This is my first week as the historian for the ISJL. I’ve been so warmly welcomed here—and am already finding connections between my last phase of life, and this one.
I recently completed my PhD at New York University. My focus was on church-state issues in American history, so I had to read a lot of case law. When the opportunity arose to write Jewish history for the ISJL, I jumped on it. Public history has a particular appeal to me because I feel that studying history is not just about studying the past, but also about understanding trends within current society and searching for ways to make positive change.
I was especially pleased to be given an assignment researching a rabbi by the name of Judah Wechsler for the Meridian/Lauderdale County Tourism Association. The association is interested in documenting the Jewish contribution to the Civil Rights movement in Meridian given the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom summer. Through my research, I discovered that Rabbi Wechsler became heavily involved in the issue of African American education as early as the late 19th century.
Like many small towns across the Reconstructionist South, Meridian, Mississippi, had limited free education offerings for African American children. Prior to 1871, an African American school was housed in the local Methodist church, but one of its teachers, Mr. Warren Tyler, was killed during a riot there in 1871. The other teacher, Mr. Price, was forced to leave town. Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Henry McElroy and Rabbi Judah Wechsler, the school survived until 1875. Wechsler and others campaigned for a bond issue to construct the first brick public school building for African Americans.
Rabbi Wechsler actually donated $1,000 (close to $25,000 by today’s standard) of his own personal money toward the expense of the school. When the bond issue passed, Meridian’s black community asked that the new school be named in the rabbi’s honor. The Wechsler School still stands today, and is registered as a historic landmark by the National Register of Historical Places.
During the Civil Rights era, there were several instances of Southern and Northern Jews fighting for equal educational rights in Meridian and beyond. For instance, while I was in New York finishing my dissertation, I had the good fortune to get to know Mark Levy. During the summer of 1964, Mark served as a coordinator of the Meridian, MS, Freedom School.
Freedom schools were alternative free schools for African Americans set up by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mitigate a segregated school system with little resources directed towards African American schools. Many African American children in small towns received little to no education. These schools aimed to empower African Americans in Mississippi to become active citizens and agents of social change. The progressive, experiential curriculum emphasized student-centered teaching and learning by doing.
I spoke with Mark for over three hours. He has devoted his whole life to social justice measures. His passion for tikkun olam is downright contagious. Though I met him first in New York, Mark will be here in Mississippi for the fiftieth anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom summer. This exciting event runs from June 25-29, at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Organizers expect 3,000 activists, elected officials, students, scholars, and veterans of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer to commemorate the achievements of Freedom Summer. This event isn’t just about the past, but will serve as a launching pad for social action focused on four closely-related social issues impacting minorities in Mississippi and beyond: Education, Workers Rights, Healthcare, and Voting Rights within Mississippi and the nation.
(As a further connection, Rabbi Wechsler shares a last name with my dissertation chair, Dr. Harold Wechsler of NYU, who is quite learned and also extremely warm-hearted. I could not trace a blood relationship between the two men, but they share a generous spirit. Just one more way history and community connects to our own stories!)
If you, too, are interested in connecting with living history and making the world better, the ISJL is helping coordinate complimentary special programs focusing on past and potential Jewish contributions to social justice. The event promises to be an enriching and exciting experience and all of us at ISJL encourage you to come. More details are here. I hope to see you in Mississippi!
Today’s blog is by Gabe Weinstein, a 2013 ISJL Summer Intern in the History Department. He now lives in Angel Fire, New Mexico, and is a staff writer at the Sangre de Cristo Chronicle. He shares his thoughts here on his new corner of the American Jewish world.
I never thought I would find a Jewish cemetery in Mora, New Mexico. Its miles of lush pastures are surrounded by the towering Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and most residents are Hispanic Catholics. So when I heard about the Jewish cemetery just outside town I knew I had to check it out.
I headed to Mora after participating in a cemetery cleanup at the Montefiore Cemetery outside Las Vegas, New Mexico. From the 1880’s to the 1950’s Las Vegas’ Jewish Community thrived. Charles Ilfeld and his family established one of the Southwest’s most dominant commercial enterprises in the town. Jews became active in Las Vegas’ civic affairs during the era.
Like many small towns in the ISJL’s 13 state region, Las Vegas’ Jewish community experienced a quick boom and a decline. The Jewish community dwindled over the years and the synagogue, Congregation Montefiore, closed in the 1950’s.
Mora’s Jewish community was never the size of the Las Vegas, NM community. Only a handful of German Jewish families lived in Mora and the surrounding communities of Cleveland, Ocate, Guadalupita, Sapello and La Cueva. Jewish settlers arrived in the region starting in the 1870’s and began opening general stores, butcher shops and acquired interests in real estate and livestock.
It is virtually impossible to look at a map of where I live in northern New Mexico and not find a Jewish story. Brothers Alex and Gerson Gusdorf were business tycoons in Taos. The Spigelberg brothers were among the first Jewish settlers in Santa Fe, the state’s capital. They established a successful business empire in Santa Fe and helped countless other Jewish immigrants start their lives out on the frontier. The Rubin Family of Raton and the Herzsteins of Clayton are two of the countless Jewish connections that can be found throughout northern New Mexico’s plains and mountains.
The Jewish history of towns like Mora, Las Vegas, Taos and Santa Fe share many similarities with Southern communities the ISJL serves. German Jews made up most of the early settlers in both places. Many Jewish merchants in New Mexico and the South settled in isolated after stints as peddlers. Like Southern Jews, New Mexico’s Jewish pioneers took on regional speech patterns. Instead of developing southern drawls, New Mexican Jews learned Spanish and local Native American languages.
Today, northern New Mexico has a small and thriving Jewish community. Taos, the region’s tourism and commercial hub, is home to a Chabad house, a non-denominational congregation, and a Chavurah.
Jewish life in northern New Mexico’s smaller and more remote communities is for the most part extinct. But the legacy of Mora’s Jewish residents is still very much felt. The offspring of the people buried in the cemetery still live in the Mora Valley and are active in Mora County’s political and commercial activities.
After my visit to the Mora cemetery I’m itching to hit the road and check out more places in New Mexico with unique Jewish stories. I have to visit western New Mexico to learn more about Solomon Bibo, the German Jew who served four terms as governor of Acoma Pueblo. One of these days I need to make the short trip up to the border towns of northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado where the region’s Crypto-Jews have deep roots.
If there’s one thing I learned from my experiences at the ISJL and in New Mexico it’s that Jewish history exists in every corner of the United States. From the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta to the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico you never know when you’ll stumble upon a piece of American Jewish history.
The 270-plus community histories in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities contain countless stories of Jewish-owned businesses. Often, these stories are fairly typical: a small dry goods store grows into a big department store or maybe even a regional chain of shopping emporiums.
But in Norfolk, Virginia – just one of 23 Virginia encyclopedia histories we recently unveiled – I came across a unique story with an explosive ending (literally).
Dudley Cooper was an optometrist who got his start going door-to-door fitting people for eyeglasses. He later moved into various real estate ventures, and in 1942 he bought the dilapidated Ocean View Amusement Park. Cooper bought it for its prime ocean front property, and had plans to tear it down to develop the site. It was during World War II, and Norfolk was home to a large naval base with several other military installations in the area. The military brass was concerned by the dearth of wholesome recreational activities for off-duty sailors and soldiers in Norfolk, and in a bid to distract them from the bars and brothels in the area, convinced Cooper to reopen the amusement park. Their plan was evidently a success, as the rate of venereal disease among area military personnel sharply declined by 1943. Ocean View remained in business after the war and became a summer ritual for generations of children and their parents.
During the years of legal segregation, Ocean View was for whites-only. But in 1946, Cooper partnered with three prominent black businessmen to establish the Seaview Beach Amusement Park exclusively for African Americans. With both black and white staff and managers and nice new rides, Seaview was the nation’s only major amusement park for African Americans. In a 1950 newspaper article, Cooper called it “a victory sociologically but a dud financially.” After Ocean View was integrated in the 1960s, Seaview was closed.
By the 1970s, Ocean View began to lose money due to high maintenance costs and increased competition from newer amusement parks in the area. In 1976, the Hollywood movie “Rollercoaster,” starring Timothy Bottoms, George Segal, and Richard Widmark, was filmed at Ocean View, which brought attention to the park, but was not enough to save it. By 1978, Cooper had decided to close the park.
When he sold the property to the City of Norfolk, it was his responsibility to clear its structures, which would be a difficult and expensive undertaking. Enter film director Michael Trikilis, who was looking to shoot a disaster movie set at an amusement park and had heard about Ocean View’s demise. He proposed to Cooper’s son, Joel, and to his nephew, Richard Miller, that the family allow Trikilis to blow up the rides for his TV movie to be entitled, appropriately, “The Death of Ocean View Park.” The Coopers agreed, and the rest is Norfolk and TV movie history.
Destroying the Rocket rollercoaster was not as easy as it looked in the film. The ride was so well-made that two attempts to detonate it left The Rocket standing. Finally, after its supporting beams were cut and pulled down by a large tractor, The Rocket gave way. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can witness the exciting climax of “The Death of Ocean View Park.” As you watch it, try to forget the bad acting and think about the important legacy of Dudley Cooper and his mission to provide wholesale entertainment to the people of Norfolk:
You can read more compelling (if less explosive) stories about the history of Jews in Virginia here.