By Aaron Berger | William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum Executive Director
As we look ahead to a new year, it is always good to know whence we came and take pride in the contributions made by those before us.
Just five months after James Oglethorpe established the colony of Georgia in 1733, the first Jews arrived in Savannah. Many of them were fleeing great poverty in London and seeking opportunities to prosper, while others had suffered as a result of the Spanish Inquisition and were seeking freedom to practice their faith without fear.
For the 42 Jews aboard the William and Sarah, the New World promised hope. By 1735, these families established Congregation Mickve Israel — the third in America — which still prospers today. The Nunes, Sheftall and Minis families helped establish a religious footprint that is still visible over 280 years later.
During the 1840s, Jews from around the world began immigrating to Albany, Ga. By 1854, just four immigrants banded together to found the United Hebrew Society of Albany to establish a cemetery and house of worship.
At the turn of the century, Jews prospered in Albany financially, spiritually and politically. This led to Samuel B. Brown becoming president of the country club, alderman and mayor in 1901 and 1902.
After the Revolutionary and Civil wars, Atlanta became the symbol of the New South and offered Jews new economic possibilities. In the 1870s, there were approximately 500 Jews living in Atlanta. That number had grown by only 16,000 100 years later.
That said, the contributions of Jews during that time were significant. Merchants like Morris Rich, who established what would one day become the great Rich’s department store; philanthropist Harold Hirsch, who aided Jews worldwide; and advocates for civil rights like Rabbi Jacob Rothschild all added to the tapestry that is Atlanta’s history.
From the 1970s to today, the Jewish population has grown nearly tenfold. Today we have a vibrant and evolving Jewish presence with new communities like Dahlonega, where Jewish life is just beginning with the establishment of a new congregation, Shalom B’harim, which enjoys a diverse membership of people living throughout the North Georgia mountains.
On behalf of the Breman Museum, Cuba Family Archives for Southern Jewish History, the largest repository for Southern Jewish history, and the Lilian and A.J. Weinberg Center for Holocaust Education, we wish you a happy, healthy and sweet new year.