Behind the Bricks
During its 300 years of existence, Mobile has been a part of French Louisiana, British West Florida, and now, Alabama. While today Mobile has only the third largest Jewish population in the state, behind Birmingham and Montgomery, during the ante-bellum period it was the center of Jewish life in Alabama.
Mobile, Alabama was founded in 1702 as the capital of the French colonial possession Louisiana. Mobile passed through both British and Spanish hands before it became part of the United States in 1813. Being the only sea port in Alabama, Mobile experienced much shipping traffic and an influx of travelers. The Port of Mobile was a key trading center between the French and Native Americans when Mobile was still a part of Louisiana and attracted many travelers and merchants from New Orleans. Before the Civil War, the Port of Mobile became a major trading center for cotton and the slaves charged with raising and picking it. Slaves arrived by ship in Mobile Bay and departed with their new owners on the Alabama River. Cotton would be shipped down the river from both Alabama and Mississippi and sent around the country and the world.
Jews did not begin to appear in Mobile until after 1763 when the territory was turned over to the British. As a result of the Code Noir, which expelled all Jews from the French colonies and banned them from owning property or slaves, few Jews were seen in Mobile during the French occupation. In addition, since New Orleans promised better opportunities for commercial undertakings more Jews settled there. Until 1841, when Jews purchased land for a cemetery, there was little semblance of a Jewish community in Mobile. Indeed, until 1841, the history of Jews in Mobile was mainly a history of individuals. These resourceful and skilled men were well integrated into the economic and social life of Mobile; they often married Christian women because there were no Jewish women in the area.
By the late 19th century, a growing number of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were settling in Mobile. By 1912, an estimated 1,400 Jews lived in Mobile. Many of these newcomers owned small retail stores along Dauphin and Government Streets in downtown Mobile, often living in apartments in the rear of the store. Others worked as traveling peddlers in the surrounding countryside. Used to stricter religious orthodoxy, many of these newly arriving Jews did not care for the classical Reform Judaism of Sha’arai Shomayim, and sought to create a congregation of their own. By 1894, this group had founded the Orthodox Ahavas Chesed (Lovers of Mercy). At first, this congregation was relatively informal, with its male members gathering at different homes to pray together. For the high holidays, they rented space from the German Relief Hall. For its first seven years, the congregation had no presidents or rabbis. In 1898, the members of Ahavas Chesed purchased twelve plots at Magnolia Cemetery.
The new congregation grew quickly. By 1907, it already had seventy members and a treasurer who used a horse and buggy to visit each member to collect their dues. The following year, Ahavas Chesed purchased a house at the corner of Conti and Warren Streets to use as a synagogue. At the dedication ceremony, the speakers included the mayor of Mobile, Pat Lyons, and Rabbi Moses of Sha’arai Shomayim. Reflecting the immigrant roots of its members, after the dedication ceremony, a religious service was held during which Ahavas Chesed’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Abraham Fram, addressed the congregation in Yiddish. With Mobile’s population of Eastern European Orthodox Jews ever increasing, Ahavas Chesed soon outgrew its first home, and quickly made plans to construct a new synagogue on the same site. On December 10, 1911, the members gathered to lay the cornerstone for the new building. The Jewish mayor of Mobile, Lazarus Schwarz, spoke at the ceremony. The synagogue was completed in record time, opening its doors on March 31, 1912.
Soon after, Ahavas Chesed hired its first ordained rabbi, Morris Lichtenstein, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. In addition to leading services, Lichtenstein was responsible for slaughtering kosher meat for his congregants. Rabbi Lichtenstein only served Ahavas Chesed for four years, leaving in 1916. Although they had hired a JTS graduate, the congregation remained Orthodox, with separate seating for men and women and prayers exclusively in Hebrew. Sermons were often given in Yiddish since that was the language most members best understood. In 1914, Ahavas Chesed organized a heder religious school, which met every day after school in the basement of the synagogue. In keeping with Orthodox tradition, only boys received instruction at heder. However, some sisters were known to accompany their brothers to heder and learn Hebrew by “ear” while sitting in the back. By 1924, girls were allowed to participate in religious school.
As the Jewish boys waited for heder to open, they would play basketball at a nearby grammar school court. These informal games soon grew into the Hebrew Athletic Club, in which Mobile’s young Jews would compete in the city’s Sunday school basketball league against churches and YMCA teams. With a Star of David on their jerseys, Mobile’s Jewish youth held their own against other local teams. Efforts such as the Hebrew Athletic Club convinced many synagogue members of the need for a Jewish community center for social and athletic activities. In 1930, Ahavas Chesed purchased a three story brick building across the street from the synagogue. Named the Progressive Club, the building contained several meetings rooms, a recreation room, and an auditorium. In 1938, the building was demolished and replaced with a new structure that better met the needs of Mobile Jews, with a full gymnasium, auditorium, banquet hall, and kosher kitchen. Although Ahavas Chesed paid for the Progressive Club, it was open to all members of the Mobile Jewish community.
In challenging anti-Semitism, both at home and abroad, Mobile Jews were exuding a confidence in their position in America. They embraced their citizenship, and expressed a strong patriotism for their country. Several served in the US military during the two world wars, with some receiving special recognition for their sacrifice. After naval officer Esau Frohlichstein died fighting for the US in Mexico in 1914, a monument was erected in his memory with a plaque that read “A True American Patriot. Lover of Liberty, His Flag and Country.” Leon Schwarz, who later became mayor of Mobile, was an Alabama State Trooper before serving in the army during World War I. Mobile Jews who remained at home during the wars also did their part. During World War II, Mobile became a busy port, bringing an influx of soldiers into the area. The congregants of Ahavas Chesed and Sha’arai Shomayim went to great lengths to make Jewish servicemen feel at home. Over the holidays, Jewish servicemen were invited to the synagogues and homes of Mobile Jews.
The post-war period saw changes for Ahavas Chesed as well. They had long been slowly moving away from religious orthodoxy, and in 1952, after much internal debate, the congregation decided to affiliate with the Conservative Movement. This brought several changes, including the hiring of their first Conservative rabbi, Manuel Greenstein, who helped the congregation make the transition. Rabbi Greenstein helped increase synagogue participation by introducing a Men’s Club and a youth group affiliated with the United Synagogue Youth. In 1954 the Ladies Aid Society became affiliated with the National Women’s League of the United Synagogue of America, and changed its name to the Ahavas Chesed Sisterhood. Joining the Conservative movement opened the door to further ritual changes in 1980, including counting women toward the minyan and allowing women to be called to the bimah for an Aliyah.
Ahavas Chesed soon moved westward, building a new synagogue on the corner of Dauphin and Hannon Streets in 1956. The new building held classrooms, an auditorium, a kosher kitchen, a chapel, as well as a main sanctuary that had 264 seats. Rabbi Harold Friedman, who had earlier been a bus-driving circuit riding rabbi in North Carolina, took over the pulpit at Ahavas Chesed in 1958, and focused on bolstering the congregation’s religious school. The congregation thrived under Rabbi Friedman’s leadership, and soon began to outgrow its facility; its religious school rooms were designed to hold 100 students, but by 1959 they had 133 children enrolled.
By 1989 Ahavas Chesed had finally gotten too big for their building and plans were made to construct a new synagogue. On February11, 1990 the new synagogue was dedicated on Regents Way. The design of the main sanctuary consists of two circular columns on each side of the Bimah along with six wooden panels between them, making the wall look like a Torah opened in study.
Ahavas Chesed had 174 member families with 30 students in its religious school in 2008. Rabbi Steven Silberman has served the congregation since 1990.