One Of Mississippi’s “Most Endangered” Sites Is A Synagogue

Natchez, Mississippi, is home to one of the most beautiful - and endangered - houses of worship you've ever seen

On Thursday, October 19, we (Nora Katz and Josh Parshall) attended the launch event for the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s biennial list of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places in Mississippi.

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life was invited to represent Temple B’nai Israel in Natchez, Mississippi, one of the places being recognized at the event, and a site that the ISJL owns. From crumbling plantation homes to Mississippi’s three congressionally designated National Heritage Areas, the 2017 list spoke to the diversity of historic preservation efforts in Mississippi as well as the challenges of doing this work doing this work in an era of scarce public funds and stiff competition for private donations.The event’s location, Jackson’s historic Lowry House, was on the list itself in 2005, and the successful restoration of the Victorian home is a testament to the opportunity that this kind of recognition provides.

The ISJL nominated Temple B’nai Israel because of its significance to southern Jewish history and the local history of Natchez, and because of its uncertain future. The Natchez Jewish community is the oldest in Mississippi, with religious services stretching back as far as 1800. B’nai Israel became the first organized congregation in the state in 1840, and the current synagogue was completed in 1905, a “grand new synagogue” that testified to the economic success and social integration of Natchez’s Jews. Its signature dome, stained glass windows, and ark of Italian marble make this synagogue one of the loveliest in the region. However, only a few years after the building’s dedication, the congregation reached its peak membership, and its numbers declined for the remainder of the 20th century.

The synagogue, built to seat 350 worshipers, served 150 congregants by the end of the 1920s and currently holds services for groups of 10 or fewer. Despite the dwindling Jewish population, the remaining members continue to open the historic space to friends and neighbors for celebrations, cultural events and historical programs. Maintaining the historic synagogue has become increasingly difficult as the community has declined in size. In 1993, the Jewish community transferred ownership of the temple to the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (now the ISJL), although the congregation continued to operate the building and pay for its upkeep. Currently, the ISJL has secured a grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which will help to pay for a ramp to the side entrance—the first step toward making the building handicap accessible.

The temple’s long-term future remains uncertain, however, as there is no endowed fund to ensure the perpetuity of its care and use. We hope that inclusion on the list draws attention to Natchez as the oldest Jewish community in Mississippi, as well as Temple B’nai Israel’s architectural significance. With the new Department of Heritage and Interpretation, momentum is building for programming opportunities in the space, including possibilities for theatre and music performances, artists-in-residency, partnerships with the City of Natchez, and more regular opening hours. But none of this is possible without long-term financial support – you can learn more about how to be ap art of the revitalization effort, and contribute to Temple B’nai Israel’s future, here. 

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