Beth Israel Congregation
- 5315 Old Canton Road Jackson, MS 39211
- Visit website
The Beth Israel Congregation was founded in 1860, and soon after purchased land for a cemetery on North State Street. By the end of 1862, fifteen Jewish families lived in town. After the Civil War, the congregation acquired land and built a modest wood frame schoolhouse, which they also used as a worship space, on the corner of South State and South streets; this was the first synagogue in the state of Mississippi. In 1870, the congregation hired its first rabbi, L. Winter, who began to move the congregation toward Reform Judaism with English sermons, services on Friday nights, and the confirmation ceremony. Rabbi Winter soon left, but in 1875, Beth Israel formalized its adherence to Reform Judaism by joining the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When the congregation’s wood frame building burned down in 1874, they built a new brick building on the old site, which served the congregation until 1940. When the congregation moved to Woodrow Wilson Avenue in 1941, their synagogue was the oldest religious structure in the city. While their new synagogue was being built, Beth Israel held services at Galloway Methodist Church.
During its first 70 years, the congregation often went through long stretches without a full-time rabbi, relying on lay leaders and student rabbis. In 1929, Beth Israel finally began to enjoy more stability in its rabbis with the arrival of Meyer Lovitt, who served the congregation for 25 years. Lovitt was replaced in 1954 by Toronto-native Perry Nussbaum, who became an outspoken voice against racism and segregation. On September 18, 1967, Beth Israel’s new temple on Old Canton Road was bombed by local Ku Klux Klan members. Two months later, the same group bombed Nussbaum’s home. Though the rabbi was home with his wife at the time, no one was seriously hurt. These bombings helped to galvanize Jackson’s white community, who realized that resistance to integration had gone too far. Since then, members of Beth Israel have played a vital part in building a more racially just society in Jackson.
In 1967, Beth Israel moved to its present home on Old Canton Road. Since Rabbi Nussbaum’s retirement in 1973, the following rabbis have served the congregation: Richard Birnholz; Mark Goodman; Eric Gurvis; Steven Engel; and Jim Egolf. Rabbi Valerie Cohen has been Beth Israel’s spiritual leader since 2003. Jackson’s Beth Israel Congregation has always been the only synagogue in Mississippi’s capital city. As a result, it has accommodated members from different religious backgrounds and practices. For most of its history, the congregation has been rather small, though in recent decades it has emerged as the largest and most vibrant synagogue in the state.