Mobile boasts the oldest Jewish community in the state of Alabama. The city's present-day community is currently served by two congregations; the Springhill Avenue Temple/Congregation Sha'arai Shomayim (Hebrew for "Gates of Heaven") and Ahavas Chesed Synagogue (Hebrew for "Love of Kindness"). Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Mobile's Jewish communal population has remained at around 1,200 to 1,500 persons. The high point of its Jewish population, however, occurred in 1918, when more than 2,200 Jews lived in Mobile.
Historians note that by 1757 a small number of Jews had settled in New Orleans, and Judaic historians believe that at least some of those residents and businessmen traveled to Mobile for trade and other economic purposes. During the next 100 years, some evidence also exists of Jews living at least temporarily in Mobile. The first known Jewish person to settle permanently in Mobile was physician Solomon Mordecai of Warrenton, North Carolina, who arrived in the city in 1823 and died there in 1869. Shortly after his arrival, three other Jewish men and their families—George Davis, an auctioneer of land and slaves and representative of a slave dealer in New Orleans; Solomon Jones; and the latter's younger brother Israel—arrived in Mobile from England to open businesses. Israel Jones quickly became the acknowledged leader of the Jewish community because of his philanthropic endeavors, service on the city council, and brief stint as acting mayor. After his death on December 26, 1877, the Mobile Register lamented his loss to the community.
Another prominent member of the Mobile Jewish community during this period was Philip Phillips. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1807, Phillips moved to Mobile to practice law, returned to Charleston to marry Eugenia Levy, but then returned to his legal practice in Mobile. In 1844, Phillips was elected to the Alabama State Legislature and became chairperson of the State Convention in 1849. In 1852, he addressed the Democratic National Convention after having been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Alabama's First Congressional District. A Union sympathizer, Phillips and his family lived at various times in Richmond, Virginia; Savannah, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Washington, D.C., where he died on January 14, 1884.
In terms of the larger community, Mobile's Jewish citizens have occupied a special if somewhat unique place. Mobile has been, since its founding, home to the largest Catholic community in Alabama and the Archdiocese of Mobile and its bishop. Thus, the majority of the city's population has not generally shared in the conservative Protestant religious and cultural views that dominate the rest of the state. Additionally, its mercantile leaders saw themselves as part and parcel of the community and worked hard to foster positive relationships with the larger community, relationships that remain to this day.
Prominent Mobile Jewish families have long carried on the tradition of participating in the affairs of the larger community. For example, Lazarus Schwarz was elected mayor in 1911, serving until 1915. And although anti-Semitism (hatred of the Jewish people and the Jewish religious tradition) has occurred sporadically—for example during the tragic days of the civil rights struggles throughout Alabama—Mobile's Jewish community escaped the vicious acts of vandalism, destruction, and desecration that occurred in other communities. The one notable exception occurred in November 1988, when the city's two synagogues were vandalized around the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nazi destruction of Jewish synagogues and businesses in Germany in 1938. The perpetrators were quickly arrested, however.
Other community members have engaged in acts of philanthropy disproportionate to their numbers. For example, the late Mayer Mitchell and his widow Arlene have long been strong supporters of the University of South Alabama and have contributed major endowments to several of the school's colleges and programs.
Congregation Sha'arai Shomayim
By June 22, 1841, Mobile's Jewish community was large enough (although accurate numbers of all families are difficult to ascertain) to purchase land for its own consecrated cemetery. Three years later, on June 25, 1844, the congregation, which had been meeting somewhat informally in members' homes, adopted a constitution and by-laws and titled itself "Sha'arai Shomayim U-Maskil El Dol," which is Hebrew for "Congregation of the Gates of Heaven and Society of the Friends of the Needy." By 1846, the young congregation had its first home on St. Emanuel Street and its first rabbi, Benjamin da Silva, who was originally from Holland. Since then, 24 rabbis have served the congregation. The congregation moved to its third home on Government Street in 1907 and remained there until 1952 before moving to its present home on Springhill Avenue in 1955.
During the 1930s, the Jewish community of Mobile operated the Jewish Progressive Club, which later became the Highland Country Club and then the Jewish Community Center, which finally ceased operations in 1991. In 1964, the community also formed a fund-raising and philanthropic institution, the Mobile Jewish Welfare Fund, which raises needed dollars locally, nationally, and internationally for its own social welfare needs and for the State of Israel.
Today known as the Springhill Avenue Temple/Congregation Sha'arai Shomayim, or "Gates of Heaven," the congregation is currently affiliated with the Reform Movement of Judaism and comprises more than
250 families. It offers members a full range of worship and educational services, including Sunday school from pre-kindergarten
through 12th grade, in addition to several ancillary organizations. The congregation also maintains a Judaica shop where members
and others can purchase books, ritual objects, and objects d'art. In addition, the Springhill Avenue Temple continues to own
a cemetery on Owen Street to meet the needs of its members and their families. Its membership and rabbi continue the congregation's
tradition of community outreach, serving on many boards and organizations throughout Mobile.
Congregation Ahavas Chesed
Ahavas Chesed was founded in 1894 and moved into its first home at the corner of Conti and Warren streets in 1911. It is currently affiliated with the Conservative Movement of Judaism and is slightly smaller that its sister congregation, with approximately 175 families. Its second home, across the street from its first, served its needs until 1956, when it relocated to Dauphin Street. The congregation remained there until 1989, when it moved to its present location on Regents Way in the western part of the city. Like the Springhill Avenue Temple, it too has affiliated groups, a pre-school, and a Hebrew School. Ahavas Chesed provides a full range of worship services, including a Chevra Kaddisha, or burial society, for both men and women. The temple is currently served by its 21st rabbi. Perhaps its most illustrious and famous member was builder, land developer, and international philanthropist Mayer Mitchell, the only Alabamian ever to serve as president of the Washington, D.C.–based American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an organization that lobbies on behalf of the state of Israel and other Jewish interests.
The future of the Mobile Jewish Community remains positive: Its two congregations are as strong as its community, and its
Jewish population remains stable.
Korn, Bertram Wallace. The Jews of Mobile, Alabama, 1763-1841. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1970.
Mitchell, Mayer. Just Call Me Bubba: The Mayer Mitchell Story. 2004 (Held in the collections of the Mobile congregations).
Zietz, Robert J. The Gates of Heaven: Congregation Sha'arai Shomayim—The First 150 Years—Mobile, Alabama, 1844-1994. 1994 (Held in the collections of the Mobile congregations).
Whitlock, Rita. A Family Album: The Family of Congregation Ahavas Chesed: 1894-1994/5655-5755. Self-published, 1994.
Steven Leonard Jacobs
University of Alabama
Published December 4, 2008
Last updated March 12, 2013