James Oglethorpe didn’t know they were coming. A member of the British Parliament, Oglethorpe had been sent to found the 13th colony in the New World. It had been 50 years since the last one, Pennsylvania, was established. The British economy was faltering and the King needed a place to resettle the poor, so in 1732 George II granted the charter that created Georgia. Oglethorpe, one of its Trustees, was sent to govern. One year later 42 Jews unexpectedly showed up in the harbor.
Oglethorpe, who had brought 130 settlers to the mouth of the Savannah River, befriended the natives who were smart enough to live 17+ miles upriver to avoid the mosquitoes that carried yellow fever. By 1733 the English settlers’ only doctor had died, and the Jews afloat in the harbor were asking to be let in. One of the men aboard their ship, the William & Sarah, was a doctor who specialized in contagious diseases. They were mostly Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese heritage and, lucky for them, not Spanish Catholics who were strictly forbidden to enter. Only 8 were Ashkenazi. Oglethorpe thought there was no prohibition against Jews. However, he sent a rep to Charles Town to asks if there was a problem admitting them. The answer was no. For £30,000, equal to $4 million today, and because they added to the colony’s white population, Oglethorpe let them in. Savannah, Georgia, was suddenly home to the congregation that became the largest settlement of Jews in colonial America. It thrived because they were completely free to worship.
Luckily, there was a circumcision kit aboard the ship that brought them to America because the first non-native boy born in the State of Georgia was Jewish as was Phoebe Levy, the nurse who became the Florence Nightingale of America.
By the end of the Civil War, Temple Mickve Israel had outgrown its building and a new synagogue was going up. To be part of a community where neo-Gothic architecture was the rage, it looks a lot like a Christian church today with a formal nave, stained glass windows, etc. In traditional Jewish ceremonies there is no music, but Temple Mickve Israel has a choir loft and an organ.
Norman from New Jersey, a 23-year Savannah resident, proudly gave Ruth and me a tour of Temple Mickve Israel, the 2nd oldest religious congregation in Georgia at 20 East Gordon Street. Today it’s 1 of 3 synagogues in Savannah and reformed. Among its prized possessions are a letter from George Washington, 2 historic deerskin Torahs, and the newest Torah in the U.S.
A trip to Savannah today can include a visit to Temple Mickve Israel, and this is a dynamite idea since it’s beautiful, historically important, and culturally significant.