While Jewish traders are known to have been active in Alabama as early as 1757, and a number of Jews lived in Mobile in the 1760s under British rule, it was not until the 1820s that the first permanent Alabama Jewish community was established in Mobile. Abram (Abraham) Mordecai, a Pennsylvania-born Jew who had settled in central Alabama by 1785 and established the state’s first cotton gin near Montgomery, was made a key character in Albert James Pickett’s History of Alabama (1851), and became a legend in Southern folklore.
The largest antebellum Jewish settlement was in Mobile, where enough Jews established themselves to purchase a cemetery in 1841. Previous Jewish graves dating back to 1829 are suitably marked in the oldest, non-sectarian Protestant graveyard in town. Congregation Shaarai Shomayim u-Maskil el Dol was chartered on Jan. 25, 1844. Israel I. Jones (1810–1877), a London Jew who arrived early in the 1830s, was president of the congregation for most of his life; one of his daughters married the well-known New Orleans rabbi, James Koppel Gutheim (1817–1886). An auctioneer and tobacco merchant, Jones was active in politics, served as an alderman, was president of the Mobile Musical Association, and introduced streetcars to Mobile.
A welfare society, the Chevra Mevaker Cholim, was organized in Montgomery on Nov. 17, 1846, by 12 German Jewish immigrants including Emanuel Lehman, uncle of Herbert H. Lehman. The society conducted services, purchased a cemetery, and on June 3, 1849, with 30 members transformed itself into Congregation Kahl Montgomery. The mobility of immigrant Jews and the tentativeness of their settlement is indicated by the constitutional provision of Kahl Montgomery that “four members shall be sufficient to continue the Society, but should there be only three members, the Society shall be dissolved.” The congregation is now called Temple Beth Or, and its first building, built in 1862 with seed money from Judah Touro, is the oldest synagogue building in the state. It now houses a church.
Other communities were established where trails met rivers, such as at Claiborne. That community was defunct by the 1870s, after it was bypassed by the railroad.
Civil War & Postbellum Jewish Immigration
During the Civil War more than 130 Alabama Jews served in the Confederate Army, and in 1861, when 13 of them enlisted as a group in the Twelfth Alabama Regiment, Mobile Jews held a special service. James K. Gutheim, however, went to Montgomery as an exile rather than take the oath of allegiance to the United States after New Orleans’ occupation by federal forces. He served in Montgomery and in nearby towns until the end of the Civil War. Judah P. Benjamin lived in Montgomery during his tenure as attorney general of the Confederacy, and the last soldier killed in the defense of Mobile was a Jew from South Carolina. The congregations in Mobile and Montgomery, like virtually all of the older Southern congregations, turned to Reform following the Civil War, joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations after its creation in 1873, and were served by graduates of the Hebrew Union College.
Eastern European immigrants began to arrive in Alabama towns early in the 1870s. They were treated with a combination of philanthropic generosity and social aloofness, which persisted longer in tradition-conscious southern communities than in the northern communities. These immigrants created their own Orthodox congregations in Mobile, Montgomery, and Birmingham, most of which joined the Conservative movement following World War II.
Jewish merchants were found in most Alabama towns of any size, with synagogues springing up in small mining towns like West Blocton and Bessemer, and larger cities like Selma. Immigrants often began selling house to house, saving enough money to buy a cart, then rent a storefront.
The town of Sheffield was founded in 1884 by a land company that included the Moses brothers of Montgomery. Falkville was named for Louis Faulk, who was the first merchant and postmaster, and Saks was established for area tenant farmers by Joseph Saks, founder of a clothing store in Anniston.
World War II
Before World War II, many Alabama communities faced shrinking populations, intermarriage on the part of the children and grandchildren of the older settlers, gradual acculturation by the children of the new immigrants, and slow disintegration of traditional Jewish loyalties. But European antisemitism in the 1930s and the sudden influx of Jewish soldiers to many southern towns during World War II, when great camps and air bases were established in the area, brought a return of Jewish consciousness to many disappearing communities.
Many northern Jews also came to places like the University of Alabama after finding themselves shut out of northern universities by Jewish quotas. Many Jewish scholars who fled Nazi Germany were similarly shunned by prestigious northern universities and found employment in southern historically black colleges in places like Tuskegee. Scorned in Nazi Germany because they were Jews, they found themselves comparatively well treated in the South because they were white and yet they worked with disadvantaged and persecuted black students for whom their race rather than religion was the defining identity. In the post-World War II period, new synagogues were built in the suburbs in Mobile, Montgomery, and elsewhere, and Jewish community life revived with the younger generation of Jews.
Civil Rights Era
During the 1950s and 1960s, while there was a significant revival of interest in Judaism, there was also a recurrence of antisemitic attacks on Jews, including the firebombing of Beth Israel in Gadsden and the attempted 1958 bombing of Birmingham‘s Beth-El. Segregationist politicians called integration a “Communist-Jewish conspiracy,” leading many in the Jewish community who were sympathetic to the civil rights movement to work behind the scenes so the movement would not lose legitimacy in the eyes of whites. An overwhelming percentage of northern whites who came to the region to work for civil rights were Jews, causing resentment by southern Jews who were trying to balance a delicate situation and who had to live with any backlash provoked by their northern co-religionists.
Many northern Jews were among the Freedom Riders who were attacked by white supremacists in Anniston and Birmingham, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the Jewish figures who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Montgomery in 1965.
By the 1960s, smaller Jewish communities in the state began to die out as children and grandchildren of the original Jewish immigrants went off to college, became professionals, and chose not to return to their family businesses. Congregations in places like Demopolis and Jasper closed as the Jewish population aged and shrank.
Larger communities, and those connected to university towns, continued to have a stable population. The days of the Jewish country club were gone, but the 1990s saw Mobile’s Conservative Ahavas Chesed move to the suburbs, and a new congregation in Auburn. Almost all of Birmingham‘s Jewish institutions also expanded greatly or were rebuilt in the 1990s. The state’s Gulf Coast is now also seen as a prime destination for retirees who do not want to go to South Florida.
While for many outside the region, the 1960s painted a picture of the South as being a hostile home for Jews, overt antisemitic incidents were rare. The 1990s saw some bruising church-state battles, but in general Jews were respected as “God’s chosen people” by the largely evangelical population of the state. In 1995, Governor Fob James paid tribute to Israel in his inauguration, with the singing of “Hatikvah” and the blowing of the shofar by a Jerusalem rabbi. In 1999, Don Siegelman, a Catholic, was elected governor, making his wife, Lori, the state’s first Jewish First Lady. The University of Alabama has a well-endowed and well-respected Judaic Studies program and the University of Alabama Press has an impressive list of Judaic publications, including the first English translation of Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption and Arthur D. Green’s Tormented Master.
Jews came to Selma around the early 1830s, and the first organized services took place in 1867. Mishkan Israel moved into its current building in 1899, and it still has the original electricity system.
Selma once had a thriving Jewish community of as many as 500 people and Jews owned many of the city’s businesses. Young Jews gradually moved, and the population dwindled.
The local Jewish community was not active in the civil rights movement, but the synagogue did receive a bomb threat.
Today, the temple has only four members. There are two or three other Jews in the city of 20,000, but they’re not involved with the synagogue.
The 120-year-old synagogue Israel hasn’t held regular services in years and hasn’t had a rabbi in nearly half a century. The members want to raise $800,000 through GoFundMe for renovations and to turn it into a museum with exhibits on Southern Jewish history and the Jews’ role in the civil rights movement.
As of 2018, Alabama’s Jewish population was approximately 9,525.
See also: Alabama - Israel Cooperation