By Miranda Bannister
Very few people think of Jewish culture and picture the Southern United States. However, American Jews have been living in small centers around the South for centuries, managing to maintain their distinct cultural and religious identity over countless generations. No town better illustrates the resilience of Jewish faith and community in the South than Anniston, Alabama.
The photograph above shows three Jewish women from the Henrietta Stern Sisterhood at Temple Beth-El Emanuel in Anniston, Alabama serving tea and cookies to American soldiers stationed nearby. The snapshot, taken on February 7, 1943, incapsulates the nature of 1940s women’s leadership in the town of Anniston, where female congregants were the primary fundraisers and organizers for the construction of the town’s synagogue fifty years earlier. Dedicated in 1893, Temple Beth El Emanuel remains the oldest building in Alabama that has been used continuously for Jewish worship.
The three members of the Henrietta Sterne Sisterhood shown in this particular photograph are Amelia Saks, Celia Springer, and Birdie Held. They host these young servicemen from nearby Fort McClellan along at the Jewish Welfare Board of Anniston. The photograph was collected by congregant and historian Sherry Blanton and featured in the exhibition Lives of Quiet Affirmation: An Alabama Jewish Community at the Birmingham Public Library in 2001.
Jewish women like the ones featured in this photograph, and the eponymous Henrietta Stern, were always at the heart of Anniston’s religious and cultural life.
The town of Anniston, Alabama’s Jewish community originally developed from a small business founded by the merchant Leon Ullman of nearby Talladega in 1884. Leon’s settlement soon became a public town as more and more Jews moved to the area, and its many inhabitants began yearning for ways to share religious worship. They started by formalizing a congregation in 1888.
The founding document of Anniston’s first Jewish congregation stated the group’s purpose as, “The worship of God in accordance with the usages and customs of our ancient religion; the preservation and perpetuation of the tenets and principles of Judaism, the fostering of communal life and the cementing of the bonds of religious fellowship.”
The congregation, however, had no formal meeting place to foster this “communal life” and “fellowship.” Instead, they gathered in private spaces and event halls around the area– that is, until the women of the community took matters into their own hands.
Henrietta Stern, also the founder of the town’s first religious school for Jewish children, initiated these efforts. She began by inviting a group of Anniston’s most influential Jewish women to the home she shared with her husband Anselm. There, the couple convinced the group to found The Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society.
On December 10, 1890, the women drew up the founding document for the group. Thereafter, the society’s first objective was to build a meeting place for the congregation. Stern and her cohort quickly started fundraising through membership dues, fines for missed meetings, sale of handmade crafts or “fancy work,” events, and personal donations.
By 1891 the women had saved enough money to make a down payment on the land at the corner of Quintard Avenue and Thirteenth Street. The total cost of the land amounted to $1,500.
While the women had raised all of the funds for the synagogue’s construction, only men from the community sat on the board overseeing the project. However, the women stipulated to the men on the board that the budget for the project was $2,200, and the men should incur “no debt.”
The final result was a proud building adorned by a trio of colorful stained-glass windows, also provided for by the women’s “fancy work” and fundraising. Rabbi Max Heller spoke at the dedication ceremony for the synagogue on December 8, 1893. Less than three years had passed since the foundation of the Hebrew Benevolent Society.
No ladies joined Rabbi Heller in the roster of speakers that day. However, they continued to guide the congregation’s direction for the decades to come.
In many ways, this photograph epitomizes the spirit of community and leadership exemplified by the women of Anniston. Saks, Springer, and Held smile warmly as they welcome the soldiers into their community, much as Henrietta might have done.
This photograph is only one tile in the intricate mosaic of Southern Jewish life, which will be explored in the Museum program Sweet Tea and the Southern Jew.