By Danny Crownover
Jewish folks were living in Gadsden as early as 1900. Among these locals were Jacob and Bertha Nadler, Hugo Hecht, David Reich and Albert Hagedorn. By 1903, the entirety of the Gadsden Jewish population – roughly 10 families – decided to meet communally on Sunday mornings in order to provide a Jewish education for their growing number of children. With no place of their own to gather, the group met on the southeast corner of Fifth and Cherry streets in the Nadlers’ living room.
In 1908, the new community gathered together in a rented room in the Gadsden National Bank building to hold its first High Holiday services lead by Hugo Hecht and Jacob Nadler.
Even though they were new to the community, the Jews of Gadsden quickly gained prominent roles in the town as leading merchants. Newspapers from that period were littered with advertisements for Saks Department Store, Frank & Hagedorn Men’s Ware and Herzberg-Loveman & Company showcasing the latest in ladies’ headwear.
Among these early retailers was the Zemurray family, whose brothers Isadore and Sam ran a small fruit shop. Sam “The Banana Man” Zemmuray later moved to New Orleans and became the CEO of the infamous United Fruit Company, where he often dabbled in international affairs and Latin American politics. The Cohn family later started Marvin’s Home Centers, which still has locations across the deep South.
As their shops grew, these men gained ties with non-Jewish members of the larger Gadsden community. Gadsden business leaders played a famous weekly poker game. By all accounts, the Jewish men shared part of their winnings from these games to pay for the eventual construction of a synagogue. The Jewish women of Gadsden formed a sisterhood in 1911, and rather than using high-stakes games of seven-card stud or blackjack to raise money, the ladies hosted sandwich sales. This was the beginning of a long line of sisterhood fundraisers. Thanks to poker winnings, sisterhood fundraising efforts and personal contributions, the Jews of Gadsden broke ground on their temple on March 8, 1922. The first service at Temple Beth Israel was held on Nov. 24, 1924.
Nearby Camp Sibert brought large numbers of Jewish servicemen to the area during World War II. After the war, the congregation numbered about 30 families and hired its first full-time rabbi.
March 26, 1960 was going to be a historic day for Congregation Beth Israel toward dedication of a new addition to its synagogue. Donated by the Zemurray family, the wing included religious school classrooms and a new kitchen. It was the first major construction the congregation had done on the building since 1922.
When the majority of the 60-family congregation gathered to celebrate the opening of the new wing, they could not have foreseen that this day would be historic for more unfortunate and tragic reasons.
What they did not know was that a deeply troubled 16-year-old boy named Hubert Jackson, Jr., alias Jerry Hunt, was driving around the neighborhood looking for Beth Israel.
After the sanctuary filled with adults and children settling into their seats, Rabbi Saul Rubin began the service in dedication to the new addition. In the spirit of the inscription above the door, “Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself,” two prominent pastors, Rev. John Speaks and Dr. Franklin Denson of First Methodist Church, had joined Beth Israel for the service.
Fifteen minutes into the service after Denson had delivered a benediction, those gathered suddenly heard an explosion from outside followed immediately by a window in the rear of the sanctuary shattering to pieces.
A Molotov cocktail had pierced the window, though it had failed to ignite. The congregation burst into panic as Rabbi Rubin urged them to stay inside.
Congregation members Alvin Lowi and Alan Cohn rushed out to find who was responsible, only to face Hunt armed with a .22 caliber rifle. Fear set in as the congregation heard shots fired from outside, and the sound of Hunt driving away. Through the din of panic and tears, someone began to sing “Bless this House,” and the crowd settled into uneasy stillness. Nervously, they finished the remainder of the dedication service.
The local law enforcement acted swiftly, setting up roadblocks to catch the perpetrator and sending ambulances for Lowi and Cohn. Lowi had only been shot in the hand, but one of Hunt’s bullets had nicked Cohn’s aorta and he was bleeding profusely. He remained in critical condition for hours.
The police eventually tracked down Hunt and brought him in for questioning. He readily confessed, clearly demonstrating a disturbed nature. Investigators discovered that Hunt had gone to a rally for the anti-Semitic local politician Admiral John Crommelin, and had an altercation with a Jewish boy at the Gadsden Recreation Center over a game of chess earlier that week.
The youth was an immediate suspect because he had been telling friends he planned just such an attack. Also, Jewish youth at the high school had been complaining about his wearing a Nazi armband and a red-painted Nazi helmet.
The youth told police he had been interested in the Nazi movement since he was in the seventh grade. He said he had had an argument with a Jewish boy and admitted painting a swastika on a Gadsden store several months earlier.
Both Lowi and Cohn survived. Cohn had to receive 22 pints of blood to stay alive, most of it coming from emergency donors all around town. This immediate community concern extended to the entirety of Congregation Beth Israel. The week following the attack, the congregation met for Shabbat. The sanctuary was filled with people from all over, wishing to express their deep shock and concern over the violence. People lined up in the streets outside, and the local radio station broadcasted Rabbi Rubin’s sermon for all to hear.
That service was the only closure the community could have. The following weekend, Jerry Hunt, out on bail, recklessly drove his car into a tree and died. No trial or court proceedings ever occurred.
Since the 1960s when its roster had 60 family names, Beth Israel’s congregation shrunk considerably. In 1993, there were 43 member families. Gadsden’s economy suffered in the 1970s and 1980s, and in 2000, there only were 38 Jewish families.
By 2008, Beth Israel’s youngest adult member was 48 years old, and the congregation no longer had any children to fill an educational program.
By 2010, Beth Israel decided to close its doors, bringing to a close over a century of organized Jewish religious life in Gadsden.
The remaining members of the congregation donated the facility to the City of Gadsden in 2011, and the Gadsden Cultural Arts Foundation began management of the facility.
In June 2012, the Etowah Youth Orchestras moved its entire operation into the temple, which was renamed The Music Center at Temple Beth Israel.