Jews have played a role in Atlanta from the start. In 1880, one gentile told the Atlanta Constitution: “They are prosperous …because they work hard and save their money. And yet …no people give more willingly to public enterprises and to charities.”
Though the names of these people sometimes get lost in the shuffle of time, what they accomplished remains. Here are just a few of the Jews who made notable contributions not only to Jewish life, but also to the city of Atlanta and the United States.
David Mayer (1815-1890) was born in Bavaria, trained as a dentist and settled in Atlanta in 1850. He helped found the Atlanta public school system and served as a member of the Atlanta Board of Education. Mayer was a founder of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first Jewish organization in Atlanta and the precursor to the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, now known as The Temple. The society bought a Jewish burial ground at Oakland Cemetery in 1860 that people visit today. Mayer also served as a Confederate general during the Civil War, once telling Union officers, “To take that cotton, you’ll have to take it over my dead body.”
Aaron Haas (1841-1912) was part of one of the first Jewish families in Atlanta. Haas won election to the City Council in 1874, and in the following year he became the city’s first mayor pro tem.
He was a founding member of the Piedmont Driving Club, a private club near Piedmont Park. But those successes were short-lived. After Haas became mayor pro tem, there was a period when Jews couldn’t be elected to public office. And the Piedmont Driving Club later banned Jews. “He’s kind of a symbol of this era when Jews were integrating and taking a large role in city and civic life, and then all of a sudden by the 1890s, they were excluded,” said Eric Goldstein, associate professor of history and director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. Haas also played a part in the Civil War, when he sold cotton to help finance the Confederate cause. While running a blockade en route to England in 1863, he was captured, but he escaped after bribing his jailer.
Morris Rich (1847-1928) came from Hungary, changed his name from Mauritius Reich and founded Rich’s Department Store in 1867 with a $500 investment (just under $7,900 in today’s dollars). The department store chain, which started on Whitehall Street, set itself apart from other retailers by allowing customers to buy items on credit or barter. Rich’s President Walter Rich founded the Rich Foundation in 1943 to support nonprofit organizations by distributing a share of Rich’s profits. Macy’s absorbed the department store in 2005, but the Rich Foundation still operates today. Rich’s former flagship store at 45 Broad St., between Alabama and Hunter streets, became a part of civil rights history. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested at Rich’s downtown lunch counter in 1960, resulting in his first night in jail. Hunter Street has since been renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
Henry Alexander (1874-1967) had deep roots in Atlanta. Alexander’s grandfather was the first Jew of American birth to settle in Atlanta. His family fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War, with 24 family members serving as Confederate soldiers. Alexander
worked as one of Leo Frank’s attorneys when Frank was convicted in 1913 of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a worker in the pencil factory where Frank was superintendent. After the governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s death sentence in 1915, Frank was abducted from the state prison in Milledgeville and lynched in Marietta. Later, Alexander served as a U.S. Army captain in World War I. In 1926, he was a founder of the Atlanta Historical Society, now known as the Atlanta History Center. “He could cross the line between being a member of the German Jewish community and being a member of the general community,” said Sandy Berman, the founding archivist at the Breman. Alexander’s family owned the property in Buckhead where Phipps Plaza was built, and a bridge at Phipps bears a plaque with his name.
Harold Hirsch (1881-1939) worked as the lead attorney for the Coca-Cola Co. He was instrumental in the development of Coca-Cola’s distinctive bottle in the 1910s. Hirsch also started the Atlanta Jewish Welfare Fund in 1936 to raise money for the immigration of European Jews. “What was happening to the Jews in Europe was seen as very distant and far away from us people. No one wanted to bring more immigrants in because of the fear of taking jobs,” Berman said. “It was really forward-thinking. I think it’s the story of how one individual can change things if they really believe in the cause.” His namesake building, Hirsch Hall, is at the University of Georgia, where Hirsch played football as a lineman.
Fannie Boorstin (1898-1986) worked to establish a Jewish home for the elderly. In 1943, Boorstin became aware that older Jews lived in cold-water apartments with no heating. Leaders from the Atlanta Federation for Jewish Social Service, now the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, didn’t believe that such a situation could exist in Atlanta, as they thought that families took care of their elderly. So Boorstin took Federation leaders, among them radio personality Clark Howard’s grandfather, to see elderly Jews’ living conditions. This work was instrumental in establishing the Breman Jewish Home in 1951. “It wasn’t the money she had,” Berman said of Boorstin. “It was the perseverance.”
Josephine Joel Heyman (1901-1993) was a social activist who fought against lynching as early as the 1920s, including joining the Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching in 1930. “She was a kind of firebrand social activist who was willing to take positions on things like that that many middle-class Jewish women probably wouldn’t have, or non-Jewish women for that matter,” Goldstein said. Heyman was the president of the League of Women Voters’ DeKalb County branch and the United Nations Association. Heyman also lived through the transformation of Atlanta. Heyman’s niece said after her death: “She talked about the day her father came home with the news that the family was going to move out of town, that is, out of the area that is now downtown Atlanta. Where did they move? ‘Way out to the sticks,’ she said, ‘a half a day’s buggy ride away’ to 14th Street and Peachtree.”
Jacob Rothschild (1911-1973) and Janice Rothschild Blumberg (1924-) were involved in civil rights, and they were friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Jacob Rothschild came to Atlanta in 1946 to serve as the rabbi of The Temple, and Janice met and married him that year after returning from working for the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal Zone and Washington, D.C. Jacob began using his pulpit in 1947 to critique segregation. Because of their activism, The Temple was targeted for bombing in 1958. Janice called it “the bomb that healed” after the Jewish community received an outpouring of support in response to the attack. When King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, a dispute ensued over whether a dinner in Atlanta honoring him should be integrated. Rabbi Rothschild helped organize the integrated dinner, and he won the support of businessmen including Robert Woodruff, the former president of Coca-Cola.
Helen Alexander (1922-2014) came to Atlanta in 1947 from New York, where she acted on Broadway and in films. She worked as an actress throughout her life, at one point appearing in “Driving Miss Daisy.” In addition to being active in the civil rights movement, Alexander founded a speech and hearing school for black children that became a model for the first special education program in Georgia public schools. She got involved in 1954 because of her maid’s hearing-impaired child, who had no school to go to. Alexander also worked as a real estate agent, fighting anti-Semitism in Atlanta neighborhoods.
Information for this article came courtesy of the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum; the Historic Oakland Foundation; Sandy Berman, the founding archivist at the Breman; and Eric Goldstein, associate professor of history and director of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University.
All photos are courtesy of the Breman Museum unless otherwise noted.