic Oakland Cemetery, which is currently a sprawling space of some eighty-eight acres in downtown Atlanta, the first
In addition to such figures as Jacobs and Rich, Atlanta's fame in connection with its Jewish citizens centers on two incidents, both grievous examples of anti-Semitism and the marginalization of Jews by accepted white society in Georgia. The first began with the trial and conviction of a Jewish pencil-factory superintendent, Leo Frank, for the murder of Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old employee, in 1913. Scholars generally agree today that Frank was almost certainly innocent of the crime. At the time, however, virtually all Georgians thought him guilty.
In 1915, following the commutation of Frank's death sentence by Governor John M. Slaton, the Knights of Mary Phagan, a vigilante group, broke into the prison in Milledgeville that housed Frank and drove him to Marietta, where they lynched him. A few weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, a reinvigorated Ku Klux Klan was formed on top of Stone Mountain by the one-time Methodist minister William Simmons. Historian Leonard Dinnerstein observes that, "Had it not been for [the lynching of] Leo Frank, Simmons would probably have had to wait before launching his venture. But he found in the Knights of Mary Phagan, already organized but with its sense of purpose vanished, a suitable nucleus for the new Klan."
In 1986 the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles granted Leo Frank a posthumous pardon. A commemorative plaque, erected by the Jewish community of Cobb County, now marks the area where Frank was hanged; the plaque reads, "Leo Frank (1884-1915). Wrongly accused, Falsely convicted, Wantonly murdered."
Just after the bombing, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower remarked, "I think we would all share in the feeling of horror that any person would want to desecrate the holy place of any religion, be it a chapel, a cathedral, a mosque, a church, or a synagogue." Support, including telegraphs, cards, and financial gifts, came from numerous Atlanta churches. Writer Melissa Fay Greene notes that such sympathy and fellowship from Christians in Atlanta led Rabbi Rothschild's wife, Janice, to label the crime as "the Bomb that Healed."
The Current Jewish Population
In 1996 the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, which serves as an archive and cultural center dedicated to the experience of Jews in Georgia, opened in Atlanta.
Leonard Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case (1966; reprint, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987).
Valerie Frey, The Jewish Community of Savannah (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 2002).
Mark I. Greenberg, "'A Haven of Benignity': Conflict and Cooperation between Eighteenth-Century Savannah Jews," Georgia Historical Quarterly 86 (winter 2002): 544-568.
Melissa Fay Greene, The Temple Bombing (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1996).
Steven Hertzberg, "The Jewish Community of Atlanta from the End of the Civil War until the Eve of the Frank Case," American Jewish Historical Quarterly 62 (March 1973).
Leon Huhner, "The Jews of Georgia from the Outbreak of the American Revolution to the Close of the Eighteenth Century," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 17 (1909).
Kaye Kole, The Minis Family of Georgia, 1733-1995 (Savannah, Ga.: Georgia Historical Society, 1992).
B. H. Levy, "The Early History of Georgia's Jews," in Forty Years of Diversity: Essays on Colonial Georgia, ed. Harvey Jackson and Phinizy Spalding (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984).
B. H. Levy, Mordecai Sheftall: Jewish Revolutionary Patriot (Savannah, Ga.: Georgia Historical Society, 1999).
Ralph Melnick, "Jews in the South," in Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, ed. Samuel S. Hill (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997).
David T. Morgan, "Judaism in Eighteenth-Century Georgia," Georgia Historical Quarterly 58, no. 1 (1974): 41-54.
Steve Oney, And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003).
Saul Jacob Rubin, Third to None: The Saga of Savannah Jewry, 1733-1983 (Savannah, Ga.: privately printed, 1983).
Tevi Taliaferro, Historic Oakland Cemetery (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Press, 2001).
Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History (New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991).
Charles Wessolowsky, Reflections of Southern Jewry: The Letters of Charles Wessolowsky, ed. Louis Schmier (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1982).
David S. Williams, From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia’s Religious Heritage (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008).
Elizabeth B. Cooksey, Savannah
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