Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
History of Congregation Adath Israel, Cleveland, Mississippi
Cleveland, Mississippi, a city built upon timber, the Mississippi River, and the railroad in the 1880s, became a Delta center with a thriving Jewish community. The Cleveland Jewish community began to grow around the early years of the twentieth century, sparking the possibility for a permanent house of worship.
By the early 1920s, about ten Jewish families lived in Cleveland, though they had not yet organized religiously. Teaching their children about Judaism became the impetus to come together. In the spring of 1922, Mrs. H.L. Weinstein invited Greenville’s rabbi, Dr. Samuel A. Rabinowitz, to speak at the local Cleveland PTA. During his visit, the Jews of Cleveland held an informal meeting with him, where they discussed forming a local Sabbath school. From this informal meeting as well as from a second formal gathering in a room on the top of Cleveland State Bank, Rabbi Rabinowitz agreed to lead the religious school, which became the first Jewish institution in Cleveland. With help from local leaders including Leo Shoenholz, M. Tonkel, Harry Adelson, and H.L. Weinstein, the Cleveland Consolidated School held the first religious school classes in 1923. The school proved to be a great success, with fifty-three children coming on Sundays in its first year.
Also in 1923, the adults of the community began to worship together as a congregation. Rabbi Rabinowitz officiated at the first confirmation ceremony on May 23, 1926. An adult bible class met every Sunday led by knowledgeable congregation members, while Rabbi Rabinowitz came to Cleveland on the last Sunday of each month to lead services. For its first four years, the group held services in a local high school auditorium, and members began to raise money to build a permanent home for the congregation. Between 1926 and 1927, Joe Fink and Leo Shoenholz led the capital campaign for the first building of the congregation they now called Adath Israel (Community of Israel). They found great support throughout the region. Non-Jews donated nearly $4000 for the project, while warehouses in Memphis and St. Louis contributed $1200. The small Jewish community of Merigold raised $750, while Mrs. Dattel and coworkers of Rosedale outdid their neighbors with contributions of $1000.
On February 6, 1927, members of Adath Israel dedicated their Moorish-designed building at the corner of Bolivar and Shelby Streets. Services at the synagogue featured a community choir and an organ. The congregation used the Reform Union Prayer Book and joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1934. While a student rabbi from New York named Max Maccoby conducted the first High Holiday services, Rabbi Jacob Halevi became the first resident rabbi of Cleveland in 1928. His tenure continued until 1931, after which Carl Schorr, Hirsch L. Freund, and Newton Friedman served the congregation. J.S. Borodofsky became the first president of the congregation. Other presidents include Leo Shoenholz, Joe Fink, Mose Hyman, Ben Levingston, Sam Jacobs, I.A. Kamien Jr., Marcel Davidow, Louis Kaplan, and Ed Kossman Jr.
The Great Depression hit Cleveland at full force, though Adath Israel managed to persevere. While finances were tight, causing the building to fall into disrepair, charity drives at the synagogue still brought in over a thousand dollars annually, while the congregation’s income was still high enough to pay a rabbi’s salary. Despite hard times, membership grew during this period. Between 1928 and 1937, the congregation grew from 70 to 89 members. Adath Israel served more than just Cleveland, as its members came from such towns as Drew, Ruleville, Rosedale, Shaw, Boyle, Pace, Merigold, and Shelby.
After the depression, Adath Israel continued to flourish. By the late 1940s, the congregation had over 100 members; by the mid 1950s, it had nearly 75 children in its religious school. During this period, Sunday school and Friday night services were staples of religious life at Adath Israel. A series of rabbis served the congregation over the years, including Louis Josephson, Julian Feingold, Simon Cohen, Morris Shappiro, and Henry Schwartz. In 1950, the congregation built a $30,000 annex, which included a social hall, kitchen, and new classrooms.
In 1957, Adath Israel finally began to enjoy some rabbinic stability with the arrival of Rabbi Moses Landau, who served the congregation well into the 1990s. Under his leadership, the congregation thrived. In the 1960s, the congregation renovated its sanctuary, built a rabbi’s study, and also acquired a home for the rabbi
The 1950s and 60s also saw the emergence of temple youth programs. While Mrs. Ben Sklar of Cleveland became the state chairman of the Mississippi Federation of Temple Youth, the precursor of SOFTY, in 1946, Cleveland did not have a youth group until 1947. By the early 1960s, it was one of the largest temple youth groups in the state, serving the much smaller Temple Beth Israel of Greenwood, as well as much of the Jewish youth of many small Delta towns. Macy Hart, founder and president of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, came from this Cleveland group and became national president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) in the late 1960s.
The women of Adath Israel have long played a leading role in the congregation. The first sisterhood was formed in 1915 under the name, “Busy Bees,” which combined the Jewish sewing circles of Ruleville and Drew with discussion sessions and charity. This organization predated the founding of the congregation by at least eight years. The Busy Bees received national affiliation in 1927 when Adath Israel was officially founded. As mentioned above, women started the first religious school and helped raise funds to build the temple. In addition, they performed countless services that kept the synagogue strong, including bake sales and luncheons. They also donated a musical organ, library books, kitchen accessories, curtains, and shrubbery. During World War II, these women won the Meritorious Service Award for selling more defense bonds than any other group in the area.
In 1928, B’nai Brith arrived in Cleveland, amassing nearly 75 members; fraternal activities pertaining to social and service needs occurred for decades at the Adath Israel Lodge. In 1965, a group of men received affiliation from the National Federation of Temple Brotherhood; however, this club was inactive throughout most of Adath Israel’s history.
Over the last few decades, membership at Adath Israel has dwindled along with the rest of the Jewish Delta. Many of Cleveland’s educated Jewish youth left for social and economic opportunities in the “big city.”
Today, the Adath Israel temple is still in use with membership between twenty to twenty-five members. They still hold regular services. Rabbi Harry Danziger, the retired rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis, comes to Cleveland once a month to lead services. In 2005, a historical marker was erected commemorating the Adath Israel congregation. Cleveland’s historic Jewish house of worship is in the hands of its lay members; this community can only survive through the hard work of those that remain in this once large Delta Jewish community.