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Max Samfield

(1844 – 1915)

Max Samfield was a Reform rabbi. Samfield was born in Marsksteft, Bavaria. His father was a rabbi. He completed his rabbinical studies and his secular education in Germany before coming to the United States as part of the great migration from Central Europe in 1867.

In the United States he first served as a rabbi of B'nai Zion Congregation, Shreveport, Louisiana, and then went to Temple Israel in 1871 (when it was called Congregation Children of Israel), Memphis, TN, where he served until his death. The advertisement of his position read: "Wanted: A Minister and reader at a salary of $2500 who can preach in English and German." His initial sermon pledged "the vigor of my youth, the faculties of my soul, the energies of my mind, nay my very life, I consecrate to your moral welfare and to the welfare of Judaism and humanity." He was true to his word. By the time he came the synagogue had ceased being Orthodox and affiliated with the nascent Reform movement. Samfield moved it more so toward the Reform camp, asking and receiving permission to remove his hat. From 1875 on worship was hatless during his rabbinate. In 1871 the synagogue was one of 28 congregations that formed the *Union of American Hebrew Congregations and contributed toward the establishment of *Hebrew Union College

Rabbi Samfield was recalled with admiration for his courage during the yellow fever epidemics that afflicted Memphis three times during the 1870s, in 1873, 1878, and 1879. He remained in Memphis and ministered to the sick, helping the orphans and burying the dead regardless of race or conditions. In 1878, 20,000 people fled the city, cutting the population by more than half. Eight in ten of those who remained contracted yellow fever and 5,150 people died, more than one in four. In seven weeks 51 Jews were buried in the synagogue cemetery; nearly twice as many as had died the entire year before. Samfield served all the citizens of the community. He also adopted three orphans whose parents had died during the epidemic, in addition to his four natural children. He was recognized as a scholar and as a leader in public affairs, also taking on public school work. The times required that he be a man of action as well as a visionary in his performance as a speaker relating to matters of public utility.

Samfield's marriage registries show he converted individuals prior to officiating at their marriage. He was also the editor of the Jewish Spectator, a weekly newspaper, from October 1885 to his death. By the time he died, the newspaper was being published in New Orleans. It started as the only Jewish weekly in the South since the Jews had first settled in this region of the United States.

Locally, he was one of the founders of The Tennessee Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Children, The United Charities of Memphis, The Hebrew Relief Association, and The Young Men's Hebrew Association, Memphis. He was one of the organizers and a member of Board of Memphis Howard Association for the promulgation of Prison Reforms, a group of Memphis doctors and prominent businessmen. He was also a trustee of the New Orleans Orphan Asylum Home and a member of the board of governors of the Hebrew Union College.

Under his leadership the congregation welcomed new immigrants and began construction of its new, prominent downtown building.

He was widely respected throughout the community. At his death local businesses closed their doors; the Memphis Railway Company cut its power and brought every street car to a halt for one full minute.


J.G. Ringel, Children of Israel: The Story of Temple Israel, Memphis, Tennessee, 1854–2004 (2004); 30th Anniversary Issue of Jewish Spectator (October 1915).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.