||History Department Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Jackson, located in the central part of the state, was once LeFleur’s Bluff in the 1700s until American settlers renamed the landmark after the heroic general from the Battle of New Orleans. Starting as a steamboat port along the Pearl River, Jackson eventually became a center for the railroad, which caused this state capital to blossom despite its destruction during the Civil War. With Jewish settlers coming from Germany and Alsace-Lorraine in the 1850s and from Poland in the 1870s and 1880s, these peddlers soon set up roots, lining downtown Jackson with a myriad of stores. Today, many of those businesses are non-existent, yet Jackson’s Jewish population has increased with growing number of migrants from other parts of the country. Many of these Jackson residents were drawn to the city by job opportunities at the medical center, local colleges, or state government. Today, it is the largest Jewish community in Mississippi.
The first Jewish organization in the city was founded in 1860, when local Jewish merchants bought land for a future Jewish cemetery on North State Street. The following year, fifteen families formally organized the Beth Israel congregation. Meeting in a one-story schoolhouse on South State Street, the group started the first Jewish day school in Mississippi at a time when state public schools were nonexistent. Beginning as a traditional orthodox group in need of a teacher, chazen, and shochet for kosher meat, the congregation had joined the Reform movement by 1875, when a new brick building replaced the wooden structure that burned to the ground in the previous year. Beth Israel remained on South State Street until they moved to Woodrow Wilson Drive in the 1940s to be closer to its congregants. Twenty years later, the congregation followed its members once again, moving to a new home on Old Canton Road in northeast Jackson. Unlike many other cities, there was never more than one congregation in Jackson.
At one time, Capitol Street was home to sixteen Jewish businesses; none exist today and only three of the buildings remain. Harry Herman, for example, owned a men’s store called “The Hub”; today, its site is now Jackson’s Federal Building. As for the United States Bankruptcy Court building, that spot once housed a dry goods store called Millstein’s. Jews were an important part of Jackson’s merchant class. People such as Benjamin Hart, John Hart, Lazarus Kahn, Isadore Strauss, Henry Strauss, Aaron Lehman, and H. Goodman were some of the early Jewish settlers of central Mississippi.
Most of these businesses were clustered in downtown Jackson. The Horowitz family owned Mangel’s and the Gordons owned a store named Vogue, which was located near Lefkowitz Jewelry and a farm supply store owned by the Ascher family. Joseph Ascher served on the Jackson school board. In the 1920s, Jackson’s leading department store was “The Emporium,” located on the northeast corner streets of Congress and Capitol, owned by Simon Seelig Marks. Marks, married to Josephine Hyams of Jackson, was a member of the Kiwanis Club as well as director of the Mississippi Merchants Association and vice president of Jackson’s Chamber of Commerce. During the Great Depression, Marks was also the state director for the National Emergency Council. The Emporium itself sold any item one could imagine including victory war bonds during World War II. Although long since closed, restoration of the building occurred in 1988, as it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1889, Moise Cohen came to Jackson from Romania at the tender age of fifteen to join his brother, Sam, in the clothing business. For almost a century, the Cohen Brothers clothing store served customers on Capitol Street.
Jews were also involved themselves in the apparel cleaning business. In 1924, Gardner and Kahn Cleaning Company opened in the Jackson area. Later, his wife took over Kahn Cleaning Company, which was located on Capital and S. Gallatin Streets until its closure in the 1980s. Near the turn of the century, Isidore Lehman began his career in Jackson as a shirt washer in a cart for a Memphis laundry company. His hard work and determination led him to eventually become partner and owner of Jackson Steam Laundry. Located on 730 State Street, Jackson Steam Laundry was known for the slogan, “When clothes are dirty, 730.” Lehman’s store not only cleaned clothes, but it also served as a bathhouse for people without running water. Lehman was very involved in Jackson’s civic affairs. He was president of many organizations including the Jackson and Mississippi Chamber of Commerce as well as Beth Israel synagogue, Hinds County Red Cross, and the local school board. His store stayed open until the 1960s and was demolished later in the 1970s. Other Jewish businesses existed in Jackson’s early years as well including Jake Ehrman’s meat market from 1890 to 1920 and August Hatry’s Jackson Transfer Company.
Jackson Jews were also very involved in real estate as many Jews saw an opportunity after the Civil War to buy cheap land. John Hart was one of these gentlemen. After serving in Company A of the 6th Mississippi Brigade in the Civil War, Hart, formerly Hertz, used land to increase his wealth so that he could start J & B Hart Company in 1866. In the 1850s, he had been a poor immigrant making $10 a month in a butcher shop. Joseph Ascher was also successful at real estate. Born in Alsace in 1855, he came to Jackson to live with his Hart relatives in order to find a better way of life. Beginning as a simple peddler, he ended up concluding his life as a real estate tycoon. Isadore Dreyfus used land not only to make a fortune off his tenants but also to supplement his income from his successful insurance business. Jews enjoyed tremendous economic success in Jackson. Familes such as Strauss, Norman, Beck, Feibleman, Kahn, Bloom, Wolf, Lehman, Hatry, and Devy lived in the beautiful houses along State Street.
While the Jews of Jackson were quite successful, many found other ways to give back to the community. During the Great Depression, the Lehman family would serve breakfast to many hungry children who were walking to the school right across from the Lehman’s home. Their relatives, Aaron and Celestine Lehman, started a home for elderly women in Jackson, while Aaron was a faithful school board member. Isidore Lehman’s daughter Celeste was committed to preserving Jewish life in the Deep South. Celeste Lehman Orkin helped found the youth movement for Jewish children in the area in the 1950s. She was also the guiding force in the creation of the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in nearby Utica, Mississippi. In recent years, Josh Wiener and Jonathan Larkin have served on the Jackson School Board, expressing their commitment to public education at a time when most whites in the city have left for private schools. Macy Hart was one of the founders of Parents for Public Schools.
As businesspeople and civic leaders, the Jews of Jackson contributed much to their city. Most of them worked to assimilate into Southern culture, dropping the dietary laws and strict Shabbat observance. Jews were successful at becoming an accepted part of Jackson society. Newspapers marked many announcements of Jewish successes. Christian ministers and local and state political leaders took part in building dedications and other celebrations. Jewish residents were allowed into many clubs including the Masons and the Odd Fellows even though some Jews complained about never being accepted into high Jackson society.
The most glaring incident of anti-Semitism occurred during the turbulent civil rights era. Rabbi Perry Nussbaum came to Jackson and began to speak out in favor of civil rights. Some local Jewish merchants agreed with the rabbi, yet they were too afraid to speak out publicly because of threats of retribution. Nussbaum was deeply involved in interfaith work, and was active in the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference and the Jackson Clergy Alliance. Nussbaum was also a member of the Committee for Concern, which helped African-American churches to rebuild after they had been attacked or burned. Nussbaum drove to Parchman State Prison in the Delta each week during the summer of 1961 to visit and lend moral support to the Jewish Freedom Riders from the North. On the night of September 18th, 1967, a group of Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb which destroyed much of the Rabbi’s office and part of the library. Although no one was hurt, this would not be the end. Two months later, the same Klan members bombed Nussbaum’s home while the rabbi was home with his wife. Miraculously, no one was hurt. In response to the events, 42 clergymen and sympathetic citizens joined in a “walk of penance” to Temple Beth Israel, where they held a Thursday night vigil, which attracted a crowd of 150 people, most of whom were not Jewish. Later, the same Klan group bombed the temple in Meridian, Mississippi. When they later tried to bomb the home of a Jewish leader in Meridian, they were captured by the police.
Local newspapers and state officials denounced the attacks and expressed support for Beth Israel. In some ways, the attacks were a turning point as many white Jacksonians finally realized that the violence of massive resistance had gone too far, and it was time to change. Jackson Jews have been in the forefront of that change. In 1968, a full page ad ran in Jackson’s daily newspaper calling for healing the racial tensions in the city and the state. It declared that all citizens regardless of race should receive equal treatment under the law and that there was no place for hatred or violence in Jackson. The ad was signed by numerous civic and business leaders of the city, including most of the city’s Jewish merchants.
Despite the violence unleashed during the civil rights era, Jews have found a comfortable home in Jackson. While many other southern Jewish communities have experienced decline, Jackson’s Jewish population has held steady and even grown. In 1937, 235 Jews lived in Jackson. Today, there are over 600 Jews in the city. While most young Jews do not return to Jackson after college, new families continue to move to Mississippi’s capitol, which is currently home to the largest Jewish community in the state. From their early days as merchants to today’s doctors and lawyers, the Jewish community has flourished in this part of the Deep South.