Thursday, January 9, 2020

Jews in Mississippi

In 1804, a year after the “Louisiana Purchase” was concluded, the United States government created the “Mississippi Territory.” On December 10, 1817, statehood was granted to Mississippi. In the middle of the 18th century, Jews arrived and settled in Natchez and Biloxi, where, in 1800, the first rumored Jewish religious services in Mississippi took place. In the 1840s, Jewish immigrants from Germany and Alsace moved to Mississippi due to the optimism generated by high cotton prices, inexpensive land and steamboat traffic. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in Mississippi. Most worked as peddlers, since farming was foreign to them, as Jews in much of Eastern Europe were prevented from owning land. Many Jewish merchants purchased their wares in New Orleans or Memphis and crisscrossed the state selling their merchandise to farmers. When the peddlers saved enough money, they would open stores in Mississippi towns. One such example was the Russian immigrant Sam Stein, who opened up a dry goods store in Greenville, MS. That store, “Stein Mart” is now a national department store chain. During this time, Mississippi banned stores from opening on Sunday. In order to make a living, most Jewish merchants, therefore, felt compelled to open their stores on Shabbat. Like many other synagogues nationwide at that time, the Orthodox synagogue in Meridian, MS, held its Shabbat morning service from 6 am to 8 am, allowing the congregants to pray, before reluctantly opening their stores.

In 1840, the Natchez Jewish community purchased land for a Jewish cemetery and in 1843, B’nai Israel Congregation was organized. In 1841, a synagogue was founded in Vicksburg. The synagogue’s name was changed to Anshe Chesed, when the synagogue was formally incorporated in 1862. In May, 1867, land was purchased in Jackson, MS, to erect Beth Israel, the first synagogue building within the state.

Jews have served as mayors of various Mississippi cities, and 200 Jewish Mississippians fought in the Civil War. The Jewish population of Mississippi has never been large, and has been declining since 1921, when it hit its peak with 6,420 Jews, 2,300 of whom lived in the Mississippi Delta area in 1937. In 2001, 1,500 Jews lived in Mississippi with fewer than 300 in the Delta region. As of 2017, 1,525 Jews lived in Mississippi, with fewer than 300 living in the Delta Region, supported by 13 Jewish congregations, two of which have a full-time rabbi.

On January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

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