Selma's one and only synagogue, Temple Mishkan Israel, is a reform temple that was built in 1899. Until it was built, the Mishkan Israel Congregation met in private homes as far back as 1867. The earliest Jewish settlers date back to the 1830s. Jews were the most prominent leaders of Selma's business and government during the late 19th century and early 20th century. They owned and operated most of the big businesses in Selma during this period, were often mayors of Selma, and just as often members of Alabama's legislature and judiciary. Today, only 18 Jews remain in Selma, their numbers having dwindled with the dwindling local economy.
We celebrated Passover with a Jewish couple and their guests in Selma, Alabama. Our Seder hosts, Alvin and Sharon Benn, moved to Selma in the early sixties, at the start of mass demonstration for voting rights. Alvin covered the events as a reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser and came to know virtually every significant participant in both the Montgomery bus boycott and the Selma marches. They enthralled us with their telling of the civil rights struggle they had observed firsthand, of the early history of Selma, and of the storied history of Jews in Selma.
Nowhere in the South have we felt unsafe, notwithstanding our early concerns about being at risk as Jews in a presumably hostile place. People here, including some cops we talked to, expressed shame and embarrassment over their reputation for practicing racial and ethnic discrimination in years past. This is a new age and a new South, they say, and we experienced nothing but kindness and generosity wherever we went. - Nick Alter's Photos