Records of Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas)
Scope and Content Note
The records of Temple Beth El offer a valuable insight into a small town Southern Jewish community. The community members, composed mainly of German Jews devoted to the Reform movement, participated actively in charity work and mutual benefit societies, and maintained a close relationship with Jewish communities throughout the South. Contributors to the Southern economy, their synagogue activities often reflect their business interests; a bale of cotton was once used in a fundraising auction. The strength of their Jewish commitment is reflected in their efforts to keep the synagogue active, despite difficulties in hiring and maintaining Rabbis for the pulpit.
A significant part of this collection concerns the activities of women in the Helena Jewish community. Tightly knit as members of a small community, the women stretched beyond their insulated group to help local needy individuals and donate to relief charities throughout the United States and overseas. Their dedication to their synagogue, and being Jews in a largely non-Jewish town, is depicted through the aid they gave to the building's upkeep, including donating funds for the construction of new buildings. The Sisterhood took an active role as member of the Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, hosting MAFTS conventions and workshops in Helena.
Many of the records for the Helena Jewish community have been lost, destroyed by fire, or discarded by community members. This collection, which contains correspondence, real estate deeds, financial ledgers, minute meetings, news clippings, a scrapbook and photographs, is representative of the majority of historical items pertaining to the Helena Jewish community that exists today.
The collection is arranged into the following four series: Series I: Administrative; Series II: Women's Organizations; Series III: Esther Lodge; and Series IV: Anniversaries and Closing Ceremonies.
- undated, 1875-2006
- Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas) (Organization)
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Helena, Arkansas Jewish Community
Temple Beth El (1867-2006)
The first Jew to settle in Helena, Arkansas remains a mystery, although Jews were known to have lived in Helena by the 1840s. In 1846, a small number of Jews in Helena borrowed a sefer Torah for High Holiday services from Congregation B'nai Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio. The community, made up of young families and single men, were primarily German peddlers, who having saved enough funds, put down roots in Helena and opened up stores, often with brothers or friends. Their link to Ohio was likely economic, since wholesale suppliers were located in larger cities.
In 1867, sixty-five Helena Jews formed the congregation Beth El (House of G-d). The congregation first met in members' homes and rented rooms such as a storeroom (in 1873) and an abandoned Presbyterian Church. Interest in the congregation flourished after a brick synagogue was built and dedicated on Perry and Pecan Streets in October 1880. Among the guests at the dedication was Rabbi Max Samfield from Memphis, Tennessee. The Jewish community in Memphis and other Southern cities would continue to have strong religious, economic, and social links with Beth El. The current synagogue, in Greek revival style, was erected in 1916, and served as the oldest existing synagogue in Arkansas until its deconsecration in 2006.
In 1875, Beth El joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, embracing Reform Judaism and becoming one of the earliest members of the Union. Before the Congregation's first Rabbi arrived in 1879 (Abraham Meyers), the congregation often used the local Methodist minister, Reverend Dr. Garrison, to officiate at life cycle events. While new churches were being constructed, Christian congregations worshiped in the Temple's building.
The strong interfaith relationships between Jews and Christians in Helena helped widen Jewish involvement in social and political arenas. The Helena Country Club invited Jews to join upon opening in 1916, and several Jewish members served as Presidents. Aaron Meyers (term 1878-1880) and Jacob Fink (elected 1906) served as the town's mayor. Jacob Treiber, who settled in Helena in the 1860s, became the first Jewish federal court judge in the United States in 1900. Many of Helena's Jewish businessmen who began as peddlers thrived, diversifying and expanding their businesses, specializing in dry goods, cotton, produce, and real estate, among others. They were joined beginning in the 1890s with Eastern European immigrants.
As the Jewish community grew, charity, mutual benefit, and social organizations were established, the earliest being a Hebrew Benevolent Association. B'nai Brith Esther Lodge was formed in 1871. In 1892 the Helena Literary and Social Circle evolved into the Lotus Club, with primarily Jewish members. Women's organizations such as Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association, Ladies Temple Aid and the Sisterhood were active in civic and social affairs. Members of these and other local Jewish organizations included residents of smaller towns in the area, such as West Helena, Marianna, Marvell, Holly Grove, and Trenton. Beth El served as the region's synagogue.
Despite Beth El's importance to community Jews in the area, it was difficult for the congregation to maintain full time Rabbis. Although they hired several recent graduates from the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College, many were dissatisfied with living in a small, rural town and left for larger communities. Challenges to find replacements were compounded by the small graduating classes for HUC, which were generally only ten men. Between 1879, when the first full time Rabbi arrived and 1960, Beth El had twenty-one rabbis. After Samuel R. Shillman, the last fulltime Rabbi retired, Beth El depended upon visiting rabbis from nearby Memphis, TN and Jackson, MS to hold monthly services.
According to the American Jewish Year Book, four hundred Jews were living in Helena in 1927. Since then, the community has gradually declined, as college aged children found opportunities in larger cities, the economy burst into the technological age, and fewer newcomers arrived. In 1967, when Beth El was celebrating its 100th anniversary, the congregation consisted of 109 members. In April 2006, fifteen members remained, to close the synagogue and donate the beautiful building for a community cultural center.
LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1990s. University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Public Lecture Delivered by Stuart Rockoff, Historian of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, April 27, 2006, Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas) Records, I-470, Box 3/Folder 8, Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society, Newton Centre, MA, and New York, NY.
3.2 Linear Feet (3 manuscript boxes; 1 [16 x 20"] oversized box)
Language of Materials
The records of Temple Beth El offer a valuable insight into a small town Southern Jewish community. The community members, composed mainly of German Jews devoted to the Reform movement, participated actively in charity work and mutual benefit societies, and maintained a close relationship with Jewish communities throughout the South. Temple Beth El was one of the first members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Its history reflects the struggles a small town Jewish community experienced in maintaining their Jewish identity as well as the cooperation and acceptance of their non-Jewish neighbors. A significant part of the collection concerns the activities of women in the Helena Jewish community, who were a tight knit group that conducted extensive charity work. The Sisterhood took an active role as member of the Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. The records also include minute books for the B'nai B'rith Esther Lodge. The collection contains correspondence, real estate deeds, financial ledgers, minute meetings, news clippings, a scrapbook, and photographs.
- B'nai B'rith Esther Lodge
- Clippings (information artifacts)
- Financial records
- Helena (Ark.)
- Jews, German
- Judaism -- Relations -- Christianity
- Minutes (administrative records)
- Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods
- Reform Judaism
- Union of American Hebrew Congregations
- Guide to the Records of Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas), undated, 1875-2006 I-470
- Processed by Adina Anflick, Marvin Rusinek
- © 2006
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