- Congregation Mickve Israel
Mikveh Israel synagogue Basic information Location 20 East Gordon Street,
Geographic coordinates Coordinates: Affiliation Reform Judaism Status Active Leadership Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer Website www.mickveisrael.org Architectural description Architect(s) Henry G. Harrison Architectural style Gothic Revival Groundbreaking 1876 Completed 1878 U.S. National Register of Historic Places Added to NRHP: December 24, 1980 NRHP Reference#: 80004646
Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia, is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, the congregation having begun in 1733. The synagogue, located on Monterey Square in historic Savannah, was consecrated in 1878, and is a rare example of a Gothic-style synagogue. The synagogue building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The congregation was established in July 1735 as Kahal Kadosh Mickva Israel (the Holy Congregation, the Hope of Israel) shortly thereafter renting a building for use as a synagogue. The congregation was founded by many from a group of 42 Jews who had sailed from London aboard the William and Sarah and had come to Savannah on July 11, 1733, months after the colony's founding by James Oglethorpe. All but eight of the group were Spanish and Portuguese Jews, who had fled to England a decade earlier to escape the Spanish Inquisition, many of whom were members of the Bevis Marks Synagogue. Wealthy members of London's Jewish community of 6,000 had provided financial assistance to subsidize the initial group and a second boat that brought additional Jews to Savannah. The founders of the congregation brought with them a Sefer Torah that is still used on special occasions at the synagogue.
On July 5, 1742, during the The War of Jenkins' Ear between Spain and the Kingdom of Great Britain, Spanish troops landed on St. Simons Island as part of their Invasion of Georgia. Most of the Sephardi Jews abandoned Savannah, fearing that if captured they would be treated as apostates and burnt at the stake. The Minis and Sheftall families of Ashkenazi Jews were the only ones to remain behind. The rented synagogue building was relinquished and services would be held informally at the home of Benjamin Sheftall. Enough Jews had returned to Savannah by 1774 to justify re-establishing the congregation on a formal basis, and a meeting held the day before Yom Kippur, the assembled group agreed to conduct services in a room that Mordecai Sheftall (Benjamin's son) had prepared for such use.
Formal prayer services were not held during the American Revolutionary War, along with most formal religious services in all of Savannah. On July 7, 1786, "K. K. Mickvah Israel" was reorganized and a space was rented for use as a synagogue, attracting as many as 70 worshipers. Governor of Georgia Edward Telfair authorized a charter for the "Parnas and Adjuntas of Mickve Israel at Savannah" on November 20, 1790, under which the congregation still operates. By 1793, the congregation was having difficulty paying its rent and gave up its leased space thereafter. Even though services were hold in the homes of members, the congregation maintained its formal structure, including the election of officers.
A recipe for charoset, a paste made of fruits and nuts served as part of the ceremonial Passover Seder, was found from the congregation dating to 1794, describing it as a "compound formed of almonds, apples, & C. Worked up to the consistence of lime."
In response to a letter sent by Levi Sheftall, the congregation's president, congratulating George Washington on his election as the first President of the United States, Washington replied "To the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Savannah, Georgia":
... May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land - whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation - still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.
First synagogue building site
Dr. Moses Sheftall and Dr. Jacob De la Motta led an effort in 1818 to construct a synagogue building on a plot of land given by the city of Savannah to the congregation. A small wooden building was erected at the northeast corner of Liberty and Whitaker streets and was consecrated on July 21, 1820, making it the first synagogue to be built in the State of Georgia. A fire destroyed the building on December 4, 1829, with the Congregation's Torah scrolls saved from the fire.
Dr. Moses Sheftall led reconstruction efforts that began in 1834. A brick building was built on the same site to replace the destroyed structure and was dedicated in 1841 at ceremonies led by Reverend Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia. A bronze plaque in the sidewalk marks the site of these structures. Reverend Jacob Rosenfeld became the congregation's first permanent spiritual leader in 1853, serving in that role until 1862. For most of the succeeding years, the services were led by lay members of the congregation until the hiring of Reverend A. Harris in 1873.
Shift to Reform Judaism
Mickve Israel maintained its Portuguese traditions from its inception, maintaining this minhag in the face of the rising influence of Reform Judaism in the United States. The shift began with the addition of a musically-accompanied choir and the elimination of observance of the second day of festivals starting on February 11, 1868. Rabbi Isaac P. Mendes recommended a gradual shift in changes in synagogue practice during his 27 years leading the congregation, which started in 1877. The requirement to use a chuppah at wedding ceremonies was eliminated in 1880 and the obligation to wear a head covering was removed in 1894.
The congregation used a modified Portuguese traditional siddur until 1895 when the synagogue published a prayer book of its own, which was replaced in 1902 by the Union Prayer Book. Mickve Israel joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations on January 10, 1904. A vestige of the congregation's Sephardi tradition remains with the singing of "El Norah Alilah" during the Ne'ila service in the concluding hour of Yom Kippur.
With the growth in Savannah's Jewish population, the congregation outgrew its structure, and the cornerstone for what is its present building was laid on March 1, 1876. The building's Gothic Revival architecture was the work of New York architect Henry G. Harrison. An unused portion of property adjoining the synagogue building that had been dedicated by Mordecai Sheftall in 1773 for use as a cemetery was sold and another portion was used to construct the Mordecai Sheftall Memorial in 1902, which included space for meeting rooms and a religious school.
A capacity crowd of Jews and prominent Christians attended a ceremony held at the congregation on May 7, 1933 to mark the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in the colony of Georgia. The planned speaker at the event, Harold Hirsch of Atlanta, was unable to attend.
The original Mordecai Sheftall Memorial space was deemed too small, and an expanded replacement structure was dedicated on January 11, 1957.
The synagogue is located in the Savannah Historic District and offers tours to visitors except on Jewish and federal holidays. The tour lasts thirty to forty-five minutes, with an admission fee of $5 per person charged as of 2009, an amount the congregation's web site describes as "a real bargain".
- ^ a b c d e f g h i j History, Congregation Mickve Israel. Accessed March 2, 2009.
- ^ Nathan, Joan. "Retracing Jewish Steps, Through Haroseth", The New York Times, April 16, 1997. Accessed March 2, 2009.
- ^ Kohn, Moshe. "THE PUBLIC GOOD", The Jerusalem Post, February 14, 1992. Accessed March 3, 2009.
- ^ Staff. "BICENTENNIAL IN GEORGIA.; Savannah Congregation Marks Settlement of Jews in Colony.", The New York Times, May 88, 1933. Accessed March 2, 2009.
- ^ Home Page, Congregation Mickve Israel. Accessed March 2, 2009.
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