Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Historical marker in Mobile describes first Jewish house of worship in Alabama

'Shaarai Shomayim' historical marker in Mobile, Ala. 
This week’s featured historical marker is the “SHAARAI SHOMAYIM” marker in Mobile County, Ala. This marker is located on the south side of Government Street, in front of the Hardee’s Restaurant, near the corner of South Warren Street in Mobile, Ala.

This marker was erected by the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation and the Institute of the Southern Jewish Life. Unlike most historical markers of this type, there’s nothing on it to indicate when it was erected, but the marker looks relatively new. There’s text on both sides of the marker, but both sides are the same. What follows in the complete text from the marker:

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“SHAARAI SHOMAYIM – First Jewish House of Worship in Alabama – 1846: Jews have been part of Alabama’s economic, social and political life since 1764. It was not until 1841 that Mobile’s small Jewish community grew large enough to organize ‘Congregation’ Shaarai Shomayim (Gates of Heaven). The community dedicated a small building on St. Emanuel St., between Church and Government Streets, Dec. 27, 1846, as the first Jewish house of worship in Alabama. Shaarai Shomayim moved to a larger location on Jackson St., between St. Louis and St. Michael Streets, in 1853. The structure burned in 1856 but was quickly rebuilt through the combined ecumenical efforts of Christians and Jews in 1858.

“Shaarai Shomayim, affirmed in Alabama, the American principles of freedom of religion, assembly and the commonality of communities of faith.”

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A number of things jumped out at me about this marker, especially the first line, which indicates that Jews have been a part of Alabama history since 1764. Why did they pick that particular year? Is that when the first documented Jew arrived on what would one day become the state of Alabama?

The marker also says that the first Jewish house in Alabama was built on St. Emanuel Street in the 1840s, between Government Street and Church Street. If you try to pinpoint this location on a modern map, you may have a hard time. Present-day Emanuel Street runs for most of its length parallel to both Government and Church Street, that is, no point along its length is between Government and Church. The end of St. Emanuel Street comes to an end about half a mile from present-day Church Street, so my feeling is that some time in the past, changes to the city’s landscape, including the addition of Interstate Highway 10 through downtown Mobile, have made it hard to find the old church’s location on a modern map.

Being a native of Monroe County, it’s also hard for me to read this marker and not think about the thriving Jewish community that once existed in the heyday of Old Claiborne. A Jewish cemetery remains in that old ghost town still today, and some of the headstones in that cemetery predate 1846. Of course, this leads me to wonder where Claiborne’s Jews held their worship services. Was there a Jewish house of worship at Old Claiborne that predated the old in Mobile?

In the end, visit this site next Wednesday to learn about another historical marker. I’m also taking suggestions from the reading audience, so if you know of an interesting historical marker that you’d like me to feature, let me know in the comments section below. 

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