learn more about Savannah's historic synagogue
Savannah’s Historic District is known for its 22 Squares, providing folks with greenery and respite in the heart of downtown. One of those squares is the home of the third oldest Jewish congregation in America; Congregation Mickve Israel, founded in 1733, lives on beautiful Monterey Square.
Constructed in 1820, Congregation Mickve Israel erected its first official temple. Fifty years later, they had outgrown the structure. What is known as one of the 15 Most Beautiful Synagogues in the World by Condé Nast Traveler, Congregation Mickve Israel, was built. In 1878, the sanctuary on Monterey Square was completed.
The synagogue was designed by Henry G. Harrison, a nationally known architect who favored Late Gothic Style architecture with uniquely understated design details. This trend dominated the Victorian era.
Just five months after General James Edward Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733, a group of Jews traveled from London to Savannah on the second boat bound for Georgia. They would be the founders of Mickve Israel.
Thirty-four of the forty-two Jewish colonists had arrived in London ten years earlier. They were considered Crypto-Jews of Spanish/Portuguese descent. Secretly devoted to their adherence to Judaism, but openly practiced Roman Catholicism since their lives in Portugal.
The families of Abraham Minis and Benjamin Sheftall were among the first founders; their descendants are members of today’s congregation. In 1774, Benjamin Sheftall’s son, Mordecai, opened his home to the congregation to meet on the eve of Yom Kippur.
Mordecai Sheftall was the highest-ranking Jewish officer of the American Revolutionary forces. He and his son were captured by British soldiers and imprisoned in Antiqua. They were eventually traded for two captured British officers.
The congregation was finally recognized as a legal entity on November 20, 1790. Governor Edward Telfair granted a perpetual charter as “a body incorporate by the name and style o the ‘Parnas and Adjuntas of Mickve Israel at Savannah.’” A copy of the original charter is on display in the Synagogue’s archival museum.
Levi Sheftall was proud of his heritage and committed to his family’s role in founding the congregation in Savannah. He had a great deal of reverence for the country that allowed him religious freedom. Levi composed a congratulatory letter to George Washington upon his election to the office of President of the United States, on behalf of the “Hebrew Congregation.” President Washington sent an immediate response:
To the Hebrew Congregation of the City of Savannah, Georgia: May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in the promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven, and make the inhabitants of every denomination partake in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people, whose God is Jehova.
Temple Mickve Israel was consecrated at its current location in 1878. It is the only Gothic Revival style synagogue in the United States.
The growth of the Jewish population in Savannah had grown, and by 1818 it was evident that the Congregation required their own synagogue building. The lot of land that had been given to them by the city had several small buildings on it. The Congregation had been renting out these structures, as they didn’t serve any interest to the congregation. Now was the time for Dr. Moses Sheftall and Dr. Jacob De la Motta to make it their mission to source the construction of a synagogue for their congregation.
The building, the first synagogue to be erected in the State of Georgia, was consecrated on July 21, 1820, by Dr. De la Motta. A bronze plaque was embedded into the sidewalk on the northeast corner of Liberty and Whitaker Streets as a respectful reminder of the efforts.
A fire on December 4, 1829, destroyed the initial structure, but in 1834, efforts were made to rebuild. A new brick building on the same site was consecrated in 1841. Today, the silver pointer gift from Dr. De la Motta is still used by the Congregation during weekly Torah readings.
The Congregation continued to grow. On March 1, 1876, the cornerstone was laid for the building that is now Congregation Mickve Israel on Monterey Square.
The Sheftall Trustees, to this day, an integral part of the Congregation, completed and dedicated the Mordecai Sheftall Memorial on the grounds of Congregation Mickve Israel. The memorial was expanded in 1957 and again in 2002. The Mordecai Sheftall Memorial now houses the Congregation Mickve Israel museum, school, and administrative offices.
Congregation Mickve Israel practices both contemporary and classical Judaism. They have over 400 families in their congregation and honor Savannah’s rich history while nurturing their vision for the future.
You can visit Congregation Mickve Israel at 20 East Gordon Street, and explore the history and influence the Congregation has had on the community.
The museum offers tours Monday through Friday, 10:00 AM - 3:30 PM. Some of the highlights of the tour are:
The tour is $8.00 per person, and the funds allocated to maintain the historic facilities. Tickets are available for purchase at the synagogue.