Three Generations Uncover their Jewish Roots. Part 2: Savannah
Ruben Owen dreamed of returning to his childhood home of Columbus, Georgia. A descendent of Sephardic immigrants from the Greek Island of Rhodes, Ruben wanted to combine his homecoming with a tour of the Sephardic South. Joined by his two sons, Rabbi Benjy & Jacob Owen and his grandson Jeffrey; three generations took a Jewish journey through six southern states. En route to Ruben’s childhood home they hoped to uncover the secrets of the Sephardic south.
Erev Shabbat, Friday December 26th found the Owen’s crossing the Savannah River over the Talmadge Memorial bridge. The group rushed to make their afternoon tour of Congregation Mickve Israel, one of the oldest congregations in the United States. The synagogue was founded in 1735 by a group of 42 mostly Sephardic immigrants who sailed from London on the William & Sarah, arriving in Savannah on July 11, 1733.
The Congregation’s tour guide explained to the small group gathered in the sanctuary that there is an ongoing rivalry between members of Savannah’s Mickve Israel and Charleston’s Beth Elohim over the matter of which synagogue was established first. Mikve Israel even has their own copy of a letter from George Washington (nobody knows where the original is) to compete with that of Beth Elohim . The Mickve Israel letter was sent by President Washington In response to a letter sent by Levi Sheftall, the congregation’s president, congratulating George Washington on his recent election as President. Washington replied, “To the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Savannah, Georgia”.
“… May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian Oppressors planted them in the promised land – whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation – still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”
The Jewish community of Savannah soon proved their worth. The Governor of the colony of Georgia, General William Oglethorpe credited Mickve Israel member Dr. Samuel Nunis with saving the citizens of Savannah from a brutal outbreak of malaria in 1733. While many citizens objected to permitting the Jewish immigrants to settle in Savannah, Oglethorpe forcefully intervened on their behalf. Dr. Nunis’ service to the community is widely attributed to be the primary factor in Oglethorpe’s benevolence to the young Jewish community.
The magnificent gothic structure that is the current Mickve Israel is in fact their third building. The first, a simple wooden building was destroyed by fire on December 4, 1829. The congregation rebuilt, but then outgrew their second building. Construction of the current building commenced on March 1, 1876.
Like their sister congregation Beth Elohim, Mickve Israel gradually transitioned from the traditional Sephardic rites to those of the Reform movement. While the synagogue adopted the Reform prayer-book in 1904, A vestige of the congregation’s Sephardic tradition remains with the singing of “El Norah Alilah” during the Ne’ila service in the concluding hour of Yom Kippur.
Most fascinating to the Owens though was a Sefer Torah dating back to 1400’s Spain that was on display at Mickve Israel. Rabbi Owen studied the unique Hebrew calligraphy in the Torah noting that it closely resembled the famous 800 year old Spanish Sefer Torah now housed in the Jewish museum of Rhodes. “This Sefer has a unique feature” said Rabbi Owen “with the letters Nun, Ayin & Gimmel having tails that run under the adjacent letter to the left. This is very unusual”.
From Mickve Israel the dauntless group pressed on to their next stop, Congregation B’nai Brith Jacob (BBJ) where they spent a lovely Shabbat. “I think BBJ was the most surprising of the many synagogues we visited” observed Rabbi Owen. “Here we are in a small Jewish community of about 3000 and it is home to one of the most vibrant, energetic synagogues I have ever seen”. B’nai Brith Jacob boasts about 400 member families, most of whom live within walking distance of the congregation. The synagogue has an award-winning chapter of NCSY, the Orthodox youth group and an active Lakewood affiliated Kollel (adult Jewish studies program).
The congregants of BBJ shared their pride in their community, regaling the Owens of their Jewish Day School (Rambam Day School) a Mikveh and plentiful local availability of fresh kosher meats and groceries. Locals attribute much of the success of this unique community to the vision of their longtime Rabbi, Abraham Rosenberg. “For a small community like this to thrive as it does, they need to believe in their mission, support their mission and have strong leadership” observed Rabbi Owen. “Having the same visionary Rabbi lead this congregation for 35 years certainly was a central contributing factor.”
BBJ is the newer of the historic Savannah congregations, having been established at the late date of 1861 by Ashkenazi immigrants. The Congregation’s prior building of Moorish Revival design remains intact and well cared for but is now owned and maintained by a local college and no longer functions as a synagogue.
The Owens appreciated seeing the many artifacts from the original Bnai Brith Jacob synagogue on display at their current building, but they were awestruck by the mammoth one of a kind mural encompassing the entire eastern wall of the sanctuary. According to the BBJ website “the spectacular mural is the design of Rabbi Abraham Rosenberg, z”l and was hand painted in 1961 by visiting artist Gisbert Palmier. At approximately 60 feet long and 40 feet high, it very well may be the largest work of hand painted Jewish Synagogue art in North America. The images depict symbols of the months of the Jewish year, holidays, history as well as Biblical symbols.”
On their way out of Savannah on Sunday the 28th of December the Owens toured the historic Jewish cemetery at Cohen and Spruce Streets. The Savannah Jewish Burial Ground was used by families of Sephardic Mikve Israel with monuments dating back to 1753. The Cemetery was in use until 1882. “We saw many familiar Sephardic names here” noted Ruben. “Some of the gravesites are of Jewish heroes of the Revolution. Benjamin Nones is buried here. Nones (1757-1826), the Parnas of Mikve Israel served on the staff of General George Washington. He fought in almost every Revolutionary war battle in the Carolinas and as a major led a “Hebrew legion” of some 400 men.
“I felt proud to know that Sephardic Jews played such an important role in the founding of America” Jeffrey, the teenager of the group told TMR. “We are not newcomers here, we are old timers with a pretty impressive history”.