Congregation has plan for temple

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 30, 1999

When members of the congregation of Natchez’s Temple B’Nai Israel gather for the Passover seder each spring, they are becoming outnumbered by their Christian friends.

But as its numbers dwindle, the Jewish congregation is making plans for the future that will preserve the rich history of Judaism in Natchez.

When Temple B’Nai Israel, built in 1905 for a congregation that was founded in the 1840s, is no longer needed by the congregation, it will be turned over to the Museum for the Southern Jewish Experience.

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&uot;Our goal is for the congregation in Natchez to be able to celebrate Judaism as long as there is a group to celebrate it,&uot; said museum director Macy Hart. &uot;At the time they are no longer functioning, we will step in and take over.&uot;

For congregation member and President Jay Lehmann, the partnership with the museum ensures the preservation of the temple.

&uot;The congregation deeded the temple to the museum of the Southern Jewish experience in 1992,&uot; he said. &uot;They don’t have any financial obligation until they take over the building.&uot;

Lehmann said the eventual death of the Natchez congregation is a sad end to a long relationship with the entire Natchez community.

&uot;It’s a sad end to a long association between the Jews living in Natchez and being part of the community,&uot; he said. &uot;Jews gave many contributions to the community as merchants and things like that.

&uot;The Jewish merchants have had a much more significant presence. Even though their numbers were small, they owned a large percentage of businesses.&uot;

&uot;Natchez was a magnet for Jews in the late 19th century,&uot; said B’Nai Israel member Jerry Krouse. &uot;It was prosperous, there was a lot of culture going on.&uot;

Mimi Miller, director of preservation and education for the Historic Natchez Foundation, said the temple was designed by H.A. Overbach of Dallas to replace a temple which burned in 1903.

While the new temple was being built, other churches in Natchez offered their facilities for the Jewish congregation to hold services. And according to the temple’s history, many non-Jews offered donations to the rebuilding fund.

Hart said he hopes the &uot;wonderful relationship&uot; begun between the city and the congregation continues because the temple is being preserved.

&uot;We expect (the temple) to continued to be a focus of Natchez’s cultural, religious and educational offerings,&uot; Hart said.

Like Jewish congregations in other small Southern towns, Natchez’s Jewish community has dwindled as young people grew up and moved to larger cities for better opportunities, Lehmann said.

&uot;It’s sad. It’s a very common occurance in the South, not just for Jews,&uot; he said. &uot;I can’t imagine why anyone would want to move to a bigger city.&uot;

Because Jewish congregations were dwindling throughout the South, the museum was created to preserve the culture of Judaism.

&uot;Someone saw a need in the South for small Jewish congregations that were going out of business,&uot; said B’Nai Israel member Jerry Krouse. &uot;The museum was set up to save all of these (artifacts) from temples that were torn down. They developed a modus operandi to help congregations like Natchez’s that are close to shutting down.

&uot;It would create a road map – what steps to take for preserving history and artifacts.&uot;

Miller said the B’Nai Israel congregation has provided a positive example of preserving religious heritage.

&uot;Too often, religious bodies see their buildings abandoned or torn down,&uot; she said. &uot;These are the places where they were baptized, married, bar mitzvahed.&uot;

But the museum’s preservation efforts, she said, will &uot;make sure (the temples) remain special places.&uot;

Hart said preservation is the key to continuing the tradition of Judaism in the South.

&uot;As the Jewish community diminishes, it’s important for that story to be continually kept alive,&uot; he said.