The Jewish community of Montgomery arose several decades after the city's founding in 1819. By the mid-nineteenth century, Jews were becoming an integral part of the city's economy and cultural life. They founded three different Jewish congregations, and Jewish religious life thrived in Alabama's capital city. In recent decades, the Jewish population has declined, dropping from 2,400 Jews in 1937 to 1,200 in 2001, although the Montgomery Jewish community remains vibrant.
Abraham Mordecai, who became known as "the little chief" for his marriage to a Creek woman, was the first recorded Jewish settler in Alabama and the first European American to settle in what is now Montgomery. Born in Pennsylvania in the 1750s, Mordecai moved to what is now Montgomery in 1785 to trade with Native Americans after he served in the American Revolution. He spent more than 20 years as a trader and became a key diplomat in U.S.-Indian relations in the territory. He negotiated peace agreements with the Chickasaws and Creeks and spoke their languages fluently. Like some Jews of the time, Mordecai felt a special kinship with Native Americans because of a belief that they were the descendents of one of the fabled lost tribes of Israel. As the only Jew in the region, Mordecai lived a life of relative isolation. When he died in 1850, the Montgomery Evening News called him "the cradle-rocker of Montgomery's infancy."
A Jewish community first began to take root in Montgomery in the 1840s, with the arrival of a group of German Jewish immigrants. This group established a Hebrew benevolent society, and in 1849, about 30 local Jews formed Kahl Montgomery, the town's first official Jewish congregation. Reflecting the origins of its founding members, the congregation's constitution was written in German. This group greatly benefited from the generosity of Jewish philanthropist Judah Touro of New Orleans, who bequeathed $2,000 to the congregation to construct a synagogue. Dedicated in 1862, the Kahl Montgomery synagogue is believed to be the only synagogue built in the South during the Civil War. In 1874, the congregation formally aligned itself with the Reform movement of Judaism, renaming the congregation Temple Beth Or (meaning "house of light").
Many Montgomery Jews achieved a great deal of success in the years following the Civil War. The Lehman brothers, whose cotton exchange company had earned them a fortune prior to the war, entered the Reconstruction Era in control of an increasingly powerful cotton brokerage. They eventually moved to New York City, where their company evolved into one of the nation's most powerful banks until its failure in the financial crisis of 2008. Brothers Mordecai and Alfred Moses came to Montgomery from Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860 and established a successful real estate and insurance business. Mordecai served as an alderman and was elected mayor in 1875.
In the late nineteenth century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began to arrive in Montgomery. In 1902, they formed the more conservative Agudath Israel Orthodox congregation, whose constitution reflected the traditions of these new immigrants. Written in Yiddish, the bylaws outlined a strict Orthodox practice, with men and women sitting apart and the service completely in Hebrew. By 1914, as a sign of growing assimilation, members rewrote the constitution in English. For Jewish immigrants in the South, most of whom were merchants catering to Christian customers, the English language was crucial for economic advancement. That same year, Agudath Israel moved into its first permanent synagogue on Monroe Street. By the late 1950s, Agudath Israel had formally joined the Conservative Movement, which was more strict regarding Jewish religious practices and laws than Reform Judaism, but less so than Orthodoxy.
Montgomery's wave of German Jewish immigrants followed by Orthodox Eastern European Jewish immigrants was a very common occurrence throughout the South and indeed the nation. Montgomery is among a small group of cities that also played host to a significant third wave of Jewish immigration from the Mediterranean. These Jews belonged to the Sephardic cultural group and emigrated from Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, and other parts of the Mediterranean in the 1910s. The pioneer of this wave was Ralph Cohen, who came to Montgomery from the Greek island of Rhodes in 1906, sponsored by a Greek Orthodox friend who already lived in the city.
By 1912, enough Sephardic Jews had settled in Montgomery to form a congregation of their own, which they named Etz Ahayem. They wrote its constitution in Ladino, the Spanish and Hebrew hybrid that was the native language of many Sephardic Jews. The rest of Montgomery's Jewish community welcomed this new wave of immigrants; Temple Beth Or donated a Torah to the new congregation. Etz Ahayem continued to thrive during the next several decades, building its first synagogue in 1927. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, however, Etz Ahayem went into decline as many of the second- and third-generation Sephardic Jews found better opportunities in larger cities or intermarried with Jews in other congregations. In 2001, Etz Ahayem merged with the Conservative congregation Agudath Israel and sold its building.
In the tradition of such pioneers as the Moses and Lehman brothers, several Jewish businesses filled downtown Montgomery. Among the dozens of shops were Weil's Department Store on Monroe Street, Cohen's Amusements on Dexter Avenue, Klein and Sons Jewelers, and Kaufman and Weil Clothiers. In recent decades, the Montgomery Jewish community has largely moved out of retail trade, with many members going into the professions.
During the civil rights movement, most Montgomery Jews sought to stay out of the conflict. Often, this response resulted from fear of repercussions. Alabama native Admiral John Crommelin, an outspoken segregationist in Montgomery, accused Jews of being the enemy of white Christians and blamed them for being the power behind the civil rights movement. Thus, Montgomery Jews often tried to disassociate themselves from the movement, even as many national Jewish organizations supported it. When Rabbi Seymour Atlas of Agudath Israel expressed support for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the members of his congregation pressured him to keep quiet and eventually voted not to renew his contract. When Etz Ahayem received an anonymous bomb threat, its rabbi, Solomon Acrish, toned down his support for integration. For the Jewish community, the civil rights era was a time of fear, internal conflict, and eventual acceptance of changing times.
Although Jewish life has changed in Montgomery, it remains an active and vibrant community, with two active congregations and an estimated 1,200 Jews living in and around the city. Although they constitute less than one percent of the city's population, Jews have made a significant contribution to life in Montgomery. Today, Jews continue to lead Montgomery, playing important roles in such organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the United Way. With its heritage of ethnic diversity and civic involvement, Montgomery's Jewish community remains a unique and active force in southern Jewish life.
Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life
Published August 11, 2009
Last updated April 3, 2013