Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Congregation Beth Israel, Clarksdale
Like many communities in the Delta, the origins of temple life in Clarksdale sprouted from early Jewish settlers who set up shops in their new community. Around the late 1880s, Jews began to meet each other in Clarksdale, and these acquaintances led to the foundation of Congregation Beth Israel. In 1896, some of the earliest meetings of the synagogue began in the home of Max Kaufman, who later became the first president of the temple. The Jewish community named the congregation Kehilath Jacob (Congregation of Jacob) starting around 1905 with official incorporation five years later. With a growing number of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the congregation grew to five families, and the members began to meet in the Knight of Pythias Hall building until about 1910. At this time, Kaufman, along with business leaders Max Friedman and Louis Goldstein, led the effort to complete the Moorish design of the first building, and the congregation changed the name of the temple to Congregation Beth Israel. With the new temple, Louis Goldstein purchased a new Torah from New York City, which arrived by train. At the arrival, the Jewish community marched the Torah to the new temple with the aid of people who promised $100 donations, which would alleviate the remainder of the building loan.
While Congregation Beth Israel was getting started, other Jewish institutions were founded as well. Around 1910, members of the Clarksdale community organized a local chapter of B’nai Brith, a fraternal organization known for its work in social and community service activities. This chapter formed the Clarksdale Lodge in the Beth Israel building, which later became the Delta Lodge in 1927, and the group continued to be active for decades.
By 1913, over twenty families were worshipping on Friday nights and Saturday mornings at Congregation Beth Israel, as the temple continued to grow from its humble roots. The small congregation was able to hire Russian immigrant Harry Lupchnasky as their rabbi from 1906 to 1912, though he had not been officially ordained. Lupchansky was followed by A.H. Freyman, who served as spiritual leader of the congregation for over twenty-five years.
By the 1920s, the Clarksdale Jewish community was growing rapidly, yet tensions were beginning to rise between different segments of the congregation. While people were traveling as far as thirty miles away to come to Beth Israel, many members of Eastern European origin preferred the old traditional Orthodox service. A youthful generation of native-born American Jews wished to assimilate more and wanted a Reform service with more English and an American style of worship. Tensions became heated in the community, and there was talk of creating another synagogue. Facing this growing rift, the original founders sought to keep the community united. As a result, the leaders of Beth Israel pushed for the building of a new synagogue that would be able to house two different services at the same time. On July 7, 1929, Congregation Beth Israel dedicated its new building at the corner of Catalpa and Choctaw Streets. Like its predecessor, this building was of the Moorish style with two domes and special memorial windows. With this larger building that had two floors, the community was able to stay together, as the synagogue could hold Reform and more traditional services led by knowledgeable lay leaders as well as a rabbi when present. This trend continued for over forty years until the demographics of the Clarksdale Jewish community had changed and left the minyans without competent leaders. Nevertheless, Clarksdale was one of the few communities in Mississippi that ran itself as a place of worship with multiple groups in one building.
Like the 1920s, the 1930s was a time of continued progress for Congregation Beth Israel. Despite the Great Depression, the Clarksdale Jewish community not only grew in membership, but also experienced growth into new areas of Jewish life. With its population of over 400 Jews, which made Congregation Beth Israel the largest congregation in Mississippi at the time, Clarksdale was open to growth from new Jewish organizations. Since 1916, there had existed a Ladies’ Aid Society, which raised money through rummage sales and held an annual New Year’s Ball for the Jews of Clarksdale. By the 1930s, a temple sisterhood was created. A local Hadassah chapter also followed in 1939, while the first children’s youth group called the Clarksdale Temple Youth League was formed around the same time. While Clarksdale had certainly become a vibrant Jewish community, Congregation Beth Israel reached a turning point with the arrival of its first formally trained and ordained resident rabbi.
In 1932, Rabbi Jerome Gerson Tolochko arrived from Cincinnati, Ohio, bringing new ideas to a fertile land. In 1916, Beth Israel had begun a 90-minute Sunday school with four teachers and fifty students. By 1939, 131 kids went to Sunday school ranging in age from three to sixteen. Early in his career, Tolochko attempted to start a teachers’ training institute for Sunday school teachers using his own published textbooks as a way of raising the level of Jewish education in the state. In 1938, he created the Mississippi Institute of Jewish and Cognate Studies. Under Tolochko’s plan, religious school teachers would receive a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and literature through an extra year of training after completing the Jewish program of confirmation; Tolochko hoped that this process would become a requirement for teaching Sunday school. Members of the faculty were not all Jewish; some were ministers, while others had experience in regular education. Comparative religion was also part of the curriculum. There were ten graduates in 1938, and the plan was to increase the program through the creation of a bachelor’s program in comparative religion. This idea was certainly a new concept for Jewish life in Clarksdale, but the program was only a temporary success.
After an eight-year tenure, Rabbi Tolochko left Clarksdale for a new life of challenges in eastern North Carolina. Throughout the 1940s, Clarksdale continued to have a strong Jewish community; however, they experienced a steady flow of rabbis in and out of the congregation. It was not until about 1950 that a rabbi named Alexander Kline stayed for a long period of time. Rabbi Kline soon became well-known for his lectures on art history. His pursuits led him to a larger congregation in Lubbock, Texas. In the 1960s, Congregation Beth Israel hired Rabbi Benjamin Schultz, a controversial figure in the rabbinic world. He had previously served as chairman of the Jewish Anti-Communist League in New York, and had accused Reform leader Rabbi Stephen Wise of being controlled by communists. Rabbi Schultz found a home in Clarksdale, though he continued to generate controversy with speeches defending Mississippi’s system of segregation. Yet Schultz’s views on the subject were more complex than many have given him credit for, and when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Rabbi Schultz spoke at a local memorial service held in the slain civil rights leader’s honor. Schultz continued to lead services in Clarksdale until 1978 when he passed away. After Shultz, the trend of short-term rabbis continued.
By the 1970s, the Jewish community had begun to dwindle. In the 1970s, Beth Israel still had a hundred member families, but fewer than twenty members remained thirty years later. Cotton had once been king in Clarksdale, but the decline of the Delta’s cotton economy had caused many Jews to leave the area. Many moved to nearby especially to nearby Memphis. The congregation persevered with a series of student rabbis from Hebrew Union College.
By 2003, the remaining members decided that they could no longer continue. They organized a farewell service on May 3, 2003. Student Rabbi Jennifer Tisdale led the final service at the synagogue, which featured stories and songs from the past. The service was also a homecoming as many of its former members came back to bid the institution farewell. The sanctuary was at full occupancy as it had once been in the early days when members had to bring chairs to high holiday services. Many people offered warm words to the friends of Congregation Beth Israel. One person said, “It is here and in my home I learned to love Judaism and the meaning of tzedakah.” One of its Torahs found a new home at Camp Blue Star in Hendersonville, NC; another traveled to a new congregation forming in Poland. The building was ultimately sold, leaving the Jewish cemetery as the only lasting vestige of what was once a vibrant Jewish community.