Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Forrest City, Arkansas
orrest City, Arkansas has always been linked with Memphis, the big city located only 45 miles away. This is certainly true for the small Jewish community in Forrest City, which functioned almost as a colony of Memphis. Many of the Jewish settlers in this seat of St. Francis County maintained social, economic, and religious ties to the larger community to the east. Perhaps because of the proximity of Memphis, Forrest City never developed a large or active Jewish community; its congregation was small and short-lived.
Forrest City developed once Memphis and Little Rock were linked by railroad. Former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest built a commissary to serve train passengers in the area, which came to be known informally as “Forrest’s town.” In 1870, the town was officially incorporated as Forrest City. By 1874, it had become the county seat. In 1880, 900 people lived in Forrest City.
A few Jews were part of the early development of Forrest City. Julius Lesser lived in town for several years in the 1870s. He established a cotton business, and handled a majority of the cotton grown in the area. By 1880, he had moved to Marianna, Arkansas, and later moved to St. Louis, where he founded one of the biggest cotton companies in the country. Two immigrants from Germany, Alexander Becker and Charles Lewis, were business partners who came to Forrest City in 1875, and soon became two of the most prominent businessmen in town. They opened a large dry goods store and even built an opera house on the store’s second floor. Max Yoffe came in the 1890s, and opened a retail store. He became an important civic leader, and served on the city council.
In the early 20th century, a handful of recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in Forrest City. Most had lived elsewhere in the region before coming to Forrest City, and many did not stay very long. Harry Warshavsky arrived in town in 1906. He had come to the U.S. a few years earlier to escape service in the Russian army. He initially settled in St. Louis, where he began to peddle in the surrounding area. He first opened a store in Pocohontas, Arkansas, but then decided that Forrest City offered greater opportunity. Warshavsky later moved to El Dorado during that town’s oil boom.
Some of these Jewish families remained in Forrest City, becoming a vital part of the local society and economy. After leaving Russia, Sam Sharpe settled in Memphis and became a tailor. He moved to Forrest City in 1914. Sharpe was an active leader in the local Masonic Lodge. After he died, they named the Masonic Hall in his honor. His son Harold was a longtime lawyer in Forrest City. In 1962, Harold Sharpe helped to form a second country club in Forrest City after the first one refused to accept Jews. Max Cohen started his store in Forrest City 1933 and his son Barry took it over in 1980.
Sol Cohn was a Russian immigrant who opened Cohn’s Penny Store in Forrest with $100 he had managed to save. The store became successful and Cohn eventually opened four other stores in nearby towns. He later sold them all and bought a wholesale grocery business in Forrest City. His children and later grandchildren joined the family business, which grew into one of the largest wholesale grocery enterprises in the state.
Esrael Snyder was a peddler who was based out of Little Rock. After traveling through several towns in Arkansas, he decided to settle in Forrest City and opened a scrap metal business. His son-in-law, Louis Barg eventually took it over. He formed the Barg Steel and Pipe Company in 1974. Barg was active in the local community, serving as the chairman of many local charities. He was also a justice of the peace for a few years.
By 1920, 49 Jews lived in Forrest City, most of whom were immigrant families from eastern Europe. Many of these Jewish merchants belonged to the Orthodox Baron Hirsch synagogue in Memphis, but with poor roads linking the two cities, they were not able to worship there regularly. One of their biggest concerns was the Jewish education of their children; many Jewish kids in Forrest City would attend Sunday school at local churches when the Old Testament was being taught. Concerned about this, Jean Warshavsky wrote to the rabbi at Baron Hirsch asking for his help in forming a Sunday school for the dozen or so Jewish children in Forrest City. Rabbi Samuel sent some educational materials to Warshavsky, and encouraged them to form a congregation.
In 1914, they formed Tifereth Israel (Glory of Israel), and began to bring in a cantor for the high holidays. They held services in Hebrew at the local Odd Fellows Hall. By 1919, they had 20 members. The congregation soon languished and had to be reestablished in 1920. Rabbi Jerome Mark of the congregation in Helena, Arkansas helped to reorganize Tifereth Israel and its religious school. The reorganized congregation worshipped in the Reform style, though many members continued to belong to Baron Hirsch in Memphis as well. Traditional Jewish observance was very difficult in a place like Forrest City, where economic necessity forced most to work on Saturdays and kosher meat could be hard to find. Tifereth Israel eventually disbanded as Forrest City Jews went to Memphis for religious services, a trip made much easier once the interstate highway was built.
This lack of religious resources in Forrest City did not stop local Jews from preserving their traditions. Louis Barg remained an active member of the Orthodox Baron Hirsch Synagogue, driving his children to Memphis each Sunday for religious school. Barg was also a leader in B’nai B’rith, serving as head of the groups’s Arkansas region as well as an international vice-president. After the congregation disbanded, the local B’nai B’rith lodge served as the focal point of Jewish life in Forrest City. Many members came from surrounding towns.
The Jewish community of Forrest City was always small. In 1937, 37 Jews lived in town. Since then, the number of Jews in Forrest City has declined significantly. The community was never large enough to support a congregation for a prolonged period, though since they were so close to Memphis, Jews in Forrest City did not feel compelled to maintain their own institutions.