By Patrick Rowan, Amanda Herrera, Luke Henry, and Jackson Willyerd

Temple Emanu-El was the first synagogue organized in Jefferson County, Alabama. Construction of the original temple began in late July 1886 it was located on the southwest corner of 17th St. and 5th Avenue N facing the park now named for Kelly Ingram. Like most American synagogues built in that decade it was “Moorish” in style with prominent onion tomes and a star of David at the forefront.

The first Temple Emanu-El building after 1891. Photo: Reform Advocate 1911, BhamWiki.

In 1914, the congregation moved to Highland Avenue and 21st St. South. There a new temple in a neo-classical style was built to designs by William Weston. (Bhamwiki, 2014). In 2004, the temple had a major rennovation costing seventeen-million dollars. Its auxillary buildings were rebuilt and the historic sanctuary updated. On the inside of the temple, some characteristics that stand out are the are the high central dome, the large pipe organ system, the ark containing the Torah scrolls, the walls of remembrance, and the beautiful woodwork.

The 1914 building of Temple Emanu-el with 2004 additions. March 2010. Photo: David R. Bains
The interior of Temple Emanu-el Sanctuary.

Jews arrival into Birmingham

To understand the arrival of Judaism in Birmingham, the founding and history has to first be understood. Birmingham received its namesake in 1871 because of the similarities it had to the Birmingham, England. Both of these cities were large industrial and iron producing centers for their respective regions. Birmingham was growing so rapidly after its founding that it became known as the Magic City, and the arrival of Judaism was reflected this growth. The arrival of the Jewish community to Birmingham came after the rapid industrial development in the 1870s. They came wanting to share this newfound progress and rebuilding after the civil war (Lewis, 2017). The first Jews born in Birmingham, Alabama, were Bertha and Hugo Marx, born in the mid 1870s.

With the small but impassioned group of Jews in Birmingham the city’s first formal observance of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 1881, which was a steppingstone towards the formation of Temple Emanu-El. The official gathering in 1881 produced an observance in 1882 by thirty-two Jews at the Masonic Hall to form a charter for Temple Emanu-El. While this group had received a charter, the group did not have their own building or synagogue for worship, so they first held their first meetings in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Even though the congregation of Temple Emanuel did not have their very own place for worship, they congregation grew to eighty-six different families by 1886 (Bhamwiki, 2014). This growth in the congregation led to more money available for the use of the Temple. With this money, land was purchased from the Elyton Land Company and laid the first corner stone in July of 1886, the first service held in this building was on January 24th, 1889. With this milestone, Temple Emanuel became the first temple congregation with their own place of worship in the city of Birmingham. Many men are credited for leading the congregation between 1882 and 1895, but in 1895 Morris Newfield became the rabbi and led until 1940 (ISJL, 2019).

Rabbi Morris Newfield led the congregation for forty-five years.

Newfield, an immigrant from Hungary to the United States had received his bachelor’s in divinity at the Theological College of the University of Budapest. Throughout his tenure as rabbi in Birmingham he saw the congregation move in 1912 to its home on Highland Avenue, was a chaplain in World War 1, founded the city’s first free kindergarten, served as president of the Alabama Tuberculosis Association, became a professor of Hebrew at Howard College (later renamed Samford University), and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alabama. The man who came after Rabbi Newfield, was Milton Grafman, who came into leadership on December 8th, 1941 (the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor). 

Jewish Reformation

Reform Judaism is the renewed covenant with God, allowing the Jewish people to embrace innovation while preserving tradition. says “Reform Judaism affirms the central tenets of Judaism – God, Torah, and Israel – while acknowledging the diversity of Reform Jewish beliefs and practices . . . We are committed to inclusion not exclusion.” Two hundred years ago, the first reform Jewish service was held in Seesen, Germany. Mr. Israel Jacobson addressed a congregation of Jews, Christians and political figures and said “On all sides enlightenment opens up new areas for religious development. Why should we Jews be left behind?” (, 2019). From Germany Reform Judaism spread like wildfire throughout the United States and European countries. It is no surprise that it was German Jews who immigrated to Cincinnati and began to form the first Reform temple. Once Issac Wise was made rabbi of this Cincinnati congregation he began publishing The American Israelite. By the year 1860 his was the second largest temple in America.

Friday Service

A typical shabbat (sabbath) service at the Temple Emanuel begins with a reading and singing a song of worship out of the Jewish prayer book, called a Siddur.

A Siddur is a Jewish prayer and worship book used during services in a synagogue or temple. Temple Emanu-El has published its own.

In Temple Emanu-El, every pew contained a few copies of the T’rumot Ha Lev siddur. In this book published by the congregation in 2009 is scripture from the Torah, worship songs, commentary from respected experts in Jewish text and history, art, and teachings. The siddur is the main driving force behind the shabbat service; up to eighty percent of the service came from teachings and songs in this book. After a few worship songs and prayers, there will be a blessing over the youth in the congregation. The senior rabbi, Adam Wright, calls any attendees below the age of thirteen up onto the stage to receive a blessing from him out of the Siddur.

Adam Wright became senior rabbi in January 2019.

The words of this blessing over the youth are taken from a passage in the Torah in Numbers 6:24-26 which is stating for the boys to be like the patriarchs of faith in the Torah and for the young girls to grow up like the women of faith in the Torah (Fox, 2019). To keep the theme of different ages, an appointed family would come up and read a passage out of the siddur that is talking about oneness, thankfulness for the gift of family, and the lighting of the Shabbat candles which signifies the official beginning of the sabbath.

Later on in the service the senior rabbi would give a short message on why the Sabbath is important to remember and to observe; it is a time to rest in the presence of God, reflect on what he has done, ponder on the miracle of creation, and to spend time with your family. The next part of the service emphasizes remembrance. Directly following the remembrance of what the sabbath means, the senior rabbi read names of members of the congregation who needed prayer and that have recently passed away. Not only did he say these names out loud, but he invited members of the congregation to stand and say more names of people who needed prayer or who have recently passed. This is the most somber time of the service, and yet it came with a sense of hope for their physical state here on earth but also their eternal soul.

After some prayer for those sick, dying, and deceased, along with singing songs from the siddur, the rabbi began the sermon. This part of the service is the section that changes the most from week to week because the rabbi chooses a message about whatever is relevant and needed for the occasion. On November 15, 2019 Rabbi Wright gave a message about the “Four Immortal Chaplains” and more specifically Rabbi Alexander Goode. These men were four chaplains for the United States Army during World War II who were on a ship that was sunk by a German U-boat in the Atlantic Ocean, but while the ship was sinking these chaplains were handing out life jackets, singing worship, and praying for the men on the vessel.

Four “Immortal Chaplains” from World War II. Lt. John P. Washington, a Catholic priest; Lt. Alexander D. Goode, a rabbi; Lt. Clark V. Poling, a Reformed minister; and Lt. George L. Fox, a Methodist minister.

This was the message rabbi chose because recently there had been many deaths in the congregation, and he has been impressed by the support that the members have shown to each other throughout the difficult times. He recognized that rituals are an important part of the Jewish faith, but the community is far more important. To piggy-back off of the theme of community, Rabbi Wright led the people in a prayer for the State of Israel, past and future martyrs, for unity, peace, love, life, and faith among all people groups in the world. As the service came to an end, there was more singing and a final prayer for the people for the beginning of their sabbath. After the service everyone was invited to the Shabbat dinner downstairs, which held the purpose of building community among the congregation.

The Friday evening service at Temple Emanu-el is marked by a sense of community and reverence. Before the service even began there was a great sense of community because it felt as if all of the members of the temple knew each other and cared enough for each other to be involved in each other’s lives. About 75 percent of the congregation was over the age of sixty-five and have been going to Temple Emanuel for the majority of their adult lives. There are very few aspects or portions of the service which change by week, which leads to continuity and drills home the main points that the clergy is trying to get across. The siddur is an integral part of the worship service because all worship songs are derived from that book, the rabbi chooses which passages are going to be sung, even though, as previously stated, many of them are the same week to week. The piano was the only instrument used in the entire service, even with the amount of singing that took place, there were no guitars, drums, or any other instrument other than that of the piano played by Dr. Paul Mosteller and the voices of the congregation. The sense of reverence for God, the community, and the architecture was overwhelming throughout the service because of the words that were being spoken, the love that was being shared throughout the community, and the beautiful architecture of the temple demanded a sense of awe.

Temple Emanu-El
2100 Highland Ave S., Birmingham, AL 35205
Congregation Organized: 1882
Current Site Opened: 1912
Affiliation: Union for Reform Judaism

Sources for Further Information

Fox, Tamar. “Blessing the Children.” My Jewish Learning. Accessed November 11, 2019.

“Historic Temple Emanu-El Chooses Iconyx Gen5.” Renkus-Heinz Professional Loudspeakers. Accessed November 13, 2019.

“Birmingham, Alabama” Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Accessed November 12, 2019.

Lewis, Herbert J. “Birmingham.” Encyclopedia of Alabama, April 3, 2017.

“Our History.” Wise Temple. Accessed November 15, 2019.

Reform Judaism. “What Is Reform Judaism?”, June 23, 2015.

“Temple Emanu-El.” Bhamwiki, August 22, 2014.

Wertheimer, Jack. The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Jackson Willyerd ’23. Patrick Rowan ’20, Amanda Herrera ’23, and Luke Henry ’23, and Jackson Willyerd ’23 were students in Introduction to World Religions in fall 2019.

Published December 17, 2019.


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