Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Congregation B'nai Israel, Columbus, Mississippi
Though Jews had prayed together in Columbus since the 1840s, they did not formally create a congregation until September of 1879, when twelve men founded B’nai Israel (House of Israel). Apparently, teaching their children was an even higher priority as Columbus Jews had organized a Sunday school in 1877, a year before they first met to discuss the possibility of creating a congregation. At this meeting, I. Bluhm was elected president of the fledgling congregation and the board created a finance committee that was charged with raising contributions from larger Jewish communities on the East Coast. Such support for new “frontier” congregations was common in 19th century American Jewish life.
From their founding, they adopted Isaac Mayer Wise’s “Minhag America” as their mode of worship. Not long after they formed, they hired Joseph Herz as rabbi at a salary of $25 a month. They also hired a music and choir director and purchased an organ. An early board motion passed requiring the rabbi to wear a kippah, but the board voted down a motion to make him wear a tallis. From its founding, B’nai Israel was Reform in practice, although it did not join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national organization of Reform Judaism, until well into the 20th century. In its early years, B’nai Israel charted its own course of religious practice that was distinct from classical Reform Judaism but a long way from traditional observance.
They rented a building from the local Odd Fellows society, which they used as their house of worship for almost thirty years. In 1880, they dedicated their synagogue at a public ceremony at which Columbus’ Jews, elected officials, clergy, press, and circuit court judges attended. Soon after, B’nai Israel had 23 members, though there were several Columbus Jews who had not joined the congregation. Most of these unaffiliated were young men without spouses or families; non-members were charged $2.50 for seats at high holiday services.
During its early years, B’nai Israel experienced economic hardship. The congregation cut its dues to attract new members, created a “detailed account” of all congregants in arrears, and suspended those with outstanding debts. In June of 1884, B’nai Israel raffled off a clock in an attempt to raise money, and in 1885 it was forced to reduce the rabbi’s salary from $400 to $300 a year.
As early as 1891, members began to raise money for the construction of an official synagogue for the congregation. Because of their small size, and the high turnover of membership as young Jewish merchants often left for greater opportunity in other towns, B’nai Israel was not able to purchase or build a building of their own for several more years. By 1897, the congregation had shrunk to only 15 households, and the board began to recruit members from such neighboring towns as Starkville, West Point, Aberdeen, and Macon. In 1904, a group of Jews in Aberdeen organized and petitioned B’nai Israel to join the congregation. B’nai Israel thus became a regional congregation, which it continues to be today.
The congregation continued to raise money for a permanent house of worship. They even solicited and received a $100 donation from New York financier Jacob Schiff. At the 1906 annual meeting, congregation president Simon Loeb exhorted the members to “stand up for their religion and put their shoulders to the wheel” in the fundraising effort. In 1906, when the congregation was without a space to hold services, several local churches offered B’nai Israel free use of their facilities. B’nai Israel accepted the kind offer of the Christian Church, and gave them a new carpet as thanks for their generosity. In December of 1906, the congregation voted to purchase an old building in town for use as a temple. Built in 1844 as a Methodist Church, the building had been a military hospital during the Civil War, a private military school, a city gymnasium, and a community concert hall. Upon purchasing the building for $2,400, the congregation began a program of renovations, transforming the former church into the synagogue that would house them for the next 53 years. At the time, the total Jewish population of Columbus was estimated to be 63 people.
Joseph Herz remained B’nai Israel’s rabbi for 28 years, until his death in 1909. Sol Schwab, a B’nai Israel member and dry goods merchant, then served as spiritual leader of the congregation. For several years, the congregation functioned with lay leaders rather than an ordained rabbi. In the 1930s, they hired Rabbi Bernard Adler.
Although B’nai Israel’s members remained committed to their community and charities, the synagogue’s financial situation became unstable again during the Great Depression. The Jewish population of Columbus had dropped to sixty. The temple’s executive board revoked the memberships of many congregation members, even synagogue trustees, who had simply ceased paying their dues. It implored its remaining members not to renege on their payments and to attend services more frequently. In 1931, they were forced to suspend their choir since it was too expensive to maintain. The situation reached its nadir in 1940 when they were unable to continue paying Rabbi Adler, relying instead on a visiting rabbi once a month.
Finally, the opening of an Air Force base in Columbus in 1942 brought new prosperity to the congregation. Columbus Jews were closely involved in the town’s commerce, owning seven retail stores, a shoe shop, two theaters, an insurance agency, and a garment plant that employed over 1,000 people. As a result, the influx of over 8,000 troops to the area proved especially beneficial to the Jewish community. B’nai Israel’s recurring problem with congregants in arrears vanished, as years of unpaid dues came pouring into the synagogue. The treasury balance grew from a paltry $13 in November of 1941 to over $3,000 in March of 1946. They were now able to afford a full-time rabbi and hired J. Spear for the position. Taking advantage of this newfound prosperity, B’nai Israel revamped its temple building and purchased new sets of prayer books. The congregation also threw its support behind the Zionist movement. Following the war, it spearheaded a food drive for Jewish settlers in the fledgling state of Israel
A new challenge emerged in March of 1946, when the congregation voted overwhelmingly to fire their unpopular rabbi and replace him with a new one. The hiring committee took a year and a half to find a new rabbi; it finally hired Dr. Louis Kuppin in November of 1947. Kuppin remained at B’nai Israel until 1962. He also taught in the music department at the Mississippi State College for Women, located in Columbus. Since Rabbi Kuppin’s retirement, B’nai Israel has used a long series of student rabbis from Hebrew Union College.
In the 1950s, the congregation’s synagogue was becoming a financial burden, with many repairs needed on the 1844 structure. Members voted to tear down the building in 1960, and rebuild a new, smaller structure on the same site. Bricks from old temple were used in the new construction. While their new home was being built, B’nai Israel held services at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, reflecting the close ties between B’nai Israel and the town’s Christian community.
Currently, B’nai Israel is served by a student rabbi who visits once a month. Congregation member Dr. Seth Oppenheimer serves as lay leader for the rest of the month. There are 18 member families that live in Columbus and other nearby towns. While the size of the congregation has declined in recent years, it remains active.
Despite the difficulties that have befallen the members of B’nai Israel over the decades, their dedication towards providing the Columbus area with an active synagogue never faltered, and the congregation remains today as a testament to their hard work.