Savannah, Georgia is known for its grand mansions, the Spanish moss which hangs gracefully from trees creating a mystic canopy on most streets and boulevards and of course the 22 green squares dotted in the historic area of this city with references to the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. Each square is manicured to the nth degree, most with either a trickling fountain or a statue commemorating a personality from their past. On one of these lush areas is a domed neo Gothic building.
My husband and I were looking for the MIckve Israel Synagogue and as we approached I mentioned that this certainly couldn’t be a Jewish house of worship since it looked more church-like. In fact, we were both correct. It was the Congregation Mickve Israel, the third oldest synagogue in the Unites States which begun in 1733, the grandeur of days past still very much in evidence. It’s now in its third location and incarnation. This present construction was consecrated in 1878. Skip a few generations from the very beginning and the Temple Mickve Israel on Monterey Square with the cathedral-esque appearance has a reason for its non conforming appearance. Because the congregation at the time didn’t have the funds for an architect, they used the plans of renowned New York architect, Henry G Harrison, known for his churches and cathedrals.
There is a most interesting history to this once Spanish and Portuguese Temple now a Reform congregation. MIckve Israel was founded by 42 Jews who had arrived from London in 1733. All but 8 were Spanish and because of poverty and dire circumstances in England where they had fled from Spain’s Inquisition, they left for North American financially assisted by members of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. At that time there were only 6,000 Jews in London. And remarkably, a Sefer Torah, written on deer skin and brought from Spain, is still in use at Mickve Israel on special occasions. (There was a wave of Ashkenazim, mostly German Jews, who arrived in 1840. Many became members of the synagogue.)
At first the new immigrants met in private homes. By 1735 the Ashkenazi and Spanish and Portuguese agreed to open a synagogue. By the late 1700s in Savannah, there were enough Jews in the community to re -establish a more formal congregation. In 1820 the first building was consecrated. Unfortunately, a fire demolished it, and miraculously the torahs and other important memorabilia were untouched and saved.
The grey stucco and stone façade, the stain glass windows where we were gazing at this formidable structure from the outside certainly didn’t change my initial reaction. Except for the Star of David over the doorway, everything else shouted cathedral. Once inside, a friendly staff member living up to their well known reputation for southern hospitality, said she’d show us around. Madelaine, a former New Yorker, can’t say enough good things about the acceptance and hospitality of this city and its citizens.
By the turn of the century there was a need for more facilities e.g. religious schools and offices so a new and larger establishment had to be erected. Now there is a most impressive museum within the building and along with their cherished Spanish Torahs, photos and Jewish items, there are framed letters from 10 presidents including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Bush Sr. and Clinton.
The Sephardic Torahs in the museum
But before going up to that area, Madelaine gave us a history lesson about the synagogue and a walk- through of the sanctuary. The high cathedral ceilings are typical of those one would see in a church; also Gothic shaped stain glass windows and massive columns make this an extremely grand venue. On either side of the bimah are four original chairs from the first Mickve Israel. The impressive menorahs, now lit with bulbs not candles, also flanked the ‘bimah’. And since music is part of the Sephardic tradition, there is an organ. One of the great innovations is the invisible turntable steps that are hidden below and can be accessed easily for a wedding so that the wedding party can reach the high platform from the centre rather than a one of the two difficult side ascents. Also, on the floor covering are four permanent secure steel holes for a chupah. There is seating for several hundred worshippers and it’s not unusual that every seat is taken during the high holidays.
After walking the two flights of stairs, (there is an elevator) to a most complete small museum which was added in the mid 1900s, we can see the Monterey Square and a few stunning mansions from one of the windows in this bright area. This is definitely prime real estate.
It’s a welcoming synagogue and what struck me as most unusual with all my travels to Jewish prayer halls and houses of worship throughout the world, there is no security to be seen either outside or indoors. “We’ve never suffered from anti Semitism,” Madelaine tells us. The throbbing community has never lived in fear but in most hospitable circumstances.
So it’s all true about the kindness of strangers. Being the south, it wouldn’t be unusual to hear the greeting, “Shalom Y’all”.