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May 10, 1996 - Image 82

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1996-05-10

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Find It All In
The Jewish News
Call 354-5959

y wife and I have just re-
turned from Savannah
where we spent four
days as participants in
"At Home With Mickve Israel."
The first-time members of the
third-oldest synagogue in Ameri-
ca arranged a program of home
hospitality, sightseeing, lectures
on the 250 years of Jewish histo-
ry in Savannah and special reli-
gious services for visitors from all
over the country.
The series of events staged at
Mickve Israel should be a model
for similar programs organized by
historic synagogues — in New
York, Philadelphia, Newport,
Richmond and elsewhere —
throughout the United States.
On a walk through Savannah's
historic district, led by Rabbi
Arnold Belzer of Mickve Israel and
Marcia Lebois, both a licensed
guide and a Mickve Israel board
member, we explored the mag-
nificent, two-square-mile area of
parks, monuments, public squares
(21 of them) and restored 18th and
19th century houses which give
such impressive evidence of both
the unsurpassed beauty of the city
and the role of Jews in developing
"Savannah is America's first
planned city," the rabbi explained
to our group. "Oglethorpe, who
founded the city in 1733, laid it out
in a grid formation, the flow of
streets interrupted by public
squares every few blocks."
Each square is landscaped with
lawns, shrubs and flowers; em-
bellished with statues of promi-
nent figures in Savannah history;
encircled with beautifully-restored
18th and 19th century houses.
Rabbi Belzer tells us that mem-
bers of the Mickve Israel congre-
gation like Lee Adler and his wife,
Emma, a member of the Julius
Rosenwald family, were leaders
in the movement to protect the old
buildings — there are now more
than 1,200 in the National Reg-
istry of Historic Homes — which
were threatened by ruthless "ur-
ban renewal" developers in the
Parking lots would have re-
placed the charismatic old build-
ings with their columns, bay
windows, gables, peaked roofs and
sculptured wrought-iron fences —
the handiwork of artisan slaves.
In sharp contrast to the Fed-
eral, Greek Revival, Georgian and
Victorian homes which adorn the
historic district and make of it a
virtual outdoor museum of archi-
tecture, is one tall, Gothic struc-
ture, the building on Monterey
Square occupied by Mickve Israel

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since 1878. It is the only surviving
Gothic synagogue in the country.
The congregation itself, the
third oldest in the United States,
Rabbi Belzer tells us, was estab-
lished more than a century earli-
er. Forty-two Jewish pioneers, the
largest such group to land in Colo-
nial America, arrived in Savan-
nah on July 11, 1733. It was only
five months after Gen. James
Oglethorpe had led his group of
116 settlers aboard the Anne to
the same spot, a cliff overlooking
the Savannah River, to establish
Georgia as the 13th and last of the
American Colonies.

Savannah's Mickve
Israel is the only
surviving Gothic
synagogue in the
United States.

At the age of 36, Oglethorpe
had established a reputation as a
soldier and prison reformer. In
1732, he persuaded King George
II (after whom Georgia would be
named) to sign a charter for a new
colony where people "of decayed
circumstances"—"what we would
now call the 'clownsized,' " says
Rabbi Belzer — could start life
anew. The next year, with the
king's approval, the first band of
emigrants departed from England
to establish the Savannah settle-
Despite the king's ban on "Jews,
Papists (Catholics) and lawyers,"
Oglethorpe's need for populating
the land overcame his submission
to the royal mandate. He wel-
comed new settlers, and English
Jews were quick to accept his hos-
At the time, there were 6,000
Jews in London, many of them re-
cent refugees from the Inquisition
in Portugal. The more affluent
Jews, who had established them-
selves in England almost a centu-
ry earlier, gave generous financial
support to Oglethorpe's enterprise
and encouraged their less fortu-
nate co-religionists, also "of de-
cayed circumstances," to strike out
for a better life in Georgia.
The settlers were blessed with
the gift of a deerskin "safertoro"
(Torah) and a circumcision box,
donated by members of Bevis
Marks, the mother congregation
of Mickve Israel established in
The "safertoro," used only on
special occasions, is one of the trea-


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