Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
During its heyday, Woodville was known as "Little Jerusalem" due to the prevalence of Jews in this small town in the southwest corner of Mississippi. Woodville was founded in 1809, and grew after the West Feliciana Railroad came through town in 1831. It became a regional cotton processing and marketing town. Jews began to arrive in Woodville once it began to flourish economically. According to some reports,
Jewish peddlers stopped in Woodville as early as 1810.
During its early years, some soon-to-be prominent Jews spent time in Woodville. In 1828, Charles Lewis Levin arrived from Charleston, South Carolina to teach in a local school. Though he only managed to stay in Woodville a short time, Levin was wounded in a duel, in which his second was the future president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. Later, Levin represented Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the U.S. Congress. Two brothers, Theodore and Edwin Moise, also from Charleston, came to Woodville in 1836. A few years later, they moved to New Orleans, where they became prominent local citizens. Edwin later served as speaker of the house in Louisiana while Theodore became a well-known portrait painter.
During the antebellum period, several Jewish merchants settled in Woodville, though most stayed in Woodville less than ten years, moving on to better opportunities in larger towns in the region, usually New Orleans. As Elliott Ashkenazi has written, "the Jewish residents of Woodville found not so much a place to live as a place to make money while searching for a better place to live." This high rate of turnover explains why a stable Jewish community took so long to form. The first Jewish congregation in Woodville was not founded until after the Civil War.
Woodville's Jewish merchants were closely tied economically to Jewish-owned New Orleans wholesale houses. Woodville Jews sold goods to small local farmers as well as large plantation owners. A few of these early Jewish merchants had non-Jewish partners, often from the local planter class, which reflects a significant degree of economic integration with the local community.
The first sign of a permanent Jewish presence occurred when two Jewish traveling peddlers, Jacob Schwartz and Jacob Cohen, purchased a small plot of land to bury a colleague who had died unexpectedly. Schwartz and Cohen eventually settled in Woodville after their peddling careers, both becoming successful merchants in town. Both Schwartz and Cohen were part of a new wave of Jewish merchants who sunk deeper roots in Woodville than their predecessors had. Both lived in Woodville until their deaths in early years of the 20th century.
In the late 1860's, Woodville's Jews began to build Jewish community institutions, beginning with the Woodville Hebrew Education Association, which was succeeded by Congregation Beth Israel, which served the community throughout the remainder of its lifespan. There was also a local chapter of B'nai B'rith, a national Jewish fraternal organization.
Several local Jews became civic leaders in Woodville. In 1904, the local newspaper put out a special edition with biographical sketches of 56 of the town's business and civic leaders; twelve of them were Jewish. These included: Leon Schwartz, the son of Jacob Schwartz, who served as city clerk and on the board of aldermen for many years; Morris Rothschild, a German immigrant who came to Woodville in 1880, who owned a dry goods store and cotton warehouse, and became vice-president of the Bank of Woodville and Secretary of the local school board; Charles Cohen, a prominent local merchant who was a director of the Bank of Woodville; and several other local merchants. Lee Schloss published a short-lived local newspaper, the Woodville Courier, and later served as president of the school board, city council member, and city treasurer. When the Rosenwald Fund gave money to build a school for African Americans in Woodville, it was named the Schloss-Rosenwald school.
The economy in Woodville was almost wholly dependent on cotton agriculture. But the rise of the boll weevil in southwest Mississippi, and the emergence of the Delta as the leading cotton growing region in the state, led to a sharp decline in the local economy in the early 20th century. Much of Woodville's Jewish community left in search of greater economic opportunity. In the 1920s, Congregation Beth Israel closed and sold its building. All of its furnishings, including the lectern, pulpit chairs, and pews went to the local Baptist church. In 1992, the church gave these items to the Wilkinson County museum, which put together an exhibit on the Jewish history of Woodville. Today, the last vestige of this "Little Jerusalem" is the Beth Israel cemetery, as no Jews currently live in Woodville.
Elliott Ashkenazi, The Business of Jews in Louisiana, 1840-1875 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1988), chapter 5.
Leo E. Turitz and Evelyn Turitz, Jews in Early Mississippi ( Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 1983.
Marsha Oates, editor, "Jewish Life in Wilkinson County, 1820-1920: Views of a Vanished Community," (Woodville: The Wilkinson County Museum, 1995).