The Jewish population of Georgia grew tremendously from the 1960s. In 1968, approximately 26,000 Jews resided in the state; by 2001 this figure had risen to 93,500 and showed no sign of abating. With about 92% of the state's Jews concentrated in the metropolitan Atlanta area, the tremendous growth in Georgia's Jewish population is almost solely due to the rise of Atlanta as a national Jewish center. Georgia was first settled at Savannah by Gen. James Oglethorpe in February 1733. Two shiploads of Jews, about 90 persons, arrived during the same year and were permitted to stay owing to Oglethorpe's personal influence. They were of both Portuguese and German origin, poor and financed by the Jewish community of London. Notable among them were Benjamin Sheftall, Abraham de Lyon, Abraham Minis, and Dr. Nunez who, as the colony's only physician, made himself and his coreligionists more welcome by stemming an epidemic. This pioneer group brought a Torah with them and soon established the colony's first congregation, Mikveh Israel, in 1735. The first settlement failed. By 1741 all but three or four Jewish families had moved north. Most returned during the 1750s, prospered, and reestablished the congregation Mikveh Israel in 1786. Its first president was Philip Minis. His father Abraham Minis probably was the first white male born in Georgia. A Masonic lodge and a welfare society founded by Oglethorpe during the 1750s listed Jews among the charter members.
There were 400 Jews in the state by 1829; a few families lived in Augusta and isolated areas, while the majority were in Savannah. More rapid growth began during the 1840s with increased immigration from Germany. Jews then settled throughout the state in almost every community, establishing congregations in Augusta in 1850; Columbus, 1854; and Macon, 1859. Although many moved north just before and during the Civil War, they returned in greatly increased numbers immediately after the war. By 1877 there were Jewish communities of 100 or more persons in seven cities, with congregations in Atlanta ; Rome, established in 1871; Athens, 1872; and Albany, 1876. Groups from Eastern Europe began to arrive in the 1880s, settling primarily in Atlanta, Savannah, and Brunswick, which had a congregation by 1885. In 1900 there were 6,400 Jews in Georgia.
Georgian Jews have always enjoyed full civil and religious freedom, including the holding of public office and service in the militia, although the requirement to take a Christian oath restricted them from elective office until 1789. They served as commissioned officers as well as enlisted men in every war, providing all-Jewish companies from Macon and West Point to defend Savannah in 1862. A county is named for David Emmanuel, president of the Georgia Senate in 1797 and governor in 1801, who is believed to have been the first Jewish governor of any U.S. state. Capt. Abraham Simons went to the State Legislature in 1804. Col. Raphael Moses, of Columbus, went to the legislature in 1868 and became chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 1877. The University of Georgia Law School Building is named for Harold Hirsch (1881–1939), who was a distinguished Atlanta attorney. Several communities have elected Jewish mayors and other city officials. A Jewish woman from Columbus was the first director of the Georgia Department of Public Welfare.
Although relatively free from antisemitism, Georgia Jews have suffered hostility on several occasions. During the Civil War they were temporarily banned from Thomasville, and Jewish-owned stores were broken into in Talbottom. A discriminatory newspaper and the Ku Klux Klan exercised widespread influence in the early 20th century, becoming exceptionally bitter during the Frank case (see Atlanta ; Leo Frank ).
Organized Jewish communities exist in the early 21st century in 15 Georgia cities, the major ones in Atlanta, 85,900; Savannah, 3,000; Augusta, 1,300; Columbus, 750; Macon, 1,000; and Athens, 600. Since the 1960s, the state's Jewish community has undergone a significant demographic shift, as the Jewish population in small towns has declined. Small town Jewish merchants once prevalent throughout the state, have retired or sold out due to pressures from national retailing chains. The generations of Jewish merchants have been replaced by a new generation of Jewish professionals, best seen in the tremendous
rise of Jewish Atlanta, which has seen the number of its congregations grow from five in 1968 to 38 in 2005. Jewish life is also growing in college towns like Athens, which elected a Jewish mayor, Heidi Davison, in 2002.
There is a home for the aged in Atlanta, serving the entire state, and Jewish community centers exist in Atlanta, Savannah, and Columbus. Two summer camps, one operated by the Southeastern Region of the Union for Reform Judaism and the other by the Atlanta Jewish Community Center, are located at Cleveland. The William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum was opened in Atlanta in 1996 and preserves and displays the history of Jews in the state. There is a Hillel Foundation at Emory University in Atlanta and at the University of Georgia in Athens, and several Anglo-Jewish newspapers published in Atlanta. Jewish Studies programs are also found at the universities with Emory featuring such scholars as David Blumenthal and Deborah Lipstadt.
As of 2013, Georgia's Jewish population was approximately 127,500 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. W.G. Plaut, in: HUCA, 14 (1939), 575–82; M.H. Stern, in: AJHSP, 53 (1963/64), 169–99; L. Huehner, ibid., 10 (1902), 65–95; C.C. Jones, ibid., 1 (1893), 5–12; J.R. Marcus, Early American Jewry, 2 (1953), 277–373; J.O. Rothschild, As But a Day (1967); B.W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951), passim.