Keeping the faith alive: Selma’s Jews struggle to preserve their heritage

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 21, 2003

When 106-year-old Pauline Hohenberg Siegel died last November, 1/19 of Selma’s Temple Mishkan Israel congregation died with her.

The temple’s membership, which once numbered 145 families in a flourishing Jewish community of the 1930s and ’40s, is now down to 18 individuals, many in their 70s and 80s &045;&045; the youngest, a spry 51.

The congregation’s demise &045;&045; though disheartening for many temple members who remember packed Holy Days gatherings and a thriving Jewish business district &045;&045; has failed to still the group’s resolve and enthusiasm for a sacred way of life.

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Times, though, have become so rough, that temple members no longer hold regular Saturday morning worship services, nor can they afford to hire rabbis to preside over their Jewish High Holy days gatherings.

Upkeep of the splendid, 104-year-old Temple Mishkan Synagogue on Broad Street is also a constant concern, an estimated $600,000 to $1 million is needed to refurbish the building &045;&045; that on top of its day-to-day maintenance requirements.

In response to the temple’s crisis, congregation members recently established the &uot;Temple Mishkan Israel Foundation Fund,&uot; in an effort to raise enough money to transform the synagogue into a Jewish museum. Members are hoping that the refurbishment, coupled with a permanent $1.25 million endowment, will preserve the temple for generations to come.

Temple members are mum on the amount of money raised so far, stating simply &uot;not enough.&uot;

And though the task before them seems daunting, temple members are not about to accept failure; their lives are intimately intertwined with this hallowed brick-and-mortar structure.

Adds synagogue president Ed Ember, 77, &uot;I’d like to see the temple preserved as a monument to the importance of the Jewish population in Selma over the years.&uot;

That importance cannot be overestimated. According to a &uot;History of Selma Jewry&uot; by longtime Selma resident Jerry Siegel, son of the aforementioned Pauline Siegel, the earliest Jewish settlers came to Selma prior to the Civil War &045;&045; some as early as the 1830s.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries up through World War II, Siegel writes, downtown Selma was dominated by Jewish wholesale and retail merchants. Jewish department stores such as Tepper’s, Kayser’s and Liepold’s shared street space with Fink’s Jewelry, Klotzman Furniture and the Boston Bargain.

The Jewish social scene of the day revolved around the Harmony Club on Water Avenue, the brick, three-story building that still stands today. The club, which dates from 1869, offered a large dance room and card hall.

In the late 1930s and 40s, Selma’s Jewish population began to decline, a trend, current members say, that persisted in many small Southern towns during that period.

Congregation members are hoping that should a new generation of Jews revitalize Selma, Temple Mishkan Israel will be there to greet them.