“If there was a bricks-and-mortar building, the Jewish community would persevere in Anniston,” Blanton said, remembering the hope of the Jewish women who opened the synagogue 120 years ago. “We’re a small but tenacious congregation bent on the preservation of a bricks-and-mortar temple, just like the Jewish ladies.”
For the past several years, small Jewish congregations in Alabama like Beth El have been forced to close their doors. In 2010, Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Gadsden, ceased operation after serving the Jewish community for more than 100 years and surviving a 1960 firebomb attack. In 2005, Jasper’s Temple Emanu-El closed after thriving in the town for 83 years. While some physical reminders of Selma’s once-flourishing Jewish community remain — Temple Mishkan Israel and the Harmony Club, a turn-of-the-century Jewish social club — the congregation has not supported a full-time rabbi for more than 30 years and only holds worship services on occasion.
In 1989, Demopolis’ Temple B’nai Jeshurun, the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the state, signed over the deed to its building to Trinity Episcopal Church for $10 after nearly a decade of inactivity.
“Over the last several decades, there has been significant decline in smaller Jewish populations in Alabama,” explained Stuart Rockoff, the director of the history department of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss.
Less than 1 percent of the South’s population identifies as Jewish, and Southern Jews make up just 7 percent of the American Jewish population as a whole. Those numbers are steadily decreasing. Small Southern Jewish congregations are aging, Jews are assimilating through intermarriage with the non-Jewish population and Jewish young adults are starting careers in larger cities — a combination of factors that is leading some Southern Jewish communities toward extinction.
In a 2005 article published by the Jewish Press, editor Jason Maoz argued that the Southern Jewish population could be viewed as a sort of predictor for Jewish communities throughout the United States.
“With increased acceptance came the inevitable downside of intermarriage and assimilation, and in those departments Southern Jews have about a 50-year jump on Jews in the the rest of the country,” he wrote. “The result was an epidemic of synagogue closings throughout the South over the second half of the 20th century, particularly in towns whose Jewish populations were too small to sustain anything approaching a communal infrastructure.”
Keeping the doors open
Although small Jewish congregations across the Southeast are dwindling, the 30 families that remain as congregants at Anniston’s Temple Beth El are working to withstand the trend. The congregation holds Friday night services twice a month and celebrates together on holidays.
“It’s a very old and established congregation,” said Rabbi Irving Bloom, who leads services at Beth El once a month. “It’s an older congregation and a smaller congregation than 30 or 40 years ago … It’s a smaller congregation than it once was.”
Two retired rabbis, Bloom and Rabbi David Baylinson, travel from Atlanta to lead the congregation. Blanton credits the men with helping sustain Anniston’s Jewish community.
“It’s a community that does not give up and we are led by two very loving men,” she said. “We have the people that are not giving up.”
Both rabbis have a long history with the temple — each served Beth El in the 1950s while they were students at rabbinical school in Cincinnati. Like many Jewish congregations in Southern towns that were too small to support a full-time rabbi, Beth El was a student pulpit. Bloom traveled nearly 500 miles to Anniston twice a month from 1953 to 1955, and Baylinson took over the post from 1955 to 1957.
“The Beth El congregation is one of the smaller congregations in the United States and also the smallest congregation that has two retired rabbis serving them, which is very special,” Baylinson said. “Both Rabbi Bloom and I are dedicated to seeing that services continue. We’re dedicated to keeping the doors open. I’m 83, and I’m going to keep it up as long as I can.”
Model City merchants
Baylinson also credited the temple’s historical importance as part of the congregation’s motivation to remain intact.
“Temple Beth El is the oldest synagogue building in Alabama still being used as a synagogue,” he said.
Blanton, an authority on the history of Anniston’s Jewish community, said the Model City’s Jewish history is analogous to that of many other small Southern towns, with one exception.
“The one big difference is the fact that Anniston had been a closed-company town, and these Jewish merchants saw it as an opportunity because Anniston became a boom town,” she said. “They did do well.”
Most of Anniston’s early Jews were merchants, not uncommon in the South. In 1884, shortly after Anniston was incorporated, Jewish businessman Leon Ullman moved from Talladega to open Ullman Brothers store on Noble Street.
“Noble and his partners saw the need for merchants in various areas and looked to the Jewish community at large, in New York and other areas,” explained Jack Wallach, one of Anniston’s few remaining Jewish business owners. “Noble and his crew specifically invited merchants to Anniston to set up businesses and display their wares. Jews were invited guests in the beginning. It’s kind of an unusual situation ... That’s one of the reasons why Anniston, Ala., had a large Jewish population.”
By 1890, nearly every store on Noble Street was owned by Jewish businessmen. Joseph Saks, whose farm eventually became the Saks community, owned one of the Model City’s most popular clothing stores. In 1887, Saks opened The Famous One Price Store, named after his beloved dog, Famous. “The Famous” continued to sell clothing until 1930.
Jacob Berman opened a dry goods store on West 10th Street and the 1100 block of Noble Street in 1900. Thirteen years later, he founded Berman’s Department Store at 1230 Noble Street, which specialized in high-end women’s fashion. The store closed in 2001.
“One hundred years ago, Jews were involved in commerce ... It was almost universal,” Rockoff said. “If you walked down Main Street of any small town like Anniston, you saw several Jewish-owned stores. That has certainly changed.”
The rise of the Jewish merchant class is a story that echoes through much of the South. So is its decline, thanks to the widespread implementation of chain and discount stores.
“There’s just a small handful of Jewish businessmen left,” Blanton said. “The merchants who dressed Anniston are no more.”
Wallach is one of Anniston’s remaining businessmen. He is a congregant at Temple Beth El and a member of the temple’s board of trustees.
“My business partner and I own a rental business that includes two strip shopping centers and two apartment complexes in Anniston, Oxford and Jacksonville,” he explained, adding he has been in business in Anniston for eight years.
Wallach and his wife, Ann, moved to Anniston after he retired from a career as an attorney. He has lived in the Anniston and Atlanta areas, and maintained his affiliation with Beth El while living in Atlanta for more than 20 years.
“Everyone’s experience, when it comes to comparison, is the driving force. Ours may be a little different than most,” Wallach said. “We’ve always felt very welcome in Anniston’s Jewish community… We didn’t feel as comfortable affiliating with temples in Atlanta as Anniston.”
Ann is not Jewish, which Wallach cites as one of the reasons why the couple did not feel as at home at the temples in Atlanta as in Anniston. Size was also a factor.
“Atlanta is so much more of a transient town,” he said. “And of course the congregations are just so large.”
‘Small but tenacious’
While the temple is secure financially thanks to a trust from late longtime member James F. Rosen, the congregation is suffering from many of the same factors plaguing synagogues in the South. Regardless, Blanton said the small congregation has no plans to close the temple. She described the congregants as “small but tenacious.”
After seeing many congregations like Beth El cease to exist in recent years, Rockoff said he admires the congregation’s determination.
“In places like Anniston, they are keeping the doors open … That’s kind of inspiring. So if new families come in, they know they have a place to worship,” he said. “In small places like that, people have a sense of ‘If we don’t go, it won’t happen.’”
Bloom acknowledged Beth El’s commitment to the Anniston community, and to keeping the temple’s doors open. But, he said, Beth El is not alone in its fight.
“Not all small Southern congregations have closed,” he said. “There are others that are managing to struggle along. It’s not easy.”
For Wallach, Anniston’s dwindling Jewish population is a bit of a shock. He said the Jewish community and the city’s community at large have historically coexisted well.
“The decline of the Jewish population along with that surprises me, given how liberal Anniston has been,” he said. “I don’t know what all that means, but I know that it doesn’t bode well … I believe that the Jewish community has more to offer now than ever before, but the Jewish population is diminishing to the point where they won’t be able to offer much of anything.”
But Blanton is confident the Beth El congregation will survive the trend.
“Every community has its ability to maintain, for some reason or another,” she said. “Each person just has to carry a bigger part of the load.”