The Mayor of Natchez, MS, arranged for us to meet Jay Lehman, a member of the local Jewish community, at his store - Lehman’s Cash and Carry. We spoke for close to an hour and Jay filled us in on the community and its history. We planned to meet at the synagogue later in the day.

We returned to our hotel, which overlooked the Mississippi River, to cook dinner and wash up. We had directions to the synagogue and wondered what to expect. We’d learned that Jewish life had existed in Natchez since before the Civil War and that the community still prayed in an old temple.

We arrived to discover that the temple had been built in 1905 after the previous temple burned down because of faulty wiring. The Natchez Jewish community once included almost 500 members but in 1908 the boll weevil arrived devastating the cotton industry and the Mississippi River flooded, causing even further damage. Many businesses were forced to close and over the next ten years the Jewish community dwindled to 150 members. The community continued to shrink and now consists of 13 individuals, the youngest of whom is 60. Several years ago the community deeded the temple to the Museum of Southern Jewish Experience as a way of preserving it, and the temple now houses an exhibit about Natchez Jewry which we found fascinating.

In the temple, we asked the two men who were showing us around if they would put on tefillin and they happily agreed. While doing the mitzvah with them, we heard some voices calling out in Hebrew, “Ma nishma?” – “How are you?” Turning around we saw an Israeli family who were touring Natchez. They were on their own cross-country trip, and when we explained that we were just getting a tour of this old synagogue, they came inside and joined us. Itzik, the husband, readily agreed to put on tefillin.

We soon found out that one of the Natchez residents giving us the tour had just put on tefillin for the first time in his life – a true cause for celebration! And celebrate we did. In the temple was a grand piano and our new Israeli friend, Itzik, sat down and began to play the traditional congratulary song – Siman Tov, as well as other traditional Jewish melodies.

And together, two of the only remaining members of the Natchez Jewish community, an Israeli tourist and his two sons, and three Chassidic bikers danced and sang with joy and unity as we celebrated a Bar Mitzvah more than 50 years in the waiting.

Meeting with Mayor Bell of Birmingham
Meeting with Mayor Bell of Birmingham