Savannah temple dates back to 1733

Mickve Israel temple built its current home in 1874, with stunning neo-Gothic architect.

By Sarah Weinman, Special to the Jewish Light

Savannah’s Jewish history is just as long and impressive as Charleston’s. A plaque outside Mickve Israel, Savannah’s Reform temple, declares the congregation is “The oldest…now practicing Reform Judaism in the United States.”  (The temple’s name comes from the Haftara, (Jeremiah 17:13), and means “Hope of Israel.”)

The temple’s story began just months after the colony of Georgia was founded in 1733, when a group of 42 Jews arrived in Savannah from London.  “They came with a Torah and established a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) and a cemetery soon after their arrival,” explains Teresa Victor, a member of Mickve Israel’s museum committee.  “Unlike other colonial settlements where Jews came in small groups, Savannah’s original Jewish colonists came with the idea of establishing a congregation.”

The Spanish and Portuguese Bevis Marks Synagogue in London donated the funds for the voyage of these Sephardic immigrants, who came to Savannah to escape persecution from the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal.  In fact, a majority of the six colonial-era congregations (Charleston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Savannah) possess Sephardic roots.  Some Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the American colonies but most of them did not come to the United States until the mid-19th century.

Why was Savannah a destination?  “Each of the 13 colonies was established with specific guidelines, and some colonies were more tolerant than others of Jewish settlers,” says Victor.  “At the time of the arrival of Jews in Savannah, the colony of Georgia was in its initial stages of settlement and did not prohibit Jewish colonists.  In fact, there was an active campaign in England to attract more settlers, needed for the colony to flourish.”

The new town of Savannah welcomed Jewish immigrants and allowed them to thrive. A number of Jewish families even became wealthy enough to own slaves.  These immigrants founded the third Jewish congregation in the New World and the first in the South.


Only two years after Georgia’s founding, the synagogue of Kahal Kadosh Mickve Israel opened in 1735.  Between that year and 1874, the congregation endured many trials: at times there weren’t enough men for a minyan; the congregants lost the rented land on which the synagogue was built; they constructed a new building in a new spot only to have it burn down; and in 1874 they finally achieved the construction of the current temple.

Mickve Israel was built in the neo-Gothic style and consecrated in 1876.  “There is no prescribed architectural style for synagogues.  They seem to be designed in styles prevalent at the time they are constructed,” explains Victor.  Like Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue in Charleston, Mickve Israel resembles a church, not because Jews had to hide their religious practices but because the temple’s design was popular during the Victorian period.

In addition to its longevity and design, the temple is special because it holds a survivor of the ravages of war: a Holocaust remembrance Torah.  This scroll came from the town of Slany, near Prague, in former Czechoslovakia as part of more than 1,500 Czech Torahs rescued during World War II.  After their recovery, Mickve Israel applied for ownership of one and the congregation received a rescued Torah in 1968.

The temple celebrated its 275th anniversary in 2008, for which congregants planned a multi-day celebration and even invited descendants of the original Jews who settled Savannah.  Mickve Israel mailed several hundred invitations to descendents, about half of whom attended the festivities.  Interestingly, none of them are Jewish today.

Savannah’s history and its Jewish history are inextricably linked.  The city’s centuries-long tolerance explains why its Jewish community hasn’t experienced much anti-Semitism, and why no one ever defaced Mickve Israel.  Victor says, “Because the Jewish community here began only five months after the Georgia colony was founded, we have been involved in all aspects of life in Savannah from the beginning.”

Mickve Israel is located at 20 East Gordon Street.  If you visit Savannah and would like to tour the temple, e-mail Mickve Israel at [email protected] or call 912-233-1547.  You can find more information about the temple at