Spark of Judaism flickers near Pettus Bridge in Selma


Photo by Benjamin Kruger

BENJAMIN KRUGER, Junior, Parkway Central High School

I’m part of a teen social justice group called Cultural Leadership, through which we learn about oppression through the lens of the Jewish and Black experiences. Earlier this summer, we traveled through the country, mainly in the South, and found ourselves in Selma, Ala. The following describes my experience at a synagogue in the city, and the idea that within the great body of Alabama, a Jewish heart beats. 

A speck of Judaism remains in the South … and it needs help.

I step into the speck. A loose plank on the ground catches my foot, and I abruptly stumble inside. The air is stale, and the lights are dim. Wearily, I sink into a folding chair; everything hurts, my stubbed toe throbs, and the heat is blistering. 

But no physical pain comes close to the ache in my heart and an unshakeable feeling of loss. Across the walls, dedications to members read, “In memory of …” Will this synagogue share in this fate? Be a dedication on a wall? 

Built in 1899, Mishkan Israel is the only synagogue in Selma. In its prime the congregation consisted of around 400 people. However, membership has fallen greatly since and now has only three local congregants. Hanna Berger, one of these members, says that everyone else has left or passed away. Understand, these congregants are now the only Jewish people living in the entire city. 

Photo by Benjamin Kruger

Selma has a population of about 18,000 people. Unfortunately, the city struggles with economic hardship, with roughly 36% of the population living in poverty. But there is also much to admire about this city. Not only is it notable for its landmark history in the civil rights movement, but it also boasts modern achievements, including the reuse and renovation of older infrastructure and the expansion of the National Park Service’s Voting Rights Interpretive Center. Despite the city’s tough predicament, many residents here seem hopeful about Selma’s future.   

Mishkan Israel’s president, Ronnie Leet, when asked about his experience as a Jewish man in the American South, says, “Life is good.” Leet says he rarely encounters antisemitism, and of the few times when he did, all were out of ignorance and a false understanding of Judaism. The existence of the synagogue itself contradicts many assumptions about antisemitism in Alabama.

The town of Selma is well-known for its importance in the civil rights movement. However, Mishkan had little involvement. A few of its congregants were, in fact, members of the White Citizens Club, a group notorious for white supremacy. While I hesitate to call the congregants of this synagogue segregationists, it is clear to me that the synagogue’s position toward civil rights movement was one of ambivalence.

As a Jew, it’s difficult to accept that the Jewish people, my people, haven’t always acted on the morally correct side of history. It is important that we Jews remember the times we stood by and watched. To know what is right, and still do nothing, is no choice to commend. As Jews we understood persecution, and yet we were bystanders.

Since the Mishkan building stands in close proximity to an icon of the struggle for civil rights, its location provides a Jewish space for visitors today to reflect on the civil rights movement both of the past and ongoing. In the interest of correction and redemption, Mishkan Israel must be preserved.

However, this history, both the good and the bad, are fading quickly. Since Mishkan is unable to gather a minyan, where 10 people are required, the synagogue no longer holds  services. As time passes, the threat of closure becomes a little more real, and the speck of Judaism in southern America weakens further.

There is a piano in the foyer, rusted and out of tune. I place my fingers on the keys, Oh, how it sings. The music fills the room, and echoes down the hall; an indescribable feeling as I restore life to this house of G-d. Then I pull my fingers back. What will replace this song? Will it be a restored community singing praise to their faith, or a cacophony of destruction, as the speck ceases to exist.

I still have hope. There is no air-conditioning in Mishkan, and the Alabama heat is unforgiving. But when a community becomes so committed and inspired, no detail such as temperature can challenge them. The bimah stands tall, and a sacred Torah rests inside the ark. Beautiful stained-glass windows allow stripes of sunlight through, and the figures they depict smile down at me. Despite its recent absence, the song of prayer echoes in the temple’s halls. The Jewish spirit is resilient.

Please help to preserve this Jewish space in Selma, and the history it contains, by donating to Mishkan Israel.