The Jewish population in Mississippi has been in decline for several decades. Jews settled along the Gulf of Mexico from earliest times; they came via Mobile, Alabama, and New Orleans, Louisiana. There are extant records of their early presence in what is now Biloxi, on the Gulf Coast, and Natchez, on the Mississippi River. By the 1830s these communities had Jewish cemeteries. High cotton prices, cheap land, and steamboat traffic stimulated population expansion, bringing a considerable number of Jews from Germany and Alsace who made a living as peddlers and small storekeepers. The first congregations formed in the state were in Natchez and Vicksburg in the early 1840s, both trading towns on the Mississippi River. Although their total number at the beginning of the Civil War (1861) is unknown, between 200 and 300 served in the Confederate armies. The later Eastern European Jewish migration increased the settlement in the state, particularly in the cotton-growing region of the Delta, where Jewish merchants settled in small towns throughout the region. In 1937, Jews lived in 46 different communities in the Mississippi Delta alone. In many of these towns, Jewish-owned stores dominated main street. The state's reforestation program and aggressive industrialization have brought in branch operations from the North, particularly in clothing and wood products. Many have absentee Jewish ownership. Since the mid-1950s there has been a steady decline in the Jewish population. The turmoil over civil rights slowed the pace of newcomers, while much of the state's Jewish youth left for higher education and did not return. The high-tech Sunbelt boom that has attracted many Jews to the South has largely passed over Mississippi. Chain store expansion into the state has led to the disappearance of family-owned enterprises and a consequent loss in Jewish numbers. The exception is Jackson, the capital city, which has become a regional center for education, law, and medicine providing employment for Jewish professionals.
Mississippi Jewish communities are synagogue oriented. Most of the Jews in isolated communities maintain membership in the nearest congregation. In 1936 the state's synagogues reported a total membership of 2,897, with six resident rabbis.
In 1970 there were eight rabbis and 20 synagogue structures, several of the latter used infrequently or not at all. In 2005, there were 13 congregations, though most were small and in decline; only two, Jackson's Beth Israel and Hattiesburg's B'nai Israel, had a full-time rabbi. Despite this, the majority continued to hold regular Shabbat services with lay leaders, rabbinic students, or visiting retired rabbis. Reform congregations in the state include: Adath Israel in Cleveland; B'nai Israel, Natchez; Beth Israel, Jackson; Hebrew Union Congregation, Greenville; Beth Israel, Meridian; Anshe Chesed, Vicksburg; B'nai Israel, Columbus; B'nai Israel, Hattiesburg; and Beth El, Lexington. Unaffiliated congregations include B'nai Israel in Tupelo and Beth Shalom in Oxford. Congregation Beth Israel in Biloxi is Conservative while Ahavath Rayim in Greenwood is nominally Orthodox. The Mississippi Assembly of Jewish Congregations, founded in 1955 by the Jackson rabbi, dissolved about ten years later. Fewer than five Jews have been members of the state legislature in the 20th century, and no Jew has achieved statewide prominence in politics. Jews have had a greater impact on local politics, with 21 Jews serving as mayor of 16 different towns, including "Mayor for Life" William Sklar, who served as mayor of Louise for 25 years, and Sam Rosenthal, mayor of Rolling Fork for 40 years. Jews have held presidential offices in statewide business, professional, and welfare organizations. During the Civil Rights era, two of the state's rabbis, Charles Mantinband and Perry E. Nussbaum, achieved various degrees of prominence for their efforts on behalf of racial equality. They pioneered in the development of local and statewide organizations that sought a peaceful resolution to the civil rights struggle. Mantinband occupied Hattiesburg's B'nai Israel pulpit from 1952 to 1963, when he moved to Longview, Texas. Nussbaum served in Jackson from 1954 to 1973. He took on the unofficial role of "prison chaplain" to the "Freedom Riders" of all creeds and races by traveling to Parchman State Penitentiary each week and writing numerous letters to Northern Jewish parents letting them know that their children were okay. Nussbaum was also among the founders of the state's Committee of Concern, which raised funds to rebuild burned black churches. His newly dedicated fourth synagogue edifice was dynamited by members of the Ku Klux Klan in September 1967. Two months later his home was severely damaged by a similar device. The same group dynamited Meridian's new synagogue in May of 1968. Jews in Jackson and Meridian raised money to pay an FBI informant, who revealed a plot to bomb the home of Meyer Davidson, a prominent Jewish community leader in Meridian. After a police stakeout of Davidson's home, one of the assailants was killed while the other was captured. These bombings produced expressions of outrage from state officials and an outpouring of support for the Jewish communities of Jackson and Meridian. These attacks were a turning point of sorts as many whites came to realize that the violent tactics of "massive resistance" had gone too far. It was time for Mississippi to change, and Jews have been in the forefront in building a new integrated society.
Although they have always been a tiny minority of the state's population, Mississippi Jews have worked hard to preserve and pass on their traditions. In 1970, after years of effort, Jewish leaders of the region opened the Henry S. Jacobs Camp for Living Judaism in Utica. In 1986, camp director Macy B. Hart created the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, which now has branches in Utica and Natchez. In 2000, the museum became the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, based in Jackson, which works to preserve and document the practice, culture, and legacy of Judaism in the South.
In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina badly damaged the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue, two blocks from the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Biloxi. Other synagogues in Mississippi were also damaged.
As of 2013, Mississippi's Jewish population was approximately 1,550 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. L.E. Turitz and E. Turitz, Jews in Early Mississippi (1983); J. Nelson, Terror in the Night: The Klan's Campaign Against the Jews (1993); United States, Work Projects Administration, The Mississippi Historical Records Survey Project, Inventory of the Church and Synagogue Archives of Mississippi: Jewish Congregations and Organizations (1940).