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Site of Mississippi's First Synagogue Dedicated

At the marker dedication were H. T. Holmes, Director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History; Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray, III, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi; Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson; Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation; Macy Hart, president of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life; Rabbi Debra Kassoff, director of rabbinic services at the Institute, and Institute History Department Director Stuart Rockoff.

Early May 2005

Underneath a hot Spring sun on April 15, Rabbi Debra Kassoff noted that while everyone there was sitting in a parking lot in downtown Jackson, looking at a gas station, "once it was a synagogue, a path to heaven." Quoting Jacob's reaction upon awaking from his famous dream, Kassoff said "Surely the Lord is here in this place, and I did not know it." She asked, "Did you know it?"

The place in question is now a Conoco station, but it once was the location of Beth Israel"s first building the first synagogue building in Mississippi. The historic marker was dedicated on April 15 with a ceremony at the closest site to the marker, a parking lot half a block away. The Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation is working to erect a historic marker at the site of the first synagogue in all 50 states. Eleven others have already been erected, including Florida"s marker at Temple Beth Israel's first location in Pensacola. Jerry Klinger of Baltimore, president of the society, said the markers recognize the common heritage of the Jewish experience in America. Jackson's Beth Israel was not Mississippi"s first Jewish congregation; Vicksburg and Natchez are older. But Jackson"s building went up first, with the property purchased in May 1867. Klinger said a building shows permanence and optimism for the future of a community, and should therefore be celebrated.

He added that the society is looking to place markers in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky, among others. Alabama's oldest building would have been the first for Mobile's Shaarei Shomayim, now better known as the Springhill Avenue Temple. In 1846, the old Turnverein Hall on St. Emanuel Street in Mobile was dedicated as Shaarei Shomayim's first house of worship. In 1853, a building on Jackson Street near St. Michael Street was consecrated.

Jackson's Beth Israel started a cemetery in 1860, and was chartered in 1861. The wood frame building on the corner of South Street and South Main Street was completed in 1867, then burned on July 10, 1874. Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department at Jackson"s Goldring/ Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, researched the congregation"s history for the project. He said there was a common myth that the first synagogue had been burned by Union soldiers during the Civil War. He said there was no evidence that the congregation had a building before 1867, and that in the haze of memory, the 1874 fire was moved earlier. One motivation, he suggested, was to show the non-Jewish community that they too had suffered at the hands of the Yankees.

After the fire, a new brick building was constructed on the same site. It was used by the congregation until 1940, when a new building was constructed