Honoring two Jewish Abrahams in Alabama history: Heschel and Mordecai

Pastor Robert Somerville and Susannah Heschel Just before Rosh Hashanah, two Jewish Abrahams were recognized for their roles in Alabama...

Pastor Robert Somerville and Susannah Heschel

Just before Rosh Hashanah, two Jewish Abrahams were recognized for their roles in Alabama history.

Redigging the Wells, “a Biblical prayer based strategy for Spiritual transformation” to bring “healing to the land and people in our region” honored Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Abraham Mordecai at its Sept. 12 event at River City Church in downtown Montgomery. On Sept. 13, the group held a Christian worship procession to “honor the Fatherhood of God in Public Worship as the Hebrew New Year begins.”

Rabbi Heschel, who died in 1972, is regarded as one of the greatest Jewish theologians of the 20th century, while Mordecai is regarded as the first permanent white settler of what is now Montgomery and brought the first cotton gin to the state.

Paul Hughes, who is heading the Redigging the Wells initiative, said the program was the fourth in a series of gatherings “in the spirit of the four wells dug by Abraham, then re-dug by Isaac in Genesis 26.”

The programs are designed to bring together different groups in a spirit of unity and reconciliation, to “reconnect to those wells of blessing.”

Pastor Robert Somerville of Huntsville said the event sought to give “greater recognition and gratitude to the Jewish community” for its contributions to Alabama.

Somerville is director of Awareness Ministry in Huntsville, and each year leads one of the nation’s largest Christian Passover Seders. For years he has been active in pro-Israel groups in north Alabama.

He has written a booklet, “Abraham Blesses Huntsville,” about the Jewish community’s involvement in the north Alabama city.

Susannah Heschel, daughter of Rabbi Heschel, spoke about her father’s legacy, while Somerville spoke of Mordecai, who he said should not be just a footnote in Alabama history.

Rabbi Elliot Stevens of Temple Beth Or introduced Heschel, who is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College.

Heschel spoke about her father’s deep friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., whose church was across the street from the venue. At the start of the program, the iconic image was projected onto the wall showing King and Heschel at the Selma march in 1965.

That event was not just a spot on the map of Black-Jewish relations, she said. “It’s iconic because it’s inspiring to think of that relationship” and it is one of those “moments when we have a need to transcend political conflict… and remind ourselves that we live for a purpose.”

In March, she spoke at Selma’s Mishkan Israel during a Jewish community observance of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

“In so many ways,” she said, “the civil rights movement gave us back our Jewish religiosity, and for that we’re grateful.”

Rabbi Heschel, she explained, had a philosophy of divine need. “God is the most moved mover… what we do moves God. When I injure another human being I injure God. When I assist another human being I magnify God’s presence in the world.”

In Selma in 1965, “my father felt he was being the rebbe he was expected to be growing up in Poland,” transforming lives.

He saw social concerns in spiritual terms. At a demonstration against the Vietnam War, Heschel said her father explained he was there because he could not pray. “When I open my prayer books I see images of children burning from napalm. So I cannot pray.”

Her father came from a family of Chassidim in eastern Europe, “a world which was destroyed” by the Nazis, and when he was growing up a leading philosophy among German theologians was that the Hebrew Bible was a terrible work that should be ripped out of the Christian canon.

In America, Rabbi Heschel found the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible come alive in King’s words. When King quoted the Prophets in his speeches, as he continued “you couldn’t tell if it was King or Amos or Isaiah.”

As a Christian minister, King could have centered his speeches on Jesus, but quoting the Prophets made the movement “the most inclusive.”

She added, “for my father to see Christians embracing the Hebrew Bible… was extraordinary for him. It meant so much to him.”

Jewish pioneer

Somerville said there isn’t a lot of source material on Mordecai. Much of it is contradictory and a lot is hearsay. He said that Mordecai was not a rabbi, nor was he a religious person. But his arrival in 1785 made him the first Jew in Alabama.

“Don’t put a silk suit on this guy,” Somerville said. “He was a rough, tough, colorful character.”

He referenced a list of 600 prominent Alabamians, listing many, then adding that Mordecai isn’t mentioned. “He should be on that list… He should be the head of the saga that is Alabama, and not the tail.”

There is a historic marker giving his biography at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, where he is regarded as the first permanent white settler in what became the state capital.

Born in Pennsylvania around 1755, Mordecai fought in the Revolutionary War, then wound up establishing a trading post on the banks of the Alabama River in Creek and Chickasaw territory, in what is now Montgomery. “One might say this Jewish man was the first store owner in Alabama,” Somerville observed.

The Creek referred to him as Muccose, or Little Chief, and he often addressed them in Hebrew, hoping for a Hebrew response, as he was convinced the native Americans were part of the Ten Lost Tribes, and thought he detected names of God in their corn dance ritual.

He married a Creek woman and shortly after hearing of Eli Whitney’s invention, brought the first cotton gin to Alabama with the assistance of two Jewish men in Georgia. Somerville called that a “huge Genesis 12:3 moment,” referring to the verse where God tells Abraham that he will bless those who bless Abraham’s descendants. The cotton gin brought efficiency and productivity to the state and demonstrated how the state could prosper through cotton.

In 1802 the gin was destroyed as he was attacked by a group of Coosawda tribe soldiers. Some say it was because his animals had trampled the tribe’s corn fields, while others say it was because of inappropriate attention to females in the tribe. Either way, one of his ears was cut off.

Mordecai fought with the Georgia Militia in the War of 1812, then returned to Alabama. He continued trading, paddling his canoe as far as Mobile and New Orleans.

When the Trail of Tears emptied the area in 1836, he was alone — it is uncertain whether his wife had died by then or was forcibly removed to Oklahoma, along with his children.

By 1847, the now-“eccentric” Mordecai was living in Dudleyville in a remote cabin, using a coffin he had built for himself as a table. He died in 1850 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1933, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a military marker at his grave, with a Star of David on it.

With the Sept. 12 program, Hughes said “we want everybody to know Jews have been a part of Alabama before Alabama, and to celebrate that deep root of Jewish presence in Alabama, those who came and shaped Alabama history.”

Hughes currently heads the Birmingham Prayer Furnace. For 25 years he was involved on campuses with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He is also very active with the pro-Israel groups in north Alabama.

The venue for the event was mentioned as a place of reconciliation. In 1955, when King was at Dexter Avenue, he and River City’s pastor would have secret midnight prayer meetings. In 1997, the church hosted the Alabama Reconciliation Weekend with Native Americans.

Some of the previous Redigging the Wells programs lit the spark leading to this event.

The most recent program was a 22-day “Prayer Tent” for “The Well of Selma,” just after the nationally-publicized 50th anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Bloody Sunday. The tent culminated in a passage over the bridge on Passover, April 4.

Last year, there was the Well of Native Honor, a program to mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Fort Jackson in Wetumpka, also called the Treaty with the Creeks. At the event, Hughes became friends with Buddy Cox of Oklahoma, a Jewish man who is also Muscogee Creek.

Cox was fascinated by the story of Mordecai and hoped to be at this event, but a family health issue has prevented that. Hughes said Cox’s grandfather had mentioned one of his ancestors was Jewish, and Cox is trying to research whether that link goes back to Mordecai. In Creek-Jewish ancestry, “there just aren’t many candidates,” Hughes said.

In 2012 the group held a worship procession in Birmingham from 16th Street Baptist Church to Railroad Park in commemoration of the 49th anniversary of the church bombing.

For the 50th anniversary, they brought together many survivors of the bombing for a program at Guiding Light Church in Irondale, “recalling memories they had never even shared.” As part of the event, those who were at the church on that day went behind closed doors to talk with each other, something they had not ever had the opportunity to do before.

Hughes’ interest in civil rights comes from his uncle, Bob Hughes, who was executive director of the Alabama Council on Human Relations, described at the time as “virtually the only channel of communication between white and Negro citizens in the state.” The family still has part of a cross that the Klan lit at their home in 1959.

He used the metaphor of his organization to describe the state of relations between the black and Jewish communities today — “that well seems to have gotten corked in many ways” in recent years.

Hughes said “Honor is one of the things that restores blessing,” and through the Redigging the Wells programs, “out of Alabama, we want to see trust and relationships.”

Southern Jewish Life: Honoring two Jewish Abrahams in Alabama history: Heschel and Mordecai
Honoring two Jewish Abrahams in Alabama history: Heschel and Mordecai
Southern Jewish Life
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