Three Generations Uncover Their Jewish Southern Roots. Part 4: Montgomery
The Owen family; Ruben, his sons Rabbi Benjy and Jacob and his grandson Jeffrey set forth on a nine day journey to discover the Sephardic and American history of the deep South.
Tuesday morning, the 29th of December found Ruben crossing the Chattahoochee en route to Montgomery, Alabama together with his two boys, Rabbi Benjy and Jacob Owen and grandson Jeffrey.
The group hurried to make their meeting with two of Ruben’s first cousins; eighty-six year old Ruben Franco and eighty-nine year old Corinne Capeluto. The two have lived in Montgomery their entire lives. “Jacob and Benjy found it somewhat amusing”, recalled Ruben, “to have these two elderly Sephardic Jews speaking with the deepest, longest Southern drawl they ever heard, I found it heartwarming”.
Ruben’s family roots go deep in Montgomery, his maternal grandparents Ruben and Senoru Franco lived here as did his paternal grandparents Durward Buel & Annie Claxton Owen. They raised families here and are buried here. Ruben, who is named for his maternal grandfather, reminisced with his elderly cousins how he spent every summer and all of the High Holidays in Montgomery. “Me and my parents would stay with my grandparents who lived about four blocks from their synagogue, Etz Ahayim.”
According to the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture (FASSC) The first Jews in Alabama were three Sephardic Jews–Samuel Israel, Alexander Solomon, and Joseph Depalacios–who bought property in Mobile County on July 9, 1765. The earliest Sephardic settlers in Montgomery were not plentiful enough to form their own community and instead joined with the later arriving but larger Ashkenazic community.
The next wave of Sephardic Jews arrived in Montgomery in 1906, the first pioneer of this group being Ralph Cohen, a native of the Island of Rhodes. Many more Rhodesli immigrants soon followed, eleven more men that year alone. Mirroring Seattle’s Ezra Bessaroth community, these new arrivals to Alabama had surnames well known to any Jewish Seattleite; names like Alhadeff, Beton, Avzaradel , Touriel, Amiel, Capeloto, Halfon, Hanan, Menasche, Hasson, Franco, Mussafer, Piha, Rousso, Varon and many others equally familiar.
By 1912 the Alabama Rhodeslis had sufficient critical mass to form their own congregation, Etz Ahayim. But they had no building; for their first fifteen years as a kehila the group held Shabbat, High Holidays, Festival and Meldatho services in the homes of members.
The first building of Congregation Etz Ahayim, a dignified neo-Greek structure, was dedicated in 1927. Visiting the old structure (now a church) brought back a flood of memories for Ruben. “I remember sitting in this synagogue and listening to my uncle, David Franco lead the High Holiday services” recalled Ruben. “The tefila (prayers) were identical to the High Holiday services still practiced at Ezra Bessaroth” the Rhodesli congregation in Seattle.
“The first time I ever tried to fast on Yom Kippur was here” Ruben shared with his sons and grandson. “As the fast was coming to an end I guess I was looking pretty sickly and pale, one of the members became concerned and took me downstairs and forced me to drink some orange juice. Let’s just say my stomach did not react well to the introduction of the fluid. I have no doubt the concerned congregant forever regretted his act of kindness”.
In 1962 Etz Ahayim moved to a new, larger synagogue building, but the congregation struggled. The younger generation generally left Montgomery to pursue education and careers, few ever returning to settle. According to FASSC “The first generation never created structures to keep the successive generations active and integrated in the synagogue”.
As their numbers dwindled the synagogue found it increasingly difficult to attract a Sephardic Rabbi. Eventually the group became reliant on rabbinic services from the nearby Maxwell Air Force Base. By 2001 Etz Ahayim was down to 22 member families. That same year they merged with conservative Ashkenazic congregation, Agudath Israel.
Now known as Agudath Israel-Etz Ahayim, the congregation is now affiliated with the conservative movement and practices an amalgamation of Ashkenazic and Sephardic ritual.
Ruben’s grandson Jeffrey was inspired after hearing the many stories of his grandparents and great grandparents, all pioneers and pillars of the Montgomery Sephardic community. “I have this whole other history, I never really know about” Jeffrey told us “My family carried on our Sephardic traditions in a place as far from Rhodes in every way that one can imagine”.
From Etz Ahayim the Owens drove to the old Montgomery Greyhound bus station to explore a different side of the history of the south. The Greyhound station is the site where the legendary freedom riders, black and white activists, boarded buses and sat together in an attempt to end the segregated bus service prevalent in the south at the time. The freedom riders were assaulted and severely beaten by racist mobs while local law enforcement refused to intervene. The bus station is now a museum.
In a juxtaposition of family history and American history, directly across the street from the historic Greyhound station was the empty lot where once stood the home of Ruben’s grandparents, Senoru and Ruben Franco. “It was incredibly moving” Jeffrey, the teen of the group shared with TMR. “On one side of the street is the place where my great grandparents settled to seek the American dream, on the other side of the street brave people fought for their right to that same dream”
The next stop for the Owens in this city rich in the history of a tumultuous era was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the pulpit of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was from the basement of this church that Rev. King planned the Montgomery bus boycott which would eventually spell the end to segregation in Montgomery and across the south. The church stands just steps away from the Alabama state capitol, the destination of Dr. King’s historic 1965 march which began in Selma. Dr. King addressed 25,000 people here on March, 25th 1965.
“This is a place of stark contradictions and contrasts” observed Rabbi Owen. “Here we were at the church of Rev. Martin Luther King, the place where much of the strategy and planning of the civil rights movement was conceived, and there a few feet away we found a marker commemorating the inaugural parade of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy”.
Before departing Montgomery the Owens made a pilgrimage to the old Sephardic cemetery. The group visited the burial-place of Ruben’s grandparents and that of his uncles Ned and David Franco who are also buried there. Rabbi Owen recited the hashkava, the Sephardic memorial prayer by their graveside.
Heavy with the weight of history, the three generations of Owens walked slowly from the cemetery back to their vehicle. The group sat silently as Rabbi Owen pulled out of the parking lot and pointed the car towards their next destination, Selma, Alabama.