Two Jewish communities in Arkansas are closing the doors for good on their synagogues this month, as final services will be held in Pine Bluff for Anshe Emeth on June 11 and for Meir Chayim in McGehee on June 17.
The Pine Bluff service will be at First Presbyterian Church, where the congregation has met in the chapel since 2003. Following the 10 a.m. service there will be a luncheon at Pine Bluff Country Club.
The Meir Chayim service will be at 7:15 p.m., with an oneg following.
Rabbi Eugene Levy, who retired as rabbi of B’nai Israel in Little Rock in 2011, has been visiting the two congregations in recent years and will officiate the final services.
Levy has been visiting Pine Bluff monthly for services for three years, except for this past High Holy Days. “I decided to be a congregant for the first time in 47 years” and visited family. Having a grandchild born on Kol Nidre night in California was also part of the decision.
He has been visiting McGehee every other month to lead services.
In both cases, past members, rabbis and student rabbis have been invited, and each congregation is expecting about 50 to 100 in attendance.
Levy said the communities don’t have the numbers or resources to keep the congregations going. “There are no young families,” he said, relating a common story in smaller Southern communities.
Many of the first generation of Jews in these towns became “the landed gentry,” ones who had stores, property and businesses, and the resources to build congregations. Within a couple of generations, the children and grandchildren were becoming professionals and moving to larger communities.
By the 1960s and 1970s, Levy said, few were coming back home after college, and there weren’t new people coming in. “Forty years ago, Pine Bluff had 200 families, now they have eight.” McGehee went from 50 to three or four now.
When Levy arrived in Little Rock in 1987, after the High Holidays he was urged to visit Pine Bluff. When he arrived, Rabbi Leslie Sertes, the last full-time rabbi at Anshe Emeth, was packing up his office, an odd time of year to do so. “He told me they just had the last class of the Sunday School, the last two confirmands” that May. “When that happens, if nobody is coming in… it’s just a matter of time.”
The Anshe Emeth members decided last year that this would be their final year.
Both congregations have been working with the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which works with smaller communities that know they will eventually need to close the doors in developing “legacy plans,” Noah Levine said.
Levine said both congregations were well on their way to closing when he got involved. He urges congregations to make these decisions while there is still a “viable board” and institutional memory. His role, he said, is as an “honest broker” to help congregations make the best decision for their situation, and help them know they are not alone.
The Jewish community in Pine Bluff dates back to the 1840s, and by 1855 there were roughly 10 Jewish families in the area, mostly merchants like Isaac Altschul.
Many of the local Jews served in the Confederacy, then after the Union captured the area, Jewish families hosted Jewish soldiers from the north.
After the war, Pine Bluff grew, as did the Jewish community. Anshe Emeth was established in 1866, and numerous other Jewish organizations were soon established.
Many in the Jewish community became cotton planters, including Sol Franklin, who planned to resettle 200 Jews from Romania as sharecroppers. The plan was never implemented.
By 1905 there were 425 Jews in Pine Bluff, which became the second-largest Jewish community in the state. L.E. Goldsmith and Simon Bloom served as mayor, and local state legislator Sam Levine was outspoken against segregationist opposition to Supreme Court rulings.
Meyer Solmson became editor of the local paper and was threatened by a local man who he had criticized in an article. Solmson wound up killing the man in self defense. He later moved to New York and became managing editor of Variety.
Another well-known Pine Bluff journalist is Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg, a nationally syndicated columnist now with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He recently wrote a column about the final Seder at Anshe Emeth.
“Some of us can still remember the little neo-Victorian temple in downtown Pine Bluff with all its nooks and crannies, wooden ceilings and floors, and the tucked-away rooms on the side where I taught at least a couple of generations of Sunday School students,” Greenberg wrote.
Anshe Emeth was the first synagogue officially chartered in Arkansas, beating Little Rock’s B’nai Israel by five days. While Anshe Emeth is closing on its 150th anniversary, B’nai Israel just celebrated its 150th anniversary as the largest Jewish congregation in the state.
In 1867, the first Anshe Emeth building was completed, and in 1873 the congregation joined the Reform movement.
In 1902, a larger building was erected as the congregation exceeded 130 families. Newcomers from Eastern Europe established an Orthodox congregation, B’nai Israel, in 1907. When immigration was stopped in the 1920s, that sapped the smaller congregation’s strength, and as the newcomers assimilated into the community, more wound up at Anshe Emeth.
At Anshe Emeth, controversy over changes made by Rabbi Leonard Rothstein, who had previously been in Alexandria, La., led to a split in 1921 as 58 members left to form Temple Israel, the community’s third congregation. Rothstein left in 1923, and Temple Israel’s rabbi left the next year. With the two smaller congregations struggling and both without rabbis, they reunited in 1925.
B’nai Israel disbanded in 1950, but even with Anshe Chesed being the only congregation left, its numbers also started to decline. In 1961 a lot was purchased for a smaller building closer to where the members lived, and when the new building was completed there were about 85 members.
In the mid-1980s, when the last full-time rabbi left, the Jewish population was 175, down from over 450 in 1960. In 2003, the Anshe Chesed building was sold to Jefferson Regional Medical Center, which turned it into a nursing school. Since then, the congregation has met at First Presbyterian Church.
Levy said the service on June 11 will not be a desanctification of the building, as it is borrowed space in a church, but a desanctification of the congregation. A yahrzeit candle will be lit at the beginning of the service, the Torah will be carried through the congregation one last time, the mezuzah on the chapel taken down and the key will be presented to the minister.
At the service, all of the names of members who have died from the last 148 years will be read. “We feel we need to do that,” Levy said.
The Torah is being sent to a congregation in Guatemala through the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
Levine said the yahrzeit plaques will be relocated to House of Israel in Hot Springs, archival documents have been sent to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and congregants are arranging for perpetual care of the cemetery.
For most congregations that close, “that is the number one concern, that they have enough money set aside as an endowment” to keep the cemetery maintained.
In addition to McGehee, Meir Chayim served Dumas, 20 miles away. Gus Waterman was the first Jew to move to the timber town of Dumas, in 1879, and became the town’s first mayor. His son founded the University of Arkansas Law School. The Dante family established a department store, and later a garment manufacturing plant. Son-in-law B.J. Tanenbaum started the United Dollar Store, which grew to 200 stores before being sold to Dollar General.
Jerry Tanenbaum has become very involved internationally in the Reform movement, including as founding chairman of the Association of Reform Zionists of America/World Union North America, and was long-time chairman of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp.
McGehee got a later start, blooming as a higher-ground refuge after the great flood of 1927. Many Jews from flooded-out Arkansas City moved their stores to McGehee, while others were in the cotton business. Many Jewish merchants were seen as reviving the area after the flood by assisting farmers with obtaining supplies when banks refused to issue loans.
By the 1940s, there were over 120 families in the area, Rose Ann Naron said. They had met informally in homes for years, then in St. Paul Episcopal Church, but decided it was time to start a congregation that would serve several towns.
Rabbi Morris Clark from Pine Bluff had been leading services, but World War II gas rationing ended those trips.
During a B’nai B’rith meeting in 1946, David Meyer proposed the formation of Beth Chayim. The name was changed soon after to honor a member of the Jewish community who had died in action in Italy during World War II, Herbert M. Abowitz, whose Hebrew name was Meir Chayim.
The congregation affiliated with the Reform movement and started fundraising throughout the region for a building. Much of the lumber came from trees on members’ property, and the Gothic-style building was completed in 1947.
“The sanctuary was designed to seat 150 people on red velour theater type seats,” Naron said. A Sunday School wing, recreational hall and kitchen were also in the building.
The sanctuary has 10 identical stained-glass windows. A Ten Commandments tablet flanked by lions of Judah was placed over the ark, it had formerly been at Temple B’nai Sholom of Bastrop, La., which closed in 1923 and was demolished in 1939.
The Ten Commandments on the front of the building came from the 1872 building of Temple Beth El Emeth in Camden, one of the first four congregations in Arkansas. It closed in 1927.
In 2005, a Torah from Meir Chayim was loaned to Temple Or Hadash in Fort Collins, Col., where Rabbi Debra Kassoff, who had been the traveling rabbi for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, had been visiting rabbi. The loan was arranged by Linda and Lester Pincus of Dermott, cousins of Or Hadash member Patzi Goldberg.
The Meir Chayim building is now on the market, with a list price of $57,000. According to Sims Realty, the sale is pending.
The June 17 service will desanctify the building. As the congregation is used to Friday night Torah readings, there will be a reading, after which the Torah will be presented to the congregants who dedicated it.
Shabbat and yahrzeit candles will be lit, and the names of all deceased members will be read, just as in Pine Bluff. All of the yahrzeit lights will be turned off, and the eternal light will be removed.
Levy said these will be physical acts of closure and finality.
Naron said many of the Judaic items are going to the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica and to the ISJL for a future museum.
Revenue from the building’s sale will go to a scholarship fund so Arkansas children can attend Jacobs Camp “in Meir Chayim Temple’s name, so our legacy can continue,” Naron said.
These congregations will join two others in Arkansas that have recently closed their doors.
In Texarkana, Mount Sinai Congregation held its final service on May 16, 2014, then the remaining members decided in May 2015 to sell the building. They published a memory book, with “The Congregation That Helped Grow Rabbis” in the front, referring to the numerous rabbis and student rabbis that have served the congregation since the 1890s.
Mount Sinai, formed around 1885, purchased a former Episcopal church building, which burned in 1892 when a neighboring grocery caught fire. A new building was dedicated in 1894, and by 1917 there were 50 member families.
Mount Sinai was an off-and-on member of the Reform movement, but in the 1930s also hosted a small number of Orthodox families for a minyan on Saturday mornings, with Reform members helping them reach the required 10. During World War II the congregation hosted many Jewish soldiers from nearby bases, and the community grew after the war.
A new building was dedicated in 1949, two blocks into Texas from the state line, and through the 1980s membership continued to be around 40 families. But by 2015 there were only six or seven families remaining.
The congregation’s Judaica has been offered to the families who dedicated the various pieces.
Phil Bishop of Curt Green and Company said the property is still on the market with a list price of $139,000 for the 6,000-square-foot building. Over the past year they have “had several ‘lookers’ and have one couple still interested in converting it to residential for their family.”
El Dorado’s community started as the town experienced an oil boom in 1922. By 1927 there were 124 Jews with short-lived Orthodox and Reform congregations. The oil business went bust during the Great Depression, but the economy picked back up after World War II and Temple Beth Israel was formed with the encouragement of the Arkansas Jewish Assembly.
The Beth Israel building was completed in 1955. The congregation was never large enough for a full-time rabbi, and by the 1980s there were just six Jewish families remaining.
Rachel Myers, museum and special projects coordinator at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, said the El Dorado congregation has been inactive for years but has been letting the local Mennonite community use the building.
Last year, the remaining handful of El Dorado’s Jews officially deeded the building to the Mennonites and moved the remaining Judaica out, bringing it to Jackson for future use in the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience and in active congregations in the region.