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Birmingham, Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, city in Alabama, U.S. The city grew from the intersection of two railroads in 1871, and the discovery of all ingredients necessary to make steel within a short radius. Jews were among the first settlers, but Jewish communal life did not begin to develop until 1882 when Birmingham had a population of 3,086. That year, Temple Emanu-El was formed. The Reform congregation was led in the 1890s by Samuel Ullman, who served on the board of education and pushed for the establishment of the state's first black high school. A poem Ullman wrote later in life, "Youth," was a favorite of General Douglas MacArthur's and has become a cultural mainstay in Japan. Ullman's Birmingham home is now a museum.

Morris *Newfield , who served as rabbi of Temple Emanu-El from 1895 to 1940, was president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and an acknowledged civic and cultural leader.

An influx of East Europeans arrived from 1900 to 1920. Most of the immigrants had a poor command of English and were impoverished, but quickly found their way in the "Magic City." In 1892, an Orthodox congregation was established, Knesseth Israel, followed by Temple Beth-El in 1906, formed by KI members who wanted mixed seating. In 1926, Beth-El followed Emanu-El as the Jewish population shifted from the Northside to the city's Southside.

Jewish merchants started most of Birmingham's department stores, and Jews entered many other phases of civic life. In the financial panic of 1893, the Steiner brothers of Steiner Bank kept the city from going bankrupt.

After 1920 several important changes took place in the Jewish community. Antisemitism became more pronounced as the Ku Klux Klan gained strength, there was a sharper division between the generations, and there was an increased pace at which Jews moved from their old neighborhoods in the Northside. There was also the beginning of a united, local Jewish community, despite the continuance of a sharp division between the German Jews and the East European Jews. KI and the YMHA were the last to leave the old Northside, in the 1950s. The YMHA had been built in the 1920s with substantial non-Jewish support.

Since Jews were frozen out of local country clubs, they established the Hillcrest in 1883 for German Jews, and the Fairmont in 1920, for East European Jews. They merged in 1969, forming the Pine Tree Country Club, which opened its membership to non-Jews in 1991.

There were many strong Zionists in Birmingham in the 1940s. Rabbi Milton Grafman, who served Emanu-El from 1941 to 1975, broke with much of the Reform movement to support a Jewish state, and for a time anti-Zionist Reform Jews established their own congregation. The aftermath of the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, and the emerging hostilities of the civil rights struggle began to eliminate the division between Birmingham's Jews.

A bomb with enough dynamite to level a city block was discovered outside Temple Beth-El in 1958. It had malfunctioned just short of detonation. White supremacists also threatened numerous local Jews who spoke out on behalf of civil rights, and much anti-integration material was overtly antisemitic. Many local Jews therefore worked behind the scenes to resolve the crisis, including the effort to change the city's form of government in 1963. The Jewish merchants were caught in the middle, between black customers using their only leverage through boycotts and white city officials who employed boycotts and legal intimidation. Local Jews resented the presence of northern Jews in the civil rights movement, who came down south for what was seen as grandstanding. In the decades that followed, there were numerous ongoing interfaith and interracial dialogues and groups.

The YMHA moved from downtown in 1958 and became the Levite Jewish Community Center. It underwent a major expansion in 1993 and now houses the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, established in 1973, Collat Jewish Family Services, and the Birmingham Jewish Federation and Foundation. Half of the LJCC's membership is non-Jewish.

In the 1990s, Beth-El and Emanu-El underwent major expansions, a Chabad Center was established, and KI planned to build anew in 2005.

In 2005, the Jewish population of Birmingham was approximately 5,300 in a metro area of 1 million.

[Lawrence Brook (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.