Congregation Children of Israel

Submitted by Nelle Price Epps

A History of Congregation Children of Israel
in Athens, Georgia

Temple serves as ‘center of Jewish life in Northeast Georgia’

By Tracy Coley Ingram
Correspondent for the Athens Banner-Herald

Name: Congregation Children of Israel
Address: 115 Dudley Drive, Athens, GA

History: The history of the temple encompasses more than the events behind the building, it is really a large part of the history of the Jewish presence in Athens, and the history of the city itself. The original synagogue was located where the Federal Building stands today.

It was built in 1884,12 years after the organization of the first Jewish congregation in Athens. Steve Bush, Athenian and former president of the congregation, remembers the original temple, “It was a one-story structure although inside it felt like much more because the ceilings were so high. There were at least six large stained glass windows running down each side that were so beautiful. We have two of them hanging by the entrance to our new building today.”

H.S. Siegel wrote a history of the congregation in 1973 as a part of their centennial celebration. Siegel’s book, “A View Of The Past,” states, “Jewish history in Georgia begins with a group of 42 who debarked at Savannah in July of 1733. Among these was Solomon Sheftall, who’s son, Mordecai, was to distinguish himself as a patriot that, following the Revolutionary War, he would be made commissioner general of Georgia and South Carolina. Although no direct links between the Athens and the Savannah community have been found, it is of interest that a stone bearing the inscription, ‘Ann Sheftall David, 1877-1922,’ appears in the congregation cemetery. “

Prominent early Athens citizens who were also members of the Jewish community include David Michael, Meyer Stem, Jacob Bush, E.B. and J Cohen, and Samuel Loef. Bush said, “Originally when Jews immigrated here from Europe they were by and large merchants. They started businesses here and became leaders in the community.”

Gabriel Jacobs came from Filehne, Germany (later Poland) and manufactured caps in Athens during the Civil War. According to Siegel, “He later became the first reader (lay rabbi) of the congregation, and was its first religious school teacher.” Jacobs was not the only man to immigrate from Filehne, in fact several families are listed as arriving at different times from that town. Siegel wrote, “It seems more than coincidental that these early Jewish inhabitants of Athens should have come from the small town in Prussia.”

Leaders of the Jewish community petitioned the Superior Court of Clarke County and received a charter of incorporation in 1872 as “officials and trustees of a Synagogue, or House of Worship for the Children of Israel under the name and style of Kol Kadush Beni Yisroile and Congregation of Children of Israel.” In 1873, the members began purchasing land at the comer of Hancock and Jackson streets, later adding another parcel on Hancock and Dougherty streets. In 1873, the first of three parcels of land was purchased by R.I. Bloomfield adjoining Oconee Hills Cemetery for use as the congregational cemetery. The second parcel was purchased in 1913 from R.E. Kilpatrick; the third was obtained from the Athens Manufacturing Company in1947.

Like Athens, the Jewish community continued to grow. Siegel wrote, “Athens celebrates the turn of the century with a week-long carnival which was presided over by Col. Moses G. Michael. With his older brother, Simon, he had built the Michael Brothers business into one of the most prominent in Northeast Georgia, and had recently built the three-story structure at the comer of Clayton and Jackson streets (later to become Davidson’s).”

COGS Vol. 10. No, 1

Time passes and Siegel said, “In 1939, with Hitler’s successful blackmail of the Western powers and the holocaust of the six million on the horizon, a refugee of Nazi Germany, Sigmund Cohn, came to teach law at the University. He would portend a new influence on the congregation, that of faculty members of the University. For despite the fact that Athens was the home of the University of Georgia, Dr. Cohn was its first Jewish faculty member.”
Bush reported, “(In 1965), the Federal Government used its imminent power of domain to take the land and building at a modest price.” Henry Rosenthal, then president of the congregation, led in the purchase of 2.7 acres of land on Dudley Drive just beyond the current location of Athens Regional Library. The new temple was dedicated on Oct. 13, 1968.

Here and Now: A new education center was added to the current temple in 1996, dedicated as the “Carol Bush Education Center” in memory of Bush’s late wife. The religious school now has classes for children as young as 3 and up to 16 years of age, increasing enrollment from approximately 50 to 75 because of the new facility.
The Congregation Children of Israel is not only the first synagogue in Athens, but has always been the only one. The current Rabbi for the temple, Rabbi Ronald D. Gerson, said, “It’s very important for people to know we are the center of Jewish life in all of Northeast Georgia. To find another temple you would have to go east all the way to Augusta, west to Gwinnett County, south to Macon, or north to Tennessee or North Carolina.”

This story byTracy Coley Ingram originally appeared in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday, January 24, 2002.
It is reposted here with full permission.

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