learn more about Savannah's historic synagogue
Savannah’s Historic District is known for its beautiful and walkable 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, It was founded in 1733, and lives on Monterey Square.
Just five months after General James Edward Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia in 1733, a group of Jewish people traveled from London to Savannah on The William and Sarah with the clothes on their back, a Torah, and a special kit for circumcision. They would be the founders of Mickve Israel.
Of the forty-two Jewish colonists who landed in Georgia on that first boat, thirty-four were Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had fled to London from Portugal, where they were forced to practice Roman Catholicism (although they did secretly remain loyal to their Jewish faith).
Ten years later, around 6,000 of the wealthy members of London’s Jewish community helped fund the initial group’s trip to America. The families of Abraham Minis and Benjamin Sheftall were among the pack.
In 1742, during The War of Jenkins’ Ear, Spanish troops landed on St. Simons Island near Savannah during their Invasion of Georgia. Many Sephardi Jews fled the area, fearing they’d be burned at the stake, while the Abraham Minis and Sheftall families remained.
They gave up their synagogue and held informal and secret services out of the home of Benjamin Sheftall.
It was reestablished in 1774 after many Jewish people returned to Savannah. They didn’t start using a synagogue again until 1786. And the congregation wasn’t recognized as a legal entity until November 20, 1790.
Governor Edward Telfair granted a perpetual charter as
a body incorporate by the name and style of the Parnas and Adjuntas of Mickve Israel of Savannah. A copy of the original charter is on display in the Synagogue’s archival museum.
The Congregation’s first temple was on the corner of Liberty and Whitaker Streets and constructed in 1820, making it the first synagogue in the state of Georgia.
This was built because it was becoming evident that with the larger Jewish population in Savannah, their own synagogue was much needed.
But then a fire destroyed it in 1829. Luckily, all the Torah scrolls were saved.
Efforts were made in 1834 to have the temple rebuilt. A new brick building on the same site was consecrated in 1841. Today, the silver pointer gift from Dr. De la Motta, who consecrated the first temple, is still used by the Congregation during weekly Torah readings.
A little over 30 years later, the current structure was built and still stands. Henry G. Harrison, a famous New York architect who favored neo-Gothic style, designed this beautiful temple. It is actually listed as one of the 15 Most Beautiful Synagogues in the World by Condé Nast Traveler.
Temple Mickve Israel was consecrated at its current location in 1878. It is the only Gothic Revival style synagogue in the United States.
The families of Abraham Minis and Benjamin Sheftall were active within the Congregation and remain so to this day. Here are some of the notable family members and their accomplishments.
Levi Sheftall, Benjamin’s son, was proud of his heritage and committed to his family’s role in founding the Congregation in Savannah. He also 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. 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.
That was the first letter a U.S. President sent to a Jewish community.
One of Benjamin Sheftall’s other sons, Mordecai, was the highest-ranking Jewish officer of the American Revolutionary forces. He and his son were captured by British soldiers and imprisoned, but they were later traded for two captured British officers.
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.