I had always heard that there were Jews throughout he deep south. It was only when I encountered it personally that I could really come to understand it. The kids and I were walking through Demopolis Alabama when we stumbled upon the Ben Jushran Synagogue. Turns that there was a thriving community for a long time there. Jews arrived with the French in the early 1800's and established a synagogue there. The original building was razed in 1954 to build the current one. It has since been named an Alabama Historic Site The old one was in the ancient "mosque" style. The new one is a simple brick building, rather plain and unadorned. It is no longer in use. In fact the care of the building has been turned over to the Episcopal Church, which is just across the street.
Curiosity overcoming my religious beliefs and aversions, we entered the church to inquire about the temple. The church was quite beautiful and we spent a few minutes admiring it and discussing the symbols. After a while the Reverend appeared. Rev. Dick was a very pleasant and jovial fellow. Well traveled, educated, and friendly he told us about his history, his church, and the temple. Seems that the local Jewish community had pretty much petered out and had given the Church the building for its use. In fact the next day, Wednesday, was the day that they distributed food to the local needy. I asked about the program, and told him I would like to participate in whatever little way I could. He said that they would be there at 8:00 am, and that I should find 'Rebecca'.
Eight o'clock Wednesday morning found me on my bicycle riding up to the old synagogue. There was a long line of people around the building and inside it as well. I took my backpack full of canned goods that Judy had dug out of the boat in to the people in the back to give away. I was stunned and amazed. There was food piled up in great mounds and a platoon of people packing bags, counting and carrying. I gave them my little bag of cans and rolled up my sleeves. We moved the donated food for about an hour to finish packing the over 200 bags of food that they give away weekly, then made room for the next 2 tons of food that was to be delivered later that week.
I told my story about why I was there and heard the tales of the locals. One of the volunteers told me he was good friends with Bert and Mary Louise Rosenbush, the last Jews living in Demopolis, and that he would like to hear from me. He gave me their number and address. I managed to make contact by telephone the next evening. Unfortunately, since we were scheduled to leave on Saturday we could not meet up due to our conflicting schedules. We did, however, have a long and interesting telephone conversation. The Rosenbush family were local merchants for 3 generations. Bert's granddad had started the furniture store in 1895. His daddy had run it for many years, and Bert had only closed it about 3 years previous. He also donated the building it had been in to the Demopolis Historical Society. They had been a long time and prominent members of Ben Jushran . As the congregation dwindled they took down the old building and built the one that stood now. Somehow as the remaining few members were unsure of what to do with the temple it was given to the Episcopal Church. Bert felt that it had been wrested unfairly from the hands of the rightful owners. "Railroaded" was the expression he used. I am sure there is a story there.
The people never had a rabbi as the leader of the temple, nor did any itinerant rabbis visit. The services were always led by a 'lay reader'. Since Judaism does not prescribe a clergy, any adult Jew can lead services. Still the meaning is greater if there is a very learned member of the congregation present. Someone with a great singing voice is a major bonus. Lacking these made the congregation look elsewhere for guidance. Today the Rosenbushs are members of a temple in Montgomery, Alabama. There was never anyone in Demopolis who could teach Hebrew, or give a Jewish education. Indeed when Bert, who is 79 now, went to Israel several years ago he wanted to read from the torah and become Bar-Mitzvah. Unfortunately he lacked the background to even do this.
Many people who wish to identify themselves as Jews seek community. Demopolis no longer has one. Though there was once a thriving population of Jews, and much evidence of their presence Bert and Mary Louise, who never had children, are the last Jews in town. All the others have moved to cities and towns where it was easier to surround themselves with members of their own faith.
During our visit to Demopolis I was struck by how pleasant the town was. Life was fairly easy, the people were very friendly, I had no problem getting things done. I found myself thinking about how it would be to live there. I could imagine having a very nice life in small-town America, a lifestyle that I had previously thought was long gone. Though I asked specifically, Bert said that he never felt bigotry directed at him. This in a part of the country long known for bigotry, and still obviously healing from the wounds inflicted by it.
I don't know whether or not to mourn the passing of the Jews of Demopolis. On the one hand there is the natural progression of things which includes migration of people of many groups. Usually from rural areas to more urban ones. The Jews tend to gather in larger cities where there is more community to share interests and understanding. On the other hand there is a simpler and older lifestyle that is past and can never be recovered nor can I ever achieve. Times change.......
Bill (Baruch) Mintz
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