I am Jewish. I am a historian. And, as my name attests—I am also Cajun French, so I was most excited to write a post about some Jewish history down in Cajun country.
My father’s family hails from the Alexandria, Louisiana area; specifically, a small town called Marksville. My grandparents were farmers, and I have fond memories of picking pecans on visits during the summer so that my mamaw could turn them into her heavenly pecan pralines. (To this day, I still can’t figure out her recipe so if you hear of one that includes dates, contact me!)
About two and a half hours up the road lies Donaldsonville, or “la Ville de Donaldson,” often referred to as the metropolis of the Sugar Belt. The town boasts a rich Jewish legacy. In fact, Donaldsonville had the most Jewish mayors in the South, with 9 men, serving 14 terms in total. One Jewish mayor, Marx Schoenberg, was killed during a standoff with militia troops after a dispute over counting ballots although some accounts suggest he was targeted and murdered by a political rival.
It may not have any living Jews now, but in May, the people of Donaldsonville honored the town’s Jewish heritage by making the town’s Jewish synagogue into a historic monument.
The campaign was spearheaded by ISJL former board member Mary Ann Sternberg. She wrote a wonderful article detailing the historical evolution of the synagogue, Bikur Cholim.
Built in 1872, the synagogue served as the only synagogue along River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and the second oldest extant synagogue building in Louisiana. Jewish residents of Donaldsonville were careful to observe Jewish laws. Services were typically well attended and Jewish businesses closed on Sabbath mornings. Intermarriage with the local Catholic Community diminished the Jewish community and by the late 1940s, the synagogue was closed.
The building was deconsecrated in 1955 and made into a car dealership. In 1977, it became an Ace Hardware store. Visitors to the store will find a poster in the store’s window commemorating its history with a historic photograph of the Bikur Cholim exterior along with a drawing of what the interior was believed to look like.
The Jewish community thrived throughout much of the 19th century, especially in 1871 when railroad service was offered to New Orleans. A city publication from 1900 wrote that Jews residents were “among the most liberal minded citizens, and are associated with every progressive move.” The town was especially attractive to French speaking Alsatian Jews that were looking for a future in the new world. They made a living despite the major destruction of Donaldsonville in 1862. In fact, there were at least 16 Jewish stores of the 69 located in Donaldsonville in the late 1800s.
From humble beginning, Jacob Lehman built up a large commercial business enterprise. In 1877, he built what would become the oldest continuing department store in Louisiana until the 1980s. Described as the “finest Italianate commercial building in any river town north of New Orleans,” it now houses the historic Donaldsonville museum. Inside is a reproduction of the entryway to the town’s synagogue along with local Jewish artifacts and papers.
What is most notable about Donaldsonville is its Jewish cemetery, which is still maintained by a trust fund set up by the proceeds from the sale of the synagogue. The headstones are engraved in a mixture of several languages, demonstrating the pluralistic nature of the community. While some are in Hebrew and English, many are in various combinations of French, German, Hebrew and English. A few of the oldest graves have no English at all, reflecting the spoken languages of the region: Jewish merchants typically spoke Hebrew to each other, German to customers of German descent, French to the Cajuns, and French or English to African Americans.
If you have the time, be sure to pay the gateway to the Cajun country a visit to soak up its Jewish heritage. And other opportunities for delving into local history abound. For instance, the River Road African-American Museum is devoted to African Americans of the nearby plantations, from the slavery era to today. Be sure to stop at the Grapevine café for hearty Cajun fare, right on the banks of the Mississippi river. Soak in the history, the modern culture, and when in Cajun country, of course—laissez les bons temps rouler!
Post updated July 9, 2014, to clarify the area wherein it was the sole synagogue.
Today’s guest post comes from Bob M. Schwartz, a member of Temple B’nai Israel in Tupelo, Mississippi. His thoughts can be found at bobmschwartz.com as well.
On April 28, 2014, a tornado cut a path of destruction through Tupelo, Mississippi. Many buildings were damaged and destroyed. Houses of worship were no exception.
A tree punctured the roof of Temple B’nai Israel. A few blocks away, St. Luke United Methodist Church was hit much worse. Thanks to an outdoor security camera, the world has seen dramatic video of the church playground being blown away. The tornado also tore off the roof of the church’s sanctuary.
B’nai Israel missed only one Shabbat service for repairs. At St. Luke, Sunday services for the 800-member congregation were held in the Family Life Center. But many classes and groups had to look for temporary homes elsewhere.
That’s where the story of friendship begins- or really, where it continues.
B’nai Israel has been an integral part of the Tupelo community since 1939. It is the center of Jewish life for a broad region stretching all the way into Alabama. When the current building was dedicated in 1957, it was a development supported and celebrated by institutions across northeast Mississippi, including many of the local churches.
Openness has marked the relationship between B’nai Israel and the churches that surround it. So it was natural that when St. Luke Church needed a place for its Sunday School, it would come calling at B’nai Israel. But there is much more to this story than just a convenient location.
Bettye Coggin of St. Luke Church is the primary teacher of what is called the Friendship Sunday School. It is an adult education class that includes about sixty congregants, mostly in their sixties, seventies, and eighties. Three of the couples are “charter members,” having been in the class for fifty-two years. That is where the “Friendship” name came from.
In this case, that was not the only friendship that mattered.
George Copen is a past President and current Board member at B’nai Israel. His family came to Tupelo in 1954, where his parents Reuben and Dorothy Copen played a major role in the growth of the congregation. George attended school in Tupelo, and it was there in 8th grade that he first met Bettye Coggin.
Continuity has been until recently a hallmark of Southern life and Southern Jewish life. And even with the increased mobility of the last few decades, Tupelo and other Southern sites still seem to have a hold on the people born or raised there. So maybe it is no surprise after decades that Bettye Coggin and George Copen should still be in Tupelo, worshipping in buildings just a few blocks apart, serving leading roles with their congregations. They also continue to share the principle that in extreme circumstances they should get together to help serve their congregations and their faith.
There are differences in particular beliefs, of course. On the most fundamental of human concerns, though, those differences vanish in the face of need and service. Bettye Coggin points out that current curriculum for the Friendship Sunday School concerns the Old Testament, and studying that inside a Jewish synagogue adds a special dimension to the learning. While these particular lessons may not include Ecclesiastes, part of the biblical Ketuvim (Writings), that book has something appropriate to say:
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
Today’s post is from Education Fellow Elaine Barenblat.
As a young girl, I was very involved in my home congregation, as many children with active parents tend to be. I embraced the role of active young member; it never crossed my mind that I had a choice to not be as active as I was. Everyone in my congregation knew me as someone who, at a very young age, was unafraid to lead her congregation in prayer, was a devoted member of the youth choral, and was also known to be a staunch supporter of the annual rabbi versus cantor capture-the-flag game. Since I was surrounded with Judaism in most aspects of my life, I always felt like ours was a robust community; I knew my congregation was amazing!
Now, as an adult, I have a little more perspective, and have learned that all things are relative. My home congregation is in San Antonio, Texas; compared to many other southern Jewish communities, ours is sizable. We have a full-time rabbi and cantor, a beautiful building, and my graduating Hebrew School class had about 15 students.
It is an amazing congregation, but it’s not as big as I thought it was when I was little.
On one of my first fledgling journeys outside of San Antonio, I found myself in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that I began to suspect that my circumstances were not at all as enormous as I thought they were. I realized that what made my congregation seem so big and vibrant was not the actual size of the building or the number of people on our roster, but the connections I made.
I have since moved back to the South, and have had the wonderful opportunity to work with various communities across a 13-state region, where my new theory about congregational life has been reinforced time and time again: it’s not about the size of a congregation, it’s about the connections we find there.
The students with whom I work seem to feel the same connection to their communities that I felt to mine, particularly if, like me, they are active members at a young age. Children do not often think to compare their situation to others unless the connection is made for them by those who have had outside experiences. My takeaway is that while each community is bound to have its struggles, it is also uniquely attuned to helping their children make important lifelong connections.
In other words, no matter how large or small a congregation, the sense of community and the belief that “my congregation is amazing!” is something we can help instill and nurture in every child – and, yes, in every adult.
What makes your congregation amazing? Tell us in the comments below!