The Settlement of Rhodian and Other Sephardic Jews in Montgomery and Atlanta in the Twentieth Century

by Prof. Yitzchak Kerem

The Jews from the island of Rhodes and the other Sephardic Jews that followed them to Montgomery, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, formed unique independent communities while retaining strong ties to traditions and coreligionists from their place of origin. Strong Sephardic identity complemented by strong social and familial ties with lansmen brought and kept these Jews together. Although some ties have loosened with the passing of the generations, common ancestry has bound the descendents of the founding generation together in a united communal and synagogual structure.

Development of the Sephardic Community of Montgomery

The first Jews in Alabama were three Sephardic Jews--Samuel Israel, Alexander Solomon, and Joseph Depalacios--who bought property in Mobile County on July 9, 1765. 1 However, this group was never large enough to form its own community, becoming an integral part of the Central European Jewish community. Mordecai Moses, mayor of Montgomery at the end of the nineteenth century, came from an old colonial Sephardic family, but his family had no contact with the Balkan Sephardim who arrived later. In 1906 the arrival of a Sephardic Jew from Rhodes, Ralph Cohen, paved the way for the formation of a separate Sephardic community. Ruben Hanan has described Cohen's arrival:

Mr. Cohen, the father of Dr. Nace Cohen, arrived in the early summer of 1906 on a small frigate from the Island of Patmos, Greece with John Costarides. They were legally sponsored by Petro Costarides, uncle of John Costarides and founder of Montgomery's Elite Cafe. Mr. Cohen was very successful in business, and at one time owned a hat shop at 30 North Court, Montgomery, Alabama. 2 [End Page 373]

As happened in Seattle, the first Sephardim from the Greek Peninsula to arrive in the South followed Greek Orthodox friends and townspeople to the "America filled with gold." They had heard stories from members of the Greek Orthodox community who had emigrated to the United States and returned to their home towns in the Ottoman Empire to visit their families. 3 Cooperation and good relations between Rhodian and other Turkish Jewish and Greek Orthodox immigrants to the South continued throughout the twentieth century. They mostly retained contacts in business and on a private level in Montgomery.

Unintentionally, Mr. Cohen was a pioneer and a founder. Many men and women followed him and made contributions to the city as outstanding merchants, professionals, and businessmen. They created a vibrant Sephardic religious and cultural community. Rubin Hanan, who arrived in the 1920s and would become a Sephardic congregation leader and political advisor, noted the yearning of those who arrived after Cohen:

Behind him were to march a steady stream of men and women from Rhodes, Greece, Turkey, and the other islands of the region anxious to find for themselves the taste of freedom--and to grasp an opportunity--something which had been denied to them since the days of the Inquisition when they had fled a cruel despot in Spain who ordered them to bow down to religions against their choosing. 4

The Sephardim of Rhodes came from a traditional Judeo-Spanish-speaking community. They were a tight-knit group living in the Juderia, the Jewish quarter of Rhodes. With little economic future on this small island, the young teenage boys looked for locations to emigrate to around the globe--such as Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, the Belgian Congo, and Rhodesia--where they aspired to become wealthy. Most of those leaving were not only young but poor and possessed only a few years of primary school education. Highly motivated to succeed in the new country, they united as Rhodian immigrants in their new location, established informal self-help networks to employ newcomers or provide loans to open new businesses, and retained close contact with each other.

In the same year Ralph Cohen arrived another 11 male Rhodian Jews came to Montgomery. 5 Three were from the noted Franco family of [End Page 374] religious and communal leaders in Rhodes, including Mose "Haham" Franco. In 1907 and 1908 there was a sizeable increase in Sephardic immigrants from Rhodes, Turkey, Asia Minor, and Greece. At least 15 more young men arrived. Despite differences of melodies and diverse communal traditions and customs, the rite of the Rhodian Jews prevailed and was accepted by the Jews from other communities, including those from Monastir and Izmir. In 1908 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were held at the Orthodox Community Center at 504 Monroe Street. Simon Franco ("Mr. Sam"), a hazan (cantor) and spiritual reader who had arrived that year, led the prayer services. 6 He served as hazan and spiritual reader for more than 50 years as well as serving two terms as president of the congregation. He also served as a shochet (religious slaughterer) since he had been trained in Rhodes. 7 In 1909 there were already three Sephardic families, including one from Rhodes. Between 1909 and 1911 at least 20 more Rhodian men arrived. The first Sephardic child born in Montgomery (April 1910) was Diana Cohen; the first male child, Isaac Capiluto, was born on September 11, 1910. The first Sephardic marriage in Montgomery, that of Ralph Cohen and Sadie Taranto, took place November 17, 1912, and was performed by the Ashkenazic Rabbi Henry Drexel from Selma, Alabama. 8

Philanthropic traditions from Rhodes were instilled in the new Sephardic immigrants. In 1910 Sam Beton founded the Benevolent Society to collect money for the ill and needy, the poor or those in distress. Following the Sephardic tradition of matan beseter (anonymous giving), they donated money anonomously to those in need. They obtained loans for homes and businesses through the help of fellow Rhodians. During the High Holidays of 1909 Sam Seton and Simon Franco collected $200 for the benefit of the poor served by the Bikur Holim Society back in Rhodes. 9

By 1912 enough Sephardim had immigrated to form a full congregation called Etz Achayim, a traditional name in Salonika for Judeo-Greek Romaniot synagogues and also popular in the United States for a congregation of Jews from the Greek Peninsula. 10 The founders had the [End Page 375] charter written in Judeo-Spanish rashi-like Hebrew script and elected Solomon Rousso as the first president. According to the synagogue's historian, "The primary function of the Congregation was for religious and benevolent purposes." 11 All the members helped care for the sick and the dead, and Sephardic customs were observed. In February 1917 the community dedicated a burial area at the Greenwood Cemetery, and in the same year the congregation requested incorporation at the probate judge's office. 12 Most of the elected officers had come from Rhodes.

The Sephardim knew that making friends beyond their community was important and advantageous. They invited dignitaries to services, and individuals arranged meetings with politicians and affluent members of the public. The congregation befriended many local rabbis and lay leaders and prominent members of the Jewish community, judges, and mayors. For example, Lister Hill, a United States congressman and senator, helped many Rhodian Jews solve their immigration problems. He also provided sponsorship and official permission for numerous Rhodian Sephardim to remain in this country. 13

Between 1912 and 1916 Rhodian immigrants continued to settle in Montgomery. Even though the Sephardic component constituted a very small part of the total Jewish community, it increased yearly with the arrival of new immigrants, including many brides and sisters. Hanan listed 20 Rhodians who arrived in this period. 14 Many Sephardim leaving the Ottoman Empire from the end of the first decade of the twentieth century and during the 1910s sought to avoid military conscription when the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 advocated compulsary service for all Ottoman subjects. They also feared the political instability caused by the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Having suffered from economic decline and a brutal Turkish regime that neglected the welfare of its subjects, the Sephardim sought refuge from the tumult caused by the Balkan Wars. Those from the confining and small island of Rhodes saw no economic future on the island and sought economic security and prosperity on the other side of the Atlantic.

These Sephardic immigrants identified with the United States. They cherished the democracy, economic opportunity, and general freedom offered by their new homeland. As patriots during World War I, six young men volunteered to serve in the armed forces. On July 4, 1917, [End Page 376] these six--Simanto R. Franco, Morris R. Franco, Eli R. Capouya, Ralph M. Franco, Jack Cohen, and Isaac Menasche--were honored by Federal Judge Henry Clayton for their efforts in defending their adopted land in time of trouble. 15 In World War II, many of the second generation sons served and fought overseas. Several were injured; some were killed in action.

Not all of the immigrants remained in Montgomery, however, moving especially to Atlanta and Los Angeles. Others went to Birmingham, Miami, and New York City .

Those who moved to Atlanta as early as 1906 helped establish the Rhodian and Sephardic community there. Those going to Los Angeles eventually joined a congregation of Rhodian Jews in that city. Some joined their Rhodian relatives who had immigrated to Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo, establishing Rhodian enclaves and communities there. Others, like Isaac Menashe, went to Buenos Aires, where other Rhodian Jews had moved, eventually founding their own large and separate synagogue and communal structure. Where communities were close geographically--like Atlanta and Montgomery, Seattle and Portland, and Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro--it was not uncommon for people to move from one community to another for better pay or as the result of a marriage to a Rhodian spouse. Due to relatively close distances, Rhodians went to other cities to attend Jewish ceremonies like circumcisions, bar mitzvah, weddings, and burials. Finally, several people--like Moshe "Haham" Franco, Joseph Toledo, and Haim Pizanti--returned to Rhodes or went to Greece. 16 People saved money to move or were assisted by close relatives. Since there were many Rhodians around the globe, it was not difficult to relocate. Tragically, many who returned to the Greek Peninsula were later annihilated, along with their descendents, in the gas chambers of Birkenau after being deported by the Nazis.

Economically, the new immigrants encountered great difficulties. In Rhodes they had peddled goods or sold fabrics. In America they worked in different professions suited to their skills as merchants or unskilled workers in a new and different economy. Many sold cigarettes, repaired shoes, or opened fruit stands, grocery stores, non kosher butcher shops, delicatessens, small coffee houses, dime stores, and eventually expanded to supermarkets. 17 The Rhodians and other Sephardim lived in the Montgomery Five Points area on Milldridge, Goldthwaite, Mobile, Montgomery, and Clayton streets, where the other Jews also lived. [End Page 377]

The officers of the congregation met regularly and kept notes of their meetings in Judeo-Spanish. Until they had a building, religious services (conducted on Friday night and Saturday), High Holidays, festivals, and the zeharas, (the memorial services) were held in the homes of members. 18 In 1918 members of the congregation donated generously to purchase a plot of land at 450 Sayre Street and remodel the old house there. The community was elated by the gift of a sefer torah from the Reform Kahal Montgomery (now called Temple Beth Or) on the eve of the High Holidays of 1918 by Rabbi B. C. Ehrenreich.

In this early stage of Balkan Sephardic settlement in North America it was very rare that a Judeo-Spanish-speaking Sephardic community had such cordial relations with the greater Ashkenazic population. Because the Sephardim did not speak Yiddish, the Ashkenazim questioned the Jewish identity of the newcomers. Many in the Ashkenazic community had never met Sephardim before and were totally ignorant of their customs. 19 In Montgomery, however, local Sephardic leaders made special attempts to have contact with the Ashkenazic synagogues, and the members and leaders of the latter were open enough to accept them.

In 1919 some 30 Rhodian Jews immigrated to Montgomery, including several couples and families. Thirteen were single and unaccompanied adult women. 20 At least another eight Rhodian Jews immigrated to Montgomery between 1920 and 1923, but after the strict immigration quotas of 1924 Rhodian immigration to Montgomery practically came to a standstill.

In 1925 the Rhodian-born Rubin Hanan had difficulties in Naples, Italy, obtaining a student visa to the United States. 21 After he had waited eight months, two Italian Sephardic Jewish women intervened on his behalf. They were Margheritta Sarfatti, an architect of the Italian artistic revolution at the beginning of the Fascist Revolution, and Mrs. Modiano. They had Hanan brought to the Palacio Venezia in Naples, where he was introduced to Mussolini. Hanan explained the nature of his problem. Mussolini immediately gave an order to the Italian General Immigration Department to issue him a file number under the assumed name Robert [End Page 378] Cannon. Rubin ran to the US consulate, and the next day he was on board the SS Conte Rousso en route to the United States. After Rubin arrived at Ellis Island, Congressman Lister Hill checked the affidavits of Rubin's uncles, Morris and Simanto Franco, and managed to have the young man released the next day under his personal custody. 22 Hanan became a prominent leader of the Sephardic community as well as an influential personality in local and national political life on issues of welfare and aging. Hanan was an unusual man who achieved much because he was dynamic, persistent, took risks, and devoted to both Jewish communal and larger public causes. The same sophistication and resourcefulness that helped Hanan overcome personal immigration problems also helped him surmount communal problems.

In 1926 the congregation began a new synagogue on their plot of land on Sayre Street and the following year dedicated it in a festive ceremony. Abraham and Reuben Piha, well-known Sephardic hazanim from Atlanta, sang at the event to support their sister Sephardic community. 23 In 1928 the congregation established a Talmud Torah. 24 In light of the fact that a generation of children had already grown up in the United States, the effort was a little late in transmitting the rich Jewish education of Rhodes, which included learning to read printed Judeo-Spanish and writing and reading the handwritten sollitreo (cursive) Judeo-Spanish script. Those descendants of Rhodian rabbinical and religious families born in the United States lost the erudite religious scholarship and knowledge of their ancestors. Traditionally, Sephardic religious guidance of the community was left to the elders. In Montgomery Rubin Hanan, Pinhas Hassan, and Dr. Morris Capouya provided such Sephardic religious guidance to the community, but they were unable to transmit this dedication and knowledge to succesive generations.

The women formed the sisterhood, which, according to the congregational history, upheld "their beliefs, customs, and traditions." 25 From 1919 until 1939 the group was called the Ladies Auxiliary Avath Shalom of Temple Etz Ahayem. Afterward it became the Ladies Auxiliary or the Sisterhood of Etz Ahayem. These women furnished the first house of prayer. In the following decades they opened their Purim ball to the public, supported local philanthropic projects, and in 1961, with the Temple Beth Or Sisterhood, cosponsored a traveling art exhibition of Jewish pieces from the Smithsonian Institute at the Montgomery Musuem [End Page 379] of Fine Art. They tightened religious observance in March 1962 by making rules ensuring that all food served had to be kosher and, if served on the Sabbath, prepared in advance. They successfully preserved Sephardic and Turkish culinary traditions and presented authentic Turkish entertainment on occasion.

During the mid-1930s the Sephardim of Montgomery and Atlanta attempted to work together to maintain traditions. Members of Atlanta's Congregation Or Ve Shalom left by motorcade with their general secretary David Ajuelo for Montgomery on Sunday, November 24, 1936, to convene a meeting to help unify Sephardic Jewry. As conceived by the Atlanta leaders, a "Sephardic Congregational Society" would support national cultural and welfare programs. From its base in the South the society would move throughout the United States to Cuba and Mexico. A special emphasis would be assistance in religious affairs for Sephardim in small communities. The society sought to foster Sephardic culture and would establish goodwill between groups. In his address, Rabbi Joseph I. Cohen of Atlanta advocated the unity of Judaism and nationalism. Or Ve Shalom's Morris Capuano served as chairperson of the new society. The impetus for this organization partly came from outside the South and reflected links with Sephardim elsewhere. Albert D. Levy, editor of the Spanigh-English newspaper, La Vara, and Rabbi Maier Elias of New York had visited Atlanta in October to expand their Sephardic League. 26

In the long run Americanization took its toll on both communities. Paradoxically, when Atlanta Jewry initiated the Sephardic Congregational Society Or Ve Shalom it adopted David de Sola Pool's Sephardic prayer book, which integrated English. 27 In 1951 Hebrew-English replaced the traditional Hebrew-Ladino service in Montgomery. The Montgomery congregation was able to hire rabbis only intermittently, and when they did so, those hired were Ashkenazic Conservative and Reform rabbis alien to Sephardic tradition and teachings. 28 In the absence of a rabbi services continued, but there was less religious instruction for the children. A few descendants of the second generation and many from the third married Ashkenazim and belonged to Ashkenazic congregations.

Few educated and prominent Rhodian Jews came to the United States. [End Page 380] In general, the Sephardim lacked leadership and failed to train rabbinic leadership for the Diaspora outside of the Balkans. The Collegio Rabbinico was founded in Rhodes about 1928 to prepare rabbis for the Sephardic communities of the Mediterranean, but it was a short-lived endeavor. Closed in 1938 by the anti-Semitic Italian racial laws, it had produced few rabbis for the region. None of those graduates came to the United States, and many died in the Holocaust.

In 1958 Or Ve Shalom became affiliated with the World Sephardic Federation. 29 Those who remain of the first generation of immigrants still speak Judeo-Spanish and identify very actively as Sephardim. They take great pride in their Sephardic Rhodian tradition and keep in contact with relatives and other Sephardic communities around the world.

In 1954 Dr. Nace Cohen donated the sepher sheni, a second Torah scroll for the congregation. It had great meaning to the Rhodian congregants since it had been given to the Kal Grande congregation in Rhodes by the Solomon Alhadeff family, affluent Rhodian merchants, bankers, and philanthropists. During the German occupation the scroll had been buried for safekeeping. After the war it was sent to Israel before being presented to the congregation by Mordechai Shalev of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. 30 The community has always cherished its ritual objects, and this Rhodian Torah symbolizes the community's strong link to the island of Rhodes.

As a Sephardi immigrant in the United States and as a local Sephardic leader Rubin Hanan was a rarity. It was his unusual character that kept the community functioning. His civic involvement brought legitimacy and recognition to the Rhodian Sephardic community. His dynamism and standing in public gave him legitimacy within the Sephardic community, and he involved the Sephardic community in civic affairs. For example, the Sisterhood of Etz Ahayem was active in civic causes for the handicapped, hospitals, and the environment.

Hanan was an astute public figure and a source of attention and strength for the community who solved many personal problems for community members. He assisted them with legal difficulties or questions and served as an intermediary for those dealing with the government. He studied accounting, pharmacy, and law and became a notary public and a marriage counselor. Hanan made efforts to protect the rights and dignity of the sick, the poor, and the aged. He was a civic and religious leader as well as an author and poet. [End Page 381]

His main interest has been the aging. In 1938 he helped organize the First Pension Emancipation Movement in Alabama. He has been on the staffs of Alabama Governors Jim Folsom, John Patterson, George C. Wallace, and Lurleen Wallace as an advisor on the elderly. He headed the fundraising campaign to build the Lurleen B. Wallace Memorial Hospital and Tumor Institute and served as president of the board of directors of the hospital fund. His profound awareness of health care needs for the indigent prompted him to work for the establishment of the Lister Hill Health Center in Montgomery. In 1970 Governor Brewer appointed him Alabama's Ambassador of Good Will to Israel. 31 His close colleague Governor Wallace and other state officials gave Hanan many honors. In 1988 he was officially commended by the Alabama Senate for his "outstanding achievement and service to community, state and nation." 32 In Montgomery many public buildings bear Hanan's name.

On the national level, in 1962 and 1964 he was chosen to be a consultant on aging for Abraham Ribikoff, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. From 1966 to 1968 he was a consultant to HEW secretaries Celebreze and Gardner. In 1965 President Johnson appointed Hanan to the Advisory Committee for Older Americans. He received several national awards and distinctions for his work for senior citizens and Medicare. He also served as a lieutenant colonel in the Unites States armed forces. Hanan shared George Wallace's antiblack views. When the civil rights activist from Cleveland Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld visited the Deep South in the early 1960s, Wallace told him to consult Hanan. The latter told the rabbi that he had nothing to look for in the region and that the "blacks were never good or friendly to the Jews." 33 The next day Lelyveld was brutally beaten in a protest march in Selma, Alabama, by segregationists. When visiting Israel in 1970 as a representative of Alabama, Hanan was questioned by Interior Minister Joseph Burg as to how he could support such a racist governor as Wallace. His response was that he had been loyal to Wallace for many years, the latter had done much for the African-American population, and that there was a certain social order that had existed and could not be changed so easily.

Despite his active schedule on behalf of the aging, Hanan devoted great time and love to the Sephardic congregation. In 1959 he served on the board of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. He assisted greatly in the development and growth of the congregation, [End Page 382] serving as vice president, president, and congregation cashier. In 1955, when president of the congregation, he initiated publication of the congregation's "Sephardic Bulletin." 34 In 1982 he was chosen chairman of the historical committee of the synagogue. In the frequent absence of an employed rabbi, Hanan fulfilled many rabbinical functions, along with Pinhas Hassan and Dr. Morris Capouya. 35

Not only were most of the 200 families of this small congregation related to each other, but their friendships and common affiliations with Sephardic organizational life, causes, culture, and history bound them into a very tight Sephardic community locally and regionally. 36 Their lives have been intertwined and overlap very frequently as relatives, friends, congregants, and Sephardic Jews consciously active in continuing tradition and perpetuating the memory of their lost Jewish community in Rhodes. Most were related and close in Rhodes, living in close proximity and very involved in Jewish communal life there for several hundred years, and the Sephardic community's activism in the general community has further united its members. Unlike communities such as New York or Indiananpolis, where Ashkenazim looked down upon the newer wave of Sephardic immigrants and inadvertently served as an impetus for the local Sephardim to unite to form separate congregations, the Montgomery Sephardim remained like an extended family even though the Ashkenazic Jews in the city were not condescending. The close personal connections between the Sephardic community members reflected not only their interlocking families but also their mutual cherishing of Sephardic heritage. Their Sephardic culture and identity involved more than arranging nostalgic folkloric events, as has often been the case around the globe in dying Sephardic communities. The Sephardic community of Montgomery breathed Sephardic culture as a natural continuation of a vibrant transplanted community from Rhodes and other parts of the Aegean. Despite losing some of the second generation to the Ashkenazic congregations, it has not shrunk. New Ashkenazic families were attracted to this sociable and warm congregation, which remains the only Orthodox synagogue in the city.

The first generation never created structures to keep the successive generations active and integrated in the synagogue. The younger community members, who work in real estate and businesses or are white-collar professionals, feel a great connection to the community since it is part of [End Page 383] familial and Rhodian tradition but do not see a need to take active roles. Many still belong to the congregation, but they leave the leadership of the congregation to the older generation. Without full-time rabbis the younger generations never integrated fully into the life and activities of the synagogue.

The Sephardic Community of Atlanta, Diversity and Unity

Like Montgomery's, most of Atlanta's Sephardim came from Rhodes beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century. A significant minority originated in Turkey. The Atlanta Sephardic community was much larger than its counterpart in Montgomery.

The first Jewish congregation in Georgia was founded in 1733 with the arrival of Sephardic Jews in Savannah. By the early part of the nineteenth century the Savannah congregation had abandoned Portuguese and Sephardic hymns becoming a Reform temple in 1820 with the introduction of the organ at Sabbath services. Atlanta was a far younger city than Montgomery. The Alexanders, an old colonial Sephardic family similar to the Moses family in Montgomery, had since 1848 inhabited a more aristocratic social milieu than the poor struggling immigrants from the Balkans, who arrived in Atlanta at the beginning of the twentieth century. Noteworthy family members included prominent architect Cecil Alexander and attorney Henry Alexander, the only Jew in the Georgia legislature during the 1909-1910 session. 37 As one of Leo Franks' attorneys in 1915, Henry Alexander risked his life. When a mob threatened to kill Governor Slaton for commuting Frank's sentence, Harry, as he was called, rushed to the mansion to help protect the governor. "Thereafter an enduring friendship existed between the Alexander and Slaton families." 38 Most of the descendants of the initial Savannah families had assimilated or intermarried by the time the first Balkan Jews arrived in Atlanta in 1906. Henry Alexander, familiar with Sephardic traditions, welcomed and assisted the newcomers.

Sol Beton, a descendant of the first generation of Atlanta's Rhodian Jewish families, noted that the first Sephardic settlers of the new wave arriving in the city were Victor Avzaradel and Ezra Touriel, from Montgomery, Alabama, in 1906. Isaac Hazan and Asher Israel arrived in 1907. The first women to arrive were Mrs. Rebecca Amiel and Mrs. [End Page 384] Judith Attias, who came with their husbands and children in 1907. Mrs. Amiel aided the subsequent newcomers as they arrived in Atlanta. From 1908 until 1910 approximately 30 Sephardic bachelors settled in Atlanta. Isaac Hazan was the first to marry, wedding Luna Capouano in 1910 while on a trip to Rhodes. 39

Most of the early-twentieth-century settlers--in their twenties or thirties and unmarried--arrived via the Industrial Removal Office (IRO). 40 Several had spent time in Palestine and Egypt before embarking from Patras, Marseilles, and Naples for the United States. Since nearly all arrived at New York, their reasons for choosing the South remains unclear. "Perhaps like the founders of the Seattle community, they were directed to the city by Greek acquaintances who had preceded them. As soon as a few families had arrived, the multiplier effect and the work of the IRO led to further growth." 41

The South's climate may have drawn many. Most of the newcomers in Atlanta preferred familiar weather patterns. Several Rhodian Jews could not endure the cold in northern cities like Cleveland and migrated to Atlanta. 42 A chain reaction set in as the newcomers brought friends and relatives. Hertzberg has analyzed the way the Sephardic migration contributed to a demographic change in the local Jewish community. "At the start of the 1880s, the Jews of Atlanta were a relatively prosperous, assimilation-minded people of Central European descent who worshipped at the same synagogue," but by 1915 the Germans and their children had been reduced to a minority. Six congregations now mirrored "the community's deep national, economic, social, and religious divisions." 43

In the beginning the Sephardim worshipped at the Russian-Jewish congregations Ahavath Achim and Shearith Israel, but

the Ashkenazim were suspicious of the swarthy-complexioned newcomers from the Levant. The Sephardim reciprocated with aloofness, partly in an effort to maintain their self-respect but also out of an impoverished hidalgo's sense of inner superiority. Even had relations between the two communities been more cordial, the Sephardim's strong religious and linguistic traditions necessitated the creation of their own synagogue. 44 [End Page 385]

In 1910 the immigrants founded the Society Ahavat Shalom (Lovers of Peace). Most of the 40 members were natives of Rhodes. They conducted their first services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur at the home of their president, Isaac Hazan. 45 As membership increased, differences in Sephardic minhag (rite) became a point of contention. A group consisting mostly of Turkish Jews split off in "defense of their minhag and their keen sense of provincialism," and in 1912 they established the Congregation Or Hahayim (Light of Life). 46 This congregation conducted its meetings and prayer services in the building of the Jewish Educational Alliance on Capitol Avenue. 47 By the eve of World War I more than half of the Sephardim in Atlanta were from Rhodes, about one-third from Bodrum and Izmir, a tenth from Istanbul, and the rest from Crete, Magnesia and Dardanelles.

In 1914 both Sephardic groups were moved by the tragic events of World War I. They realized the triviality of their division and were motivated to create a stronger Sephardic institution. They merged to form the Oriental Hebrew Association Or VeShalom, shortened afterward to Congregation Or Ve Shalom (OVS). According to Sol Beton the association purchased property in 1916 and four years later dedicated the new synagogue. Within the next five years they engaged a rabbi and organized welfare, burial, and Sunday school societies, 48 although the congregation was not officially chartered until 1938.

In Montgomery the German Jews were openminded. They also saw the Sephardim as valuable contributors of Jewish life in their community, which was much smaller than the Atlanta Jewish community. In the latter only Rabbi David Marx of the Reform Temple was aware of Sephardic history. The German and East European Jews became virtually a group apart though maintaining contact. When the community-wide Montefiore Relief Association, for example, received a request for assistance from a Sephardic family in 1929, the board decided to obtain information from Messrs. Capuano and Tourial, leaders of the Sephardic congregation. "A prominent member of the Sephardic community" was offered a place on the board "as regards the problems affecting families of their community." 49 This prominent position gave the Sephardic [End Page 386] community leaders access to the leaders of the broader Jewish community and fostered integration. Recognizing the needs of the Sephardic community, the Atlanta Federation of Jewish Charities organized a men's English class in 1930, mostly for Sephardic Jews. 50

The Sephardic community also organized its own institutions beyond the synagogue. In the tradition of the Jewish communities of Rhodes, Istanbul, and Izmir, the Atlanta Sephardic congregation founded the Bikur Holim society for the sick and needy in February 1921. In 1920 the women of the congregation organized an auxiliary, Nessah Israel, which in 1944 became Or VeShalom Sisterhood. The congregation started its own Talmud Torah Hebrew school in May 1921, where Hebrew language and Sephardic pronunciation were taught as well as Bible, Jewish ethics, and Jewish traditions. 51 In 1922 the community estalished a hevra kadisha burial society and acquired a site at the Greenwood cemetery.

By 1924 the Sephardic community had grown to 65 families. Rabbi Joseph Cohen was brought from Cuba in 1935 to become the communal rabbi. This dynamic and inspirational religious leader improved the Hebrew school and introduced instruction in Jewish history, customs, and ceremonies. As a result, enrollment increased to 80 children. 52 Rabbi Cohen divided the school into classes, introduced curriculum of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and later added material from the United Synagogue of America. With the assistance of the sisterhood he added a Sunday religious school that ranged from prekindergarten to tenth grade. 53 He vigorously endorsed Zionism by promoting charitable donations to the Jewish National Fund. In 1927 he encouraged organizing the youth of the Light of Tommorrow Club (LOT) to take part in Zionist programs. 54

Rabbi Cohen also pushed for involvement with the general Jewish community and interaction with Ashkenazim. He encouraged this interchange for the benefit of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim and to strengthen the Jewish identity of the Sephardic community. In 1936 the Sephardic congregants began donating generously to the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Fund. That same year the new Devoted Daughters of Israel Club [End Page 387] (DDI) of Young Judea included Sephardic and Ashkenazic girls. The Coterie Club, an outgrowth of Young Judea, held a dinner dance in May 1936 with the same mixing of Sephardim and Ashkenazim. 55 The young ladies were part of a broader move toward joint activities. The seventy-fifth anniversary of the Atlanta B'nai Brith Lodge (1939) was planned by Reform, Orthodox, and Sephardic Jews. 56 The wedding of Laura Asher and Morris Benator, officiated by Reform Rabbi David Marx in 1943, may have been one of the first intermarriages. 57

Sixty-nine congregants served in the United States armed forces in World War II, and six young men died in action. 58 But wartime did not impede community activity. In November 1943 Henry Alexander and Rabbi Cohen launched a building campaign for a new synagogue, and in 1948 the congregation moved to a renovated building at 1362 North Highland Avenue. By 1953 the congregation had already expanded beyond the new synagogue's capacity, and a former Methodist Church was purchased and remodeled. When the membership gradually moved to the more affluent neighborhood of North DeKalb County, the congregation was once again forced to relocate. 59 In 1970 Or VeShalom dedicated the present building at 1681 North Druid Hills Road in Northeast Atlanta. The successive synagogue locations parallel the path of general Jewish relocation in the city.

After serving the synagogue for 35 years, Rabbi Cohen was succeeded by Rabbi S. Robert Ichay, a native of Morocco. Ichay had served as the spiritual leader of a Rhodian community's Sephardic congregation in Salisbury, Rhodesia. The Codron family of Salisbury followed him to Atlanta.

At the beginning of the 1980s the congregation numbered approximately 350 families, the majority still of Rhodian and Turkish extraction, but there were now a large minority of Ashkenazim, recent Soviet Jewish immigrants, and several Syrian, Moroccan, and other North African Oriental immigrants. 60 A survey in 1964 showed that "one-third of the congregants was from Rhodes; one-third was from Istanbul, Izmir, [End Page 388] Salonika, Egypt, Milas, Monastir, and Cuba; and the remaining third was born in the United States. Approximately 45 percent of the Sephardic families spoke Judeo-Spanish, and the remainder were families where only one member spoke the language or could understand but not speak it." 61 According to Tracy Harris' more recent research on Judeo-Spanish in the United States, very few people under 50 speak the language. 62

The youth who returned from World War II brought new energy to the community but simultaneously initiated more interaction between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic families. 63 Because of the active social interaction of that American-born Sephardic generation with the parallel Ashkenazic age group, many Sephardim married Ashkenazim, some bringing their spouses into the Sephardic community instead of leaving to join Ashkenazic congregations. Marriage with Ashkenazim became totally acceptable. By the latter half of the 1980s more than one-third of the 400 families of the congregation were Ashkenazic. 64 Most children of congregants born after World War II continue to marry Ashkenazim. Today the congregation has mixed seating, a departure from Orthodox and Sephardic tradition.

Since the 1970s interest in Sephardic culture and heritage has increased within the local Sephardic community as different members have been very public with their sense of pride in their heritage and identity. In November 1973 the community hosted the first National Youth Convention of the American Sephardi Federation. 65 In 1981 Sol Beton, an advertising man and active communal member, edited a communal volume, Sephardim and a History of Congregation Or VeShalom, that includes the history and development of Congregation Or VeShalom as well as numerous articles on Sephardic history, culture, and language. At the end of the decade the young adults of the congregation cosponsored an evening with the members of a Reform Ashkenazic congregation, Kol Emeth, dedicated to presenting Sephardic customs and traditions. 66 In 1989 the local Sephardic community also hosted the American Sephardi Federation Annual Convention, a major organizational undertaking for the congregation. The congregation [End Page 389] organized festivities for the commemoration of the five hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1992.

Larger in size than the Montgomery community, Atlanta's Sephardic community included many lay leaders. Besides Joseph Ajuelo and Morris Capuano, Ezra Tourial may have best paralleled the role played by Rubin M. Hanan in Montgomery. Born in Bodrum, Turkey, Tourial immigrated to Montgomery in 1905 and moved to Atlanta the following year. As proprietor of both the Majestic Shoe Company and a dry cleaners, Tourial was providing supplies, credit, and loans to the numerous Sephardic shoe repairmen by the 1920s. He presided over the short-lived Congregation Or Ahayim, facilitated the reunification as Or Ve Shalom, and was elected president of the new synagogue. With the funds remaining from the old congregation, Tourial and Rabeno Galanti created a free loan association. Viewed widely as "leader of Atlanta's Spanish-Jewish colony," Tourial represented the Sephardim on the boards of the Atlanta Federation of Jewish Charities, the Montefiore Relief Association and the Hebrew Orphans Home. Tourial, like Hanan, acted as an "ethnic broker," bringing different factions of the Jewish community together and linking his subcommunity with the larger society. 67

Today some members of the congregation are prominent in local affairs. Victor Mazliah served on the Atlanta City Council. Leo Benatar is a prominent industrialist who has remained active in civic activities and local commercial affairs for many years. There are also several prominent Sephardic land developers.


Sephardic immigrants arriving from Rhodes and Turkey succeeded in creating viable and lively Sephardic congregations in Montgomery and Atlanta. They worked hard and achieved the American Dream reaching middle-class affluence and comfort. While they formed synagogues that continued Sephardic rituals, Sephardic culture gradually dissipated as an all-inclusive lifestyle for the generations born in the United States. The children and grandchildren of the immigrant generations lacked proficiency in the Judeo-Spanish language, and American culture prevailed. Sephardic identity, however, remains an important part of their Jewish identity even as American culture dominates their lives. Affiliation with [End Page 390] the cities of origin continues as a base for collective religious affiliation and ritual. Replanted institutions from the old country, like Bikur Holim, no longer exist, but tunes and traditions remain and are carried down from generation to generation.

Since Atlanta was a bigger and more prosperous city that Montgomery, it attracted many more Sephardic immigrants. The Atlanta Sephardic congregation grew to twice the size of the Montgomery community because immigrants from Turkey and many other Oriental North African and Middle Eastern communities also settled in the city. Montgomery's Sephardic community consists mainly of Rhodian immigrants and thus remains smaller. Even as Atlanta continues to attract Ashkenazic families, the city's Sephardic community has enjoyed steady growth in recent decades.

The Sephardim of Montgomery maintain close ties with those of Atlanta, and this relationship is perhaps the strongest tie to Sephardic Jewish life. 68 While it is true that the Montgomery Sephardim look to Atlanta for comradery and inspiration, the older generation runs a Sephardic prayer service, maintains customs at home and in public, and speaks Judeo-Spanish amongst themselves. These older adults would still function as they do without the Atlanta community, and Atlanta never contained a strong or large enough Sephardic population to supply Montgomery with Sephardic rabbis.

In comparison to the general Ashkenazic community, which no longer organizes according to community of origin or maintains landsmanschaften, the two Sephardic communities of the Deep South are unique in that the generations born in America still identify with their Rhodian and/or Sephardic ancestry. Despite high rates of acculturation and intermarriage, the congregations still attract members from the younger generations and probably will continue to do so in the future.

The first generation born in the United States spoke Judeo-Spanish with a very limited understanding and vocabulary but has been active in Sephardic congregational life. Even though the descendants are partially Ashkenazic, as long as the first United States-born generation still lives they will retain some Sephardic customs on a family level. Since most have not received day-school educations and are not religious at home, their Jewish identities will weaken as they do within the general Ashkenazic communities. Sephardic and Rhodian traditions will continue to be commemorated by individuals, academics, folk music troups, and the congregations as long as they exist.

Yitzchak Kerem, a historian of Greek and Sephardic Jewry, teaches at Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece and is a researcher at The Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He is the author of the monthly e-mail publication, "Sefarad: the Sephardic Newsletter," and founder and director of the Institute of Hellenic-Jewish Relations, University of Denver.


1. Rubin M. Hanan, The History of the Etz Ahayem Congregation, 1906-1912 (Montgomery, Alabama, 1962), 1.

2. Congregation Etz Ahayem, Tree of Life, 1912-1982, eds. Miriam Cohen and Jo Anne Rousso (Montgomery, Alabama, 1982), 10.

3. Rabbi Shelton Donnell, "At the End of the Frontier: Sephardim in the Western United States," in The Sephardim: A Cultural Journey from Spain to the Pacific Coast, ed. Rabbi Joshua Stampfer (Portland, Oregon, 1987), 114-37.

4. Hanan, History, 3.

5. Ibid.

6. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 10-1.

7. Interview with Rubin Hanan, Montgomery, Alabama, October 17, 1989.

8. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 11. See also Congregation Etz Ahayem 75, 1912-1987, ed. Miriam F. Cohen (Montgomery, Alabama, 1987).

9. Hanan, History, 4.

10. Yitzchak Kerem, "The Migration of Rhodian Jews to Africa and the Americas from 1900-1914: The Beginning of New Sephardic Diasporic Communities," in Patterns Of Migration, 1850-1914, eds. Aubrey Newman and Stephen W. Massil (London, 1996), 321-34.

11. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 12.

12. Ibid. and Daniel J. Elazar, The Other Jews: The Sephardim Today (New York, 1989), 205.

13. Hanan, History, 4.

14. Ibid., 6.

15. Ibid., 7.

16. Ibid., 5.

17. Interview with Sara P. Shemaria, Montgomery, Alabama, October 16, 1989.

18. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 12, 14.

19. See Rabbi Marc D. Angel, The Sephardim of the United States: An Exploratory Study (New York, 1974), 91-3.

20. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 14.

21. Interview with Rubin Hanan, Montgomery, Alabama, October 16, 1989; Rubin Hanan, A Biography of Rubin Morris Hanan (Montgomery, Alabama, 1982); and Rubin Morris Hanan, Affirmation of Life . . . A Legacy: The Poetry of Rubin Morris Hanan (Montgomery, Alabama, 1988).

22. Ibid.

23. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 15.

24. Kerem, "Migration," 329.

25. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 26-30.

26. Southern Israelite, November 22, 1935, November 29, 1935, and October 9, 1936. No additional information has been uncovered concerning the Sephardic Congregational Society so its impact and longevity are unknown.

27. Ibid., October 9, 1936.

28. Elazar, The Other Jews, 205.

29. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 20, and Elazar, The Other Jews, 180.

30. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 19.

31. Hanan, Biography, 00.

32. "The Land of My Adoption," Sephardic Home News, 42:7-8 (July-August 1989): 6.

33. Hanan interview, October 17, 1989.

34. Congregation Etz Ahayem, 19.

35. Hanan, History, 17.

36. Kerem, "Migration," 329.

37. Howard Simons, Jewish Times: Voices of the American Jewish Experience (Boston, 1988), 220-23.

38. Cecil Alexander, Jr., "The Alexanders--Seven Generations in America,"0 in Sephardim and a History of Congregation Or VeShalom, ed. Sol Beton (Atlanta, 1981), 75.

39. Sol Beton, "Sephardim--Atlanta," The Atlanta Historical Journal, 23:3 (Fall 1979): 119-27.

40. Kerem, "Migration," 328.

41. Hertzberg, Strangers, 96.

42. Morris D. Rousso, "Where We Were", in Beton, Sephardim, 228-33.

43. Hertzberg, Strangers, 97, and Kerem, "Migration," 329.

44. Steven Hertzberg, Strangers Within the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta, 1845-1915 (Philadelphia, 1978), 96.

45. Kerem, "Migration," 328, and Beton, "Sephardim--Atlanta," 120.

46. Kerem, "Migration," 328, and Hertzberg, Strangers, 96.

47. Beton, "Sephardim--Atlanta," 120.

48. Kerem, "Migration," 328, and Beton, 120.

49. Montefiore Relief Association Minutes, August 12, 1929 and December 23, 1929, Ida Pearle and Joseph Cuba Archives and Genealogy Center of the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum of the Atlanta Jewish Federation (hereafter cited as AJF Archives).

50. Atlanta Federation of Jewish Charities Minutes, October 22, 1930, AJF Archives.

51. Beton, "Sephardim--Atlanta," 120.

52. Ibid., 120-121.

53. Joseph Papo, Sephardim in Twentieth Century America: In Search of Unity (San Jose and Berkeley, California, 1987), 282.

54. Rabbi Joseph I. Cohen, "Congregation Or VeShalom: The Formative Years, 1906-1937," in Beton, Sephardim, 97-125.

55. Southern Israelite, January 10, 1939 and May 1, 1936.

56. Ibid., February 14, 1939. For another example see Southern Israelite, January 30, 1938, for a buffet supper and skating party of the SOS Club. By 1945 Shearith Israel, a less affluent and less acculturated East European Orthodox Congregation, and Or Ve Shalom were holding an annual religious school picnic together; Southern Israelite, June 1, 1945.

57. Southern Israelite, October 8, 1943.

58. Beton, "Sephardim-Atlanta," 122-23.

59. Papo, Sephardim, 282.

60. Beton, "Sephardim-Atlanta," 121-23.

61. Papo, Sephardim, 283.

62. Tracy Harris, Death of a Language: The History of Judeo-Spanish (Newark, London, and Toronto, 1994), 154-70.

63. Papo, Sephardim, 282.

64. Ibid., 283.

65. Ibid., 283.

66. OVS Chai-lites, 23:1 (January/February 1989), 5.

67. Atlanta Journal, October 18, 1941 and October 19, 1941 (quotation); Mark K. Bauman, "Role Theory and History: Ethnic Brokerage in the Atlanta Jewish Community," American Jewish History 73 (September 1983), 85-6.

68. Papo, Sephardim, 284.



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