Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
History of Temple Beth Israel
On October 6, 1897, C.I. Stein asked a group of his Jewish neighbors in Greenwood to come to his store house for a meeting to discuss the possibility of organizing a congregation. This meeting became the foundation for Temple Beth Israel. By the end of the meeting, those in attendance elected the first temple board, which included Ed Hyman as treasurer, C.I. Stein as secretary, L. Bernstein as vice president, and A. Aron as president. In the synagogue’s inaugural year, monthly dues for families totaled 50 cents.
The founders of Beth Israel soon embraced Reform Judaism, like most of the other congregations in Mississippi. In 1904, Beth Israel joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national organization of Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism was often a better fit for a community that was far removed from kosher meat and where strict Shabbat adherence was difficult to maintain due to economic circumstances. In rural towns like Greenwood, Saturday was the busiest day for merchants as farmers came to town to buy necessary supplies. Most Jewish merchants were forced to adjust their religious practices to fit into their new communities. But not everyone agreed on how much to adjust, and a group of new immigrants formed an Orthodox congregation in Greenwood rather than joining Beth Israel.
By 1902, Beth Israel began to look for a building, and the group bought the old Episcopal Church of Nativity on Main Street as a permanent house of worship. Unfortunately, Greenwood had been prone to community fires, which later meant that the synagogue building eventually felt victim to one of these tragedies in 1912. After the 1912 fire, members of Beth Israel contemplated merging with Ahavath Rayim, Greenwood’s Orthodox congregation; however, sincere religious differences prevented this merger from ever taking place.
By 1917, Albert Weiler had become president of Beth Israel. Under his leadership, the congregation built a new home on the corner of West Washington and Williamson Streets. This new brick building had stained-glass windows, a new pipe organ, and two Torahs in its ark. Dedication of the building occurred on May 28, 1917, where the new synagogue hosted a ceremony filled with prominent southern rabbis and local Christian ministers.
Beth Israel remained small and never had a full-time rabbi. Lay leaders usually ran services, though rabbis from nearby congregations in New Orleans, Vicksburg, Cleveland, and Greenville also helped out from time to time. They also had student rabbis from Hebrew Union College. In 1975, Sheila Russian became the first female student rabbi to serve the Beth Israel congregation.
Women played a very important role in the history of Greenwood’s Beth Israel synagogue. Between 1898 and 1905, a Hebrew Ladies’ Sewing Society formed for the benefit of these southern women, which later took on a more charitable role and became the Ladies’ Aid Society. From the Ladies’ Aid Society, the group then transformed into the more recognizable Temple Sisterhood with national affiliation by 1919. Throughout much of the temple’s existence, the Temple Sisterhood’s main purpose was to provide service and social opportunities for Reform women of Greenwood. Unfortunately, the 1960s saw a decrease in sisterhood membership, which eventually led to group to disband by 1970.
Beth Israel always remained a small synagogue. In 1940, there were 30 members. By 1957 the temple had 66 members and twenty students in Sunday school. Although the group was small, the temple not only served Reform Jews of Greenwood but also those from places like Charleston, Grenada, Winona, Indianola, and Schlater. The temple’s existence was also important during certain periods of American history. In 1943, people “stood in silent prayer for persecuted Jews in Nazi-held Europe.” During World War II, Millard Weiler, the temple’s president, led the congregation in welcoming Jewish servicemen stationed at the nearby Air Force base.
During the late 1950s, Beth Israel’s building appeared to have structural defects. Facing high remodeling costs, the synagogue sold its building to the First Christian Church. The temple decided to take temporary residence at the Girl Scout Hut in Greenwood until a final decision on what to do. They talked with Ahavath Rayim again about merging, but were unable to come to an agreement that satisfied both congregations. Finally, President Gerald Jacobs led the effort for a new building in 1966. Beth Israel found a new home on West President Street despite a steady decrease in temple membership. By 1967, the temple had dropped its Sunday school program due to a lack of children in the congregation. Despite the decline in membership, the congregation continued to hold services with lay leaders and student rabbis into the 1980s. In 1989, the congregation finally decided to close. Despite having no building and no members, Beth Israel remains a member of the Union for Reform Judaism as final president Ellis Hart continues to pay dues for the congregation.
Today, there are few traces left of Temple Beth Israel in Greenwood. Their original building is gone, and their last temple is now an office building. The most visible vestige of this congregation is their cemetery, which attests to the long history of Reform Jews in Greenwood.