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Bar Mitzvah Boy Comes to the Aid of a Southern Synagogue in Disrepair

Elijah Schulman’s family had roots in Selma, Ala. Now his mitzvah project will help maintain its century-old temple.

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(Alvin Benn)
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Like many other synagogues in small Southern towns, Mishkan Israel in Selma, Ala., has seen better days. The slate roof is more than a century old and has been patched but never replaced. Termites have damaged the basement. The frames are rotting around the Tiffany-esque stained-glass windows. And don’t ask about the organ.

In the social hall, a recent photo of the congregation’s scant membership is captioned “The last of the Mohicans.” And its numbers have diminished even more in the few years since that photo was taken—down to nine today, plus two active non-Jewish spouses of members, and a few out-of-towners. The city has lost population, too, to fewer than 21,000, according to the 2010 census, down from a high of 28,000, and it can’t seem to shake its reputation as Ground Zero for racism: Many young folks haven’t heard of Selma, but others can’t forget the images of Bloody Sunday 1965, when Sheriff Jim Clark, his posse, and state troopers attacked 600 nonviolent civil rights marchers with tear gas and billy clubs as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Enter Elijah Schulman of Bethesda, Md. Not yet 13—his birthday is July 10—he already has a website, a Pay Pal account, and a plan to save the shul.

Last year, he and his family were mulling over their venue options for his bar mitzvah because their roving havurah in Bethesda has no building. They could have chosen to hold the ceremony at the former Girl Scout camp where his cousin had her bat mitzvah, or at Washington, D.C.’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, or in Israel. Then his mother came up with an idea where the family had a long history: Selma.

A bar mitzvah hundreds of miles from home, in a temple without a minyan or a rabbi or—perhaps most important in Alabama in August—central air-conditioning? Elijah thought it was a great idea.

Ancestors on both sides of Elijah’s family had immigrated to Alabama from Europe (from Belarus to Decatur in 1910; from Bohemia to Selma and nearby Orrville in 1884). Elijah tried to imagine it: “Take all your stuff and move to a whole ‘nother place you’ve never seen before in your life and to not speak the language either,” he said. Last summer Elijah, his younger brother, and their mother toured Mishkan Israel, the temple of their forebears, a handsome, arched red-brick building built in 1899 in Romanesque Revival style, as were several churches in town—notably Brown Chapel AME Church, headquarters of the 1965 Selma civil rights movement. Mishkan Israel’s membership reached its peak in 1940, with more than 100 families. In 1944, Selma’s Orthodox shul closed down, and remaining members joined the Reform temple. For many years, Mishkan Israel had a full-time rabbi, regular Friday night and High Holiday services, Sunday school and confirmation classes, a sukkah in the fall, Purim parties, and a much-loved community Seder.

But these days, Shabbat services are infrequent, and a member conducts High Holiday services. The last bar mitzvah was seven years ago—celebrated by the visiting grandson of Selma-based columnist Al Benn. It was summer, and it was hot; Benn noted that “pizza ovens sometimes are made of red brick” much like Mishkan Israel’s. He and his wife have since joined a more active synagogue in nearby Montgomery.

“Someone, I think my cousin, said the building wasn’t in good shape,” Elijah recounted. So, he decided not only to have his bar mitzvah there next month, but to make the temple his mitzvah project. His goal is to raise $10,000, to contribute toward a maintenance endowment; by mid-June he’d already collected about $2,000.

“I’m overwhelmed with his dedication to his roots,” said Ronnie Leet, who is the synagogue’s default president, frequent spokesperson and tour guide, and at 62, its youngest member.

***

The story of Jews in Selma has been repeated throughout the South, and in small towns in the rest of the country, with some variation. In the 1830s a handful of transient Sephardic Jews arrived from Eastern seaports, followed a few decades later by German Jews who set up Reform congregations. In the late 19th century came the huddled masses from Eastern Europe, who organized Orthodox and sometimes Conservative synagogues. These Yiddish speakers were encouraged by their more assimilated (and sometimes embarrassed) brethren in the Northeast to seek their fortunes elsewhere—partly facilitated by an employment service chillingly named the Industrial Removal Office, as well as by the Galveston Plan that routed about 10,000 Jewish immigrants through the Texas port. Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews found the South to be generally welcoming. (Notable exceptions: the Ku Klux Klan and the Leo Frank case.)

“In the North, in the big cities, the idea of race was complicated,” said Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. What we now call ethnic groups were once termed “races,” he said; not so in the South, which had fewer immigrants and a widespread ideology of white superiority. “All that mattered was black and white, and Jews were on the white side of equation,” Rockoff said. Thus Jews fairly easily became active in the economic, social, and civic life of Southern towns. Three of Selma’s mayors were Jewish.

The Jewish merchants’ success, however, ensured that they would have few successors in business. Their children and grandchildren went off to college, became professionals, and didn’t look back. So, it’s no mystery why a Jewish man in Vicksburg, Miss., told the ISJL traveling rabbi that “the average age of his community is deceased.”

That rabbi is Marshal Klaven, 34, who is officiating at Elijah’s bar mitzvah. Klaven and Elijah will meet for the first time in Selma, after months of Skyping, texting, emailing, and telephoning. Such technologies are necessary for the circuit-riding Reform rabbi “to make intimacy happen,” said Klaven. They’ve discussed Elijah’s Torah and Haftorah portions and his sermon; sometimes they just chat. “I’m super-impressed with the maturity he brings to this experience,” the rabbi said. In Bethesda, Elijah has a Hebrew tutor and, on his own, practices 10 minutes a day.

His portion for Aug. 3 is Re’eh, Deuteronomy 13: 13-19. “What those verses talk about is pretty much what you have to do if there are people who decide to become members of other religions,” Elijah said. “You’re supposed to stone them and burn down their house and all their livestock.” He recommends a different course of action: “Remind them how great it is to be Jewish. We have this God who rescued us from Egypt, and all this cool stuff. There’s a sense of community, especially in places where Jews are a minority.” And, he added drily: “Another reason is that we have great food.”

It was his mother’s idea to collect money for the temple. A number of Elijah’s friends had raised money for cancer funds for their mitzvah projects, according to his mother, Carey Fitzmaurice. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when Elijah was 5, and she figured he’d had enough of the disease. A few years ago, after the cancer returned, Fitzmaurice founded an organization to raise awareness. Her cancer is considered chronic; throughout treatment she continued to work as a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency, where her husband Andrew Schulman works as a statistician.

Of course, even a generous mitzvah project can’t, in itself, save a whole building. At Mishkan Israel, the most pressing need is for a new roof, costing $700,000 to $1 million. In all, it would take about $4 to $5 million to restore the building, according to Leet, after which members hope the ISJL would acquire it for a museum.

The temple is walking distance to Selma’s historic downtown mix of shiny, shabby, and empty storefronts. Every March, national and local Democratic officials lead crowds across the nearby Pettus Bridge to commemorate Bloody Sunday. Boosters talk about hopeful signs: live-in lofts, a new arts and community development group, re-opening of the downtown movie theater, restoration of the Harmony Club—a long-empty Jewish social institution. Elijah’s bar mitzvah luncheon will be held there next month, one floor below the second story, where his great-great-grandfather might have won and lost at poker.

***

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Bar Mitzvah Boy Comes to the Aid of a Southern Synagogue in Disrepair

Elijah Schulman’s family had roots in Selma, Ala. Now his mitzvah project will help maintain its century-old temple.