A historic marker in front of of Temple B’nai Sholom reads:
Huntsville’s first Jewish citizens arrived during the 1840’s. Congregation B’nai Sholom (“Sons of Peace”) was founded July 30, 1876 by 32 families.
They affiliated in 1877 with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform Movement. Construction of the Temple began in 1898, and it was dedicated on November 26, 1899. The Chairman of the Building Committee was Isaac Schiffman. Architecture is primarily of Romanesque Revival style, with influences of the Renaissance Revival in the west front gable. The Temple was designed by architect R.H. Hunt of Chattanooga. Extensive restoration was completed in 1994. Temple B’nai Sholom is the oldest synagogue in Alabama in continuous use. – Alabama Historical Association, 1997
The Huntsville Jewish Heritage Center – Huntsville’s Museum with a Mighty Purpose
Meticulously organized and curated by Margaret Anne Goldsmith, the exhibits of the Heritage Center educate visitors about Judaism in a personal way–through the memories, photographs and family heirlooms donated by members of the congregation who want to share their religion with their neighbors and the larger community.
Alabama is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think about the Jewish experience in the United States, but it turns out that Jews have been a presence in the state’s history going back to the early 1800s. The first Jews that we know about here were two brothers, Zalegman and Joseph Andrews, who by 1829 were operating a dry goods store in Huntsville. Like most Jewish émigrés to the United States in the early and mid-nineteenth century they probably came from small towns in Germany and followed some version of Reform Jewish religious practice, which allowed for greater accommodation with Christian society than more traditional forms of Judaism.
The Huntsville Jewish community was flourishing and was large enough to establish religious institutions. In 1874 they purchased land for Jewish burials in Maple Hill Cemetery. A chapter of B’nai Brith was established in 1875. The following year Congregation B’nai Sholom was formed with 32 members. Like most southern congregations, B’nai Sholom followed the Reform Movement within Judaism, based in Cincinnati, OH, an affiliation that continues to the present.
Until almost the end of the nineteenth century the members of B’nai Sholom worshipped in rented rooms at the Masonic Lodge on Lincoln Street. In 1892 the congregation hired its first full-time rabbi, Rabbi A. M. Bloch of Port Gibson, Mississippi. Rabbi Bloch lasted less than a year, as his sermons were deemed “distasteful to the entire congregation”–evidently he called out the names of absent members during services. His replacement, Rabbi I. E. Waggenheim, was the first of seven rabbis who remained at B’nai Sholom for periods of one to three years.
During a brief vacancy in 1905, the congregation accepted the offer of the Reverend W. N. Claybrook, a minister at the neighboring Episcopal Church of the Nativity, to lead Friday night services on a volunteer basis.
The Huntsville Jewish community put down permanent roots with the purchase of land at the corner of Lincoln Street and Clinton Avenue in May 1898 and the construction of the building began. (The cost was $16,000, equal to around half a million dollars today.) Reporting on the building’s dedication on November 26,1899, the Huntsville Weekly Democrat wrote: “The erection of this temple gives us food for thought regarding the industry of the people who built it. The Jews of Huntsville are examples of industry and thrift . . . . There are Jewish merchants who came to this town with little more than their clothes . . . and have become the leading merchants and desirable citizens . . . . One cannot help but admire a people who through industry have achieved such results in a few years.”
Jewish immigration continued in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, but this period also marks the beginning of a decline in the area’s Jewish population. Membership in Huntsville’s Temple B’nai Sholom peaked in 1907 at 38 families. By 1940 membership had dropped to 23 families, which included some from Decatur and Athens whose congregations had disbanded during 1930s. B’nai Sholom let go its last full-time rabbi in 1913 and during the Great Depression could not even afford to hire student rabbis for High Holy Day services. By the end of World War II, it counted only 16 contributing households.
With the arrival of the U.S. Army Missile Command and the Marshall Space Flight Center the Jewish population of the region started growing again. Student rabbis were employed during the 1950s, and in 1956 the temple purchased the house next door on Lincoln Street (since razed and replaced by the current Education Building in 1968) to provide classroom space for an expanding religious school. Confirmation ceremonies were reinstituted in the 1950s, and the temple held its first bar and bat mitzvahs in 1958 and 1967, respectively. Finally, in 1963, after a hiatus of half a century, the temple began hiring full-time rabbis, a practice that continues to this day.
During the lean years of the middle-twentieth century when funds were limited maintenance of the temple building had often been deferred. Finally in 1975 a full-scale renovation of the sanctuary was undertaken which was completed in time for the congregation’s centennial celebration. Major structural repairs to the building were made in 1993-94. Both lots purchased earlier by the congregation were converted into a green space and playground for our children.
In 1997 the Temple became the permanent home for a Holocaust Torah. Dr. Louis Weiner spearheaded acquiring the Torah and dedicating it in memory of his daughter, Julie Ann, who died in 1971 at age 11. The Torah is housed in the sanctuary.
Temple B’nai Sholom is home to the Huntsville Jewish Heritage Center which is unique to the city’s houses of worship as the only religious museum/ history center for The Center displays highlight Jewish holidays, Jewish life cycle events, and sacred Jewish objects, symbols, and traditions.
by Dr. Daniel Schenker used with permission