As first-time visitors to Savannah’s Mickve Israel synagogue in Georgia, we circled around Monterey Square and what we thought was a church or cathedral, a huge building with pointed arches, barrel vaults, and a soaring cupola. But as we soon discovered, this was the Mickve Israel, a landmark listed as the only standing neo-Gothic synagogue in America.
Once inside, the sanctuary is no less impressive. One of the oldest congregations in the US – founded in 1733, the current building opened in 1878 – it is a bold, ecumenical architectural statement, with flying buttresses and tall stained glass windows. The building reflects the comfort and assimilation of this southern Jewish community, affiliated with the Reform movement.
Rabbi Robert Haas in Congregation Mickve Israel, Savannah, GA. Courtesy of Richard Nowitz
Inside this supersized synagogue is an exquisite museum, documenting the heritage of the 280-year-old congregation from its colonial roots. Forty-two financially strapped, mostly Sephardic Jews from London braved a rough ocean crossing on the William and Sarah, arriving in Savannah in July 11, 1733, just five months after the colony of Georgia was established.
They were welcomed by Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe. Taking a tour with Rabbi Robert Haas, a former Texan who has been spiritual leader of Mickve Israel for five years, we discover fascinating artifacts of the congregation’s history. There are the two oldest torah scrolls in the U.S., brought over from England in the early 18th century. Made of deerskin (yes, it’s kosher if slaughtered properly), they are over 500 years old, originating from Spain or Portugal.
There are also glass-encased letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, among other presidents. The letters reflect the prominence and acceptance of this southern Jewish community, a variance of what many northerners think about prejudice and anti-Semitism and the South.
Mickve Israel synagogue, Savannah, Ga. Courtesy of Richard Nowitz
“Jews have enjoyed respect and full acceptance here throughout the community’s history,” said Rabbi Haas. “We have strong ties to the city and other faiths, and very little in anti-Semitic incidents.”
The history of Jews in Savannah, along with other parts of the South, is also conflated with slavery. As landowners and merchants, Jews did own slaves, although there is no documentation of that in the museum.
“Jews have played an important role in Savannah, going back to the Revolutionary War,” Rabbi Haas said. The museum exhibition features Uriah Phillips Levy, who was a commodore in the colonial navy, known for cessation of flogging. (He also funded Jefferson’s estate, Monticello). There have been Jewish mayors, writers, leading physicians and scientists, one of the most notable, Raphael Moses, who developed the technology for shipping peaches long distances, giving some credit as a father of “the peach state.” The Girl Scouts of America was founded in Savannah with the support of Jewish women.
The museum also highlights the prominence of its Ashkenazi congregants, German Jews going back to Benjamin Sheftall, who arrived with the original group from England in 1733 and whose heirs were major benefactors of the community. In fact, said Rabbi Haas, there are descendants of Sheftall who are active members of the congregation today. A drive from Mickve Israel to the commercial center passes through the historic downtown district, punctuated by green public squares, antebellum mansions and charming townhouses. Not much remains of the many Jewish stores that thrived on Broughton and Bull streets, though there are signs marking the buildings of Adler’s department store, Joseph’s clothiers, and Maxwell’s.
Circumcision kit, brought by the first settlers to Savannah in 1733, in the museum of Mickve Israel. Courtesy of Richard Nowitz
Nearby, on Montgomery Street, is a tall Moorish building with arabesque façade and keyhole windows, once the home of the Bnai Brith Jacob Synagogue, now part of the Savannah College of Art and Design. The Orthodox congregation has since moved out of the downtown district.
The Bonaventure Cemetery’s Jewish section, with its distinctly Southern wrought iron gates and decorative gravestones, also captures the community’s history. On Bull Street, a sign commemorates the cemetery of the original Jewish setters.
There are about 3,500 Jews living in Savannah today, said Rabbi Haas, and three synagogues, enjoying close cooperation. There are Jewish festivals, including the very popular “Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival,” which draws thousands of people to get a taste of Jewish food and culture.
Maxwell Brothers, one of many Jewish stores that once lined downtown Savannah, Ga. Courtesy of Richard Nowitz
Harry D. Wall has a long career in journalism, advocacy and consulting. Most recently, he has begun making documentary films about Jewish heritage and communities around the globe. His blog, Jewish Discoveries, is a travelogue of Jewish heritage and contemporary life around the world.