Last month, 150 members of the Southern Jewish Historical Society gathered for their 41st annual conference. Even for a group familiar with the Deep South, most had to head farther into the heart of Dixie than usual, as they gathered in one of the most Southern cities of them all: Natchez, Mississippi.
The conference theme, “Jews in the Southern Hinterland,” was enhanced by the setting and activities in Natchez, where participants got firsthand experience of Jewish life in the small towns and rural areas of the South. Natchez has a long and rich Jewish history, and it provides the perfect venue to examine how Jews adapted and thrived in the small-town South. Natchez’s Temple B’nai Israel, our home congregation for the conference, is a testament to the resilience and commitment of small Jewish communities to survive amidst demographic changes.
Read more about confence highlights here- www.myjewishlearning.com/southern-and-jewish/celebrating-jewish-history-in-one-of-the-deepest-deep-south-towns/
Many thanks for everyone in Natchez who went above and beyond to provide Southern hospitality to our guests, and we are grateful as well to our generous and enthusiastic conference participants.
It was a pleasure to meet and learn from everyone in our group. The SJHS gathering also provided a wonderful launching point for Temple B’nai Israel’s restoration and preservation campaign. Our long-term goal is for the building to regularly serve as a public space. We will ensure the temple is secure and accessible for extensive public use by the local community and visitors, which will increase awareness and appreciation of 200 years of Jewish presence in the state.. The building will be function as a cultural and meeting facility, accessible to all, with an elevator, 350-seat sanctuary, museum exhibits, and special programming to preserve and interpret the important legacy of the Natchez Jewish community. To learn more visit Temple B’nai Israel’s website – and maybe come on down and visit Natchez yourself!
Original post with photos on Samuel Gruber's Jewish Art & Monuments
A Jewish Gem of the South: Temple B'nai Israel in Natchez
by Samuel D. Gruber
Last weekend I had the great pleasure of spending many hours over three days in the sanctuary of the temple B'nai Israel in Natchez, Mississippi, one of the loveliest and most comfortable Jewish spaces in the South. built more than a century ago, the room still works well for Shabbat services and as a meeting hall for a modest-sized conference such as the just-concluded Annual Meeting of the Southern Jewish Historical Society (SJHS). I was last at the Temple in 1992 - and it seemed then that the place was about the close, the small congregation disappears. But remarkable the stalwarts held on, and the now even smaller congregation remains devoted to the building, its history and the traditions and memories it embodies. But still it is scheduled to close - sometime soon - and transition has has been planned now for decades into a musuem and cultural center administered by the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL). Unfortunately, the decade of diminished capabilities have taken their tool and the building needs work. ISJL will need to raise considerable funds to ensure this Jewish gem will last another century.
Inside rows of very comfortable curved pews following the new 20th-century preference for wider seating (for wider bottoms?) and sloping backs, sweep across the broad interior. All seating is good, with excellent sight lines to the bimah and Ark and a sense of closeness no matter how far. This same modern version of the old "broad-house' synagogue design was being pursued elsewhere about the same time - notably at the much larger Isaiah Temple designed by Dankmar Adler and built 1998-1900 in Chicago.
You can get a great 360 degree view of the sanctuary at
B'nai Israel is one of a group of related classical style synagogues erected across Mississippi shortly after the turn of the 20th century. I've written before about the rise of Classicism as the "brand" style of the Reform Movement at the turn of the 20th-century, but as I've been researching the this and similar building for the up-coming on-line exhibit Synagogues of the South for the College of Charleston, I've adopted a slightly more nuanced view.
After all, the leap in design from the previous Temple, which burned down in 1903 is not so great as in the case where classical style Temple radically replaced earlier Moorish style ones (as in Atlanta, GA and Birmingham, AL). H. A. Overbeck, who had already designed a synagogue in Dallas prepared plans for the new structure. The cornerstone for the present building was laid in July, 1904, and the building was dedicated March 25, 1905, with Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati and over 600 others in attendance.
Natchez, MS. Temple B'nai Israel. H. A. Overbeck, architect, 1905. South side, former terracotta or stucco medallion now missing. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2016
The synagogue is designed as a tight block on a high foundation. A protruding porch, which serves as a small entryway-vestibule is reached by a slight of steps from the street, flanked by two pairs of tall smooth ionic columns set on pedestals, close to the facade. The entrance atop the steps and between the columns is a big arched doorway. The columns support and entablature and a pediment, and these dominate the building’s outward appearance. Inside, a small dome on a high drum sits over the sanctuary which is subtly lit through its high-quality stained windows that punctuate the building’s sides.
The sanctuary has a seating capacity of 450. The centerpiece of the building is a magnificent ark of Italian marble, located right under the new organ (listed on the National Register of Historic Organs) now, which congregants played at most services. With an additional balcony over the entrance (presumably for extra seating), the temple was built to house an ever growing congregation. The building is a testament to the wealth and prominence of Natchez’s Jewish community at the time. And yet, by 1907, B’nai Israel had reached its peak size with 145 members.