Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Greenwood, Mississippi is a small town nestled in the heart of the Mississippi Delta. Today, it’s known for being home to the Viking Cooking School and the posh Alluvian Hotel & Spa. However, when it comes to Jewish history, Greenwood has another special distinction: It was the home of one of the few small-town Orthodox shuls in the Deep South.
As historian Dr. Stuart Rockoff wrote when researching the history of the synagogue: “Reform Judaism has long dominated Jewish religious life in the South. And yet, groups of Orthodox Jews have held to their traditions and cut their own path of adjustment to life in the South. Congregation Ahavath Rayim of Greenwood, Mississippi, emerged as one of those rare pockets of small town Orthodox Judaism. Although the congregation is no longer Orthodox, Ahavath Rayim’s members remain dedicated to preserving worship there for as long as possible.”
Orthodox Jewish worship services were held in private homes in Greenwood as early as 1891. In 1907, Congregation Ahavath Rayim was officially founded. From 1907 until the 1920s, members of Ahavath Rayim held services in Greenwood’s Masonic Hall. With an official charter granted on June 11, 1917, and temporary affiliation with the Orthodox Union, the synagogue grew to the point of needing a new building. By 1922, Ahavath Rayim built a new house of worship at the corner of George and Market streets. The shul was built in the traditional style with a raised bimah in the middle of the sanctuary.
The members dedicated this brick structure in January of 1923 — making this month the 93rd anniversary of this historic building.
While institutional changes brought new members to the Orthodox community, the Greenwood Jewish community could not withstand the changing demographics and economics throughout the latter parts of the 20th century. As Greenwood began to rely less on cotton and more on other industries such as the Viking Range Corporation, younger Jews left Greenwood for the big city. Despite these challenges, Ahavath Rayim continued to practice its traditional Judaism.
Despite decreasing membership, Orthodox Jewish life continued at Ahavath Rayim throughout the 1980s. The culture of the synagogue had to change in order to survive and maintain the Jewish faith in Greenwood. Its small membership caused Ahavath Rayim to perform traditional Hebrew services with mixed seating because gender separation was not feasible with such a small crowd. Services continue even to this day, but Orthodox life is not as it once had been in this Delta town.
With no mikvah, or ritual bath, since 1950 and mixed seating for services, the congregation is no longer strictly “Orthodox.” Though still observant, the Jewish community in Greenwood evolved to fit its changing environment, but Ahavath Rayim still claims it place in history as the Delta’s Orthodox shul. With recent renovations and a small but vibrant and dedicated Jewish community still worshiping at the synagogue today, that legacy is honored.
To learn more about Greenwood and other Southern Jewish communities, visit the ISJL’s online Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. It’s a great way to explore the stories of people and places throughout Southern Jewish history — and we’re updating it to keep reflecting new resources and information!
Pronounced: BEE-muh, Origin: Hebrew, literally “stage,” this is the raised platform in a synagogue from which services are led and the the Torah is read.
Pronounced: shool (oo as in cool), Origin: Yiddish, synagogue.