Jews of Selma struggle to save historic temple

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where armed officers beat civil rights activists in March 1965, is located just blocks from the city's only synagogue. Selma's Jews hope history tourism will generate interest in helping to preserve their historic synagogue. (Ben Harris)

The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where armed officers beat civil rights activists in March 1965, is located just blocks from the city’s only synagogue. Selma’s Jews hope history tourism will generate interest in helping to preserve their historic synagogue. (Ben Harris)

Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma, Ala. The city's remaining Jews are hoping to raise money to turn the synagogue into a museum. (Ben Harris)

Temple Mishkan Israel in Selma, Ala. The city’s remaining Jews are hoping to raise money to turn the synagogue into a museum. (Ben Harris)

Members of the dwindling Jewish community of Selma meet in the city's public library, Dec. 8, 2009. (Ben Harris)

Members of the dwindling Jewish community of Selma meet in the city’s public library, Dec. 8, 2009. (Ben Harris)

The remaining Jews of Selma, Ala. recall the challenges they faced when their hometown became the site of massive protests during the 1960s. (Ben Harris)

SELMA, Ala. (JTA) — From the street, the red-brick facade of Temple Mishkan Israel retains all the grandeur of when it was first built in 1899.

But step inside, and the degradation of a once proud synagogue is apparent everywhere, from the well-scuffed wood of its pews and holy ark to the cracks lining the soaring supports for its vaulted ceiling, a result of chronic water damage from a leaky roof. Only a series of magnificent stained glass windows appear to have withstood the corrosion of time.

Selma’s Jewish community, which once numbered well over 100 families, is down to its final dozen or so members, and the synagogue hasn’t been in frequent use for years. With the community having accepted the fact of its eventual disappearance, the remaining members have invested their hopes in a plan to transform the historic synagogue into a museum dedicated to the history of a community that was once an important civic presence here.

"We think that Selma has an incredible opportunity," said Macy Hart, the founding director of the Institute for Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., which would oversee the operation of the museum if the community can come up with the renovation money. "It’s a great opportunity for Selma to concentrate on tourism."

The story of Selma’s Jewish community is a common one in the South: a once thriving community, with a dominant retail presence downtown, now reduced to a handful of aging members. The decline is inextricably bound to the sagging fortunes of Selma overall, an economically depressed city that, like the remaining Jews, has invested much hope in attracting tourists drawn by its role in American history.

Selma was the launching point for the famous marches to Montgomery and witnessed a crucial battle during the American Civil War. A recently opened welcome center downtown directs visitors to the various museums and sites of historic significance around town.

"The big picture is tourism, in terms of its meaning, its value, its history, in terms of people coming," said Mayor George Evans. "I think there’s still a lot we could do if we all come together and recognize that history was made here in Selma like no other place in the world, from the standpoint of civil rights."

Jewish history in Selma transcends the civil rights era, and indeed those who lived through the period admit they generally sought to remain neutral, concerned about the impact expressions of solidarity with the black community might have on Jewish standing. The community nevertheless hopes to benefit from any potential tourist traffic connected to that era, though there’s considerable skepticism among the locals that enough money can be raised for the renovation.

Despite acknowledging that he had never been inside, Evans said that in principle he supports the synagogue project. But, the mayor added, the city is unable to contribute to what would be a substantial investment to transform the building. Renovations would require upwards of $2 million, and Hart’s group is seeking an endowment of at least another $1 million to support ongoing maintenance and staffing. The community has raised only about $500,000 so far.

"I’m not sure that we’re going to get there," said Rusty Palmer, a Selma native who is spearheading the fundraising effort. "We’re going to need some luck."

Elsewhere in the South, declining Jewish communities have sold their synagogue buildings or, as in Helena, Ark., gifted it to a public agency. But the Jews of Selma are trying to avoid such fates, believing that the museum option is the best way to ensure the memory of Jewish life in their city is not forgotten.

"It’s not so much that we’re looking for recognition that all of this existed, " Palmer said. "It’s a fascinating part of history to all of us, and it’s one that we think bears interest and understanding by others. And it’s disppaearing fast."

The last point is undeniable. From its peak, Selma is down to its last 11 Jews, most of them in their 80s or 90s. At one time, Broad Street, the town’s main drag, was dominated by Jewish retail establishments, and several Jews served as Selma’s mayor. The Harmony Club, a social club for Jewish men established in 1909 and listed in the national register of historic places, now sits vacant, an Israeli flag is draped from its facade a reminder of its earlier tenants.

Much of that history is now forgotten, the mayor said, though he could easily rattle off the names of Jewish shopkeepers he patronized as a child. He even recalled buying a shotgun at Bendersky’s. "I still have it today," Evans said, "a 20-gauge."

"We love this place," said Ronnie Leet, at 52, the youngest Jew in Selma. "We think it deserves to be renovated and be here for history."

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