Selma synagogue welcomes Rosh Hashanah reunion

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They arrived to celebrate the High Holy Days in the town best known racial strife during the civil rights movement.The occasion was "Home for the Holidays," a reunion that organizers hope will help ensure the maintenance of a Jewish presence in Selma.

During his welcoming remarks, Mishkan Israel President Ed Ember stopped after one sentence, looked around and marveled, "Wow, ain't this great?"

He later added, "I've been here 22 years and there's never been a crowd that big" for services.

Planning for the weekend began last Rosh Hashanah, as Montgomery Advertiser reporter Alvin Benn, a member of Mishkan Israel, wrote an article about the Reform congregation's struggles. Home to 145 families in 1945, Mishkan Israel's membership has dwindled to 32, most of whom are elderly.

Psychiatrist David Barton of Nashville, Tenn., saw that article about the congregation where he grew up. He and his wife, Lynn, decided to organize a reunion.

Their family ties to Selma date back to the mid-1800s. One item in the congregation's historical display was a wedding certificate for Lynn Barton's great-grandparents. David Barton's great-grandfather officiated at the ceremony, held April 10, 1881.

Local reunion coordinator Ronnie Leet said they did not have many planners in Selma to plan the reunion, but the congregants got behind the idea. For him, it was a chance "to know the people of Selma better than ever before."

The first Jews in Selma came from the West Indies in the 1830s but did not stay. A wave of immigrants from Germany arrived in the 1840s through the ports of New York and Mobile. Among the early families were the Seligmans. Joseph Seligman became a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and raised money in England for the Union during the Civil War. Other Seligman brothers remained in Selma and fought for the Confederacy.

By the end of the 1800s, downtown Selma was full of Jewish merchants, whose stores lined Alabama Avenue and Broad Street. Roswell Falkenberry, retired editor of the Selma Times-Journal, said that during those years, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, "you might have well just rolled the town up, because everything on Broad Street was closed."

Three of Selma's early mayors were Jewish: Simon Maas, who served from 1887 to 1889; Marcus Meyer, from 1895 to 1899; and Louis Benish, from 1915 to 1920.

According to Leo Maas of Los Angeles, when Simon Maas became mayor, there had been a tie vote and he was awakened in the middle of the night, brought to City Hall and sworn in.

The community established the Harmony Club, a social center. The building, with boarded-up windows, still stands on Water Street, one block from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

There also existed an Orthodox congregation, B'nai Abraham, for a brief time.

By World War II, the Jewish population in Selma started to decline. As in so many small Southern towns, the children of merchants went off to college and never returned, pursuing medical or legal professions in larger towns rather than returning to run the family store.

The Jewish community has been an integral part of Selma's history, and there has been little anti-Semitism in the town best known for 1965 racial strife.

Mayor Joe Smitherman, who spoke at the Shabbat service, said he enjoys surprising Jewish reporters from northern states who are flabbergasted to find a synagogue in Selma and pictures of Jewish mayors in City Hall.

However, Selma's acceptance of its Jewish community also contributed to the dwindling numbers. Intermarriage and assimilation took their toll on the community.

The reunion was planned as a way of re-establishing family ties, and to spark interest in ensuring the building's future.

Ember said that with a majority of elderly members, most of the congregation's financial responsibilities fall on just 10 families. Since that only covers the expense of bringing in a student rabbi seven times a year, the congregation has been depleting its savings to maintain its building. "That's why the endowment is so important."

In January, Mishkan Israel's endowment received a $10,000 gift from a donor in Baltimore who wished to remain anonymous.

As for future events, it was mentioned several times during the weekend that the Mishkan Israel building will be 100 years old in 1999. As is often said in Alabama, "Y'all come!"