Men who were forbidden from owning businesses in their own countries started their life in America as peddlers. They carried their packs from one mining town to another until they earned enough respect and capital to open their own storefronts, which over time would turn into pillars of the local economy.
Several Jewish families made stops in Walker County in the first two decades of the 20th century. By 1922, enough had settled that it became possible to organize a temple.
The founding families of Temple Emanu-El were those of Sol Green, Ike Engel, Isadore Newmark, Mose Newburger and Sam Shapiro.
Jerome Newmark, son of Isadore and his wife, Sonia, was then 3 years old, too young to know how close his family had come to leaving Jasper just a few years prior.
His mother emigrated from Lithuania with her family in 1911 with assistance from a distant relative, the wife of Birmingham businessman Louis Pizitz.
Pizitz also loaned Isadore Newmark the money to open a store in Jasper in 1916. When Sonia disembarked at the train station, she took one look around and began to cry.
She immediately returned to her mother in Birmingham.
“She said, ‘Sonia, your place is with your husband no matter what. You go back and make a home for him.’ She got on the train and came back, and the day she died, you couldn’t drag her out of this town,” Newmark said.
In addition to being an active member of the community, Sonia Newmark would lead the Sunday School at Temple Emanu-El for more than 30 years. In 1966, the congregants recognized her dedication by naming the Sunday School after her.
The cost to build Temple Emanu-El was $10,000. It was raised through donations of Jewish families in Walker County and Birmingham as well as considerable contributions from the non-Jewish residents of Jasper.
The Temple was officially dedicated in June 1923. The keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Solomon Katz of Birmingham. He was followed by pastors from four local congregations — Methodist, Baptist, Christian and Nazarene.
A good relationship between the Temple and local churches was the rule rather than the exception throughout its 84-year history.
Jerome Newmark recalls how his neighbor, a member of the Presbyterian church, frequently retrieved the church’s ladder for him so that he could clean the tall chandeliers in the Temple.
The families of Temple Emanu-El were embraced in all aspects of the community. In an era when larger country clubs were still excluding Jews as members, locals such as Top Dollar co-founder George Mitnick were serving as president of Musgrove Country Club.
Temple Emanu-El, a Reform synagogue, never grew very large. At its height in 1975, it was made up of 32 families.
However, they proved themselves faithful to God and each other.
“It was more like a family than a congregation,” said Fred May. “I remember that growing up, everybody was ‘Aunt this’ and ‘Uncle that.’ I felt related to everyone not just by religion but also through association because we were going through all of this together.”
May is one of seven children born to longtime Temple members Ike and Becky May.
“We kept the Sunday School going,” Becky May joked recently.
Though small in number, Jasper’s Jewish community consistently raised more than $70,000 for the United Jewish Appeal’s annual campaign. These funds were used to support projects in Israel as well as Jewish refugees.
Temple Emanu-El was never able to afford a full-time rabbi. The members themselves took turns conducting services. Both women and men were welcome at the pulpit.
On High Holy Days, the congregation was visited by student rabbis from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Attendance at Friday services, but especially those during holidays, was not taken lightly.
“We went religiously whether the children wanted to go or not,” Becky May said.
When Jerome Newmark was 15 years old, he went out for the Walker High School football team. Although admittedly never a good player, Newmark was thrilled just to be issued a uniform and pads.
Unfortunately, the first football game fell on the first night of a Jewish holiday. Newmark was not allowed to go because his presence was required at the Temple.
Games were then being held in a field across from Posey’s store while renovations were being completed on the stadium near the school.
“This was before air conditioning. The windows in the Temple were up. I could hear the yelling and see the lights. My heart was at the football field, and my body was in the Temple,” Newmark said.
As time marched on, the founding members of Temple Emanu-El passed away. Their children left for college and most never returned.
However, they carried with them the principles of their faith that they learned at Temple Emanu-El.
“We really produced a lot of leaders,” Becky May said. “We feel that we gave them the best foundation we could.”
By 2000, the numbers had dwindled to the point that a merger was approved between Temple Emanu-El in Jasper and Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham.
The doors of Temple Emanu-El closed in 2005. Its artifacts and stained glass windows were moved to the Jasper Room of Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El.
The synagogue was sold and for a short time housed a Christian congregation. It was put on the market several weeks ago.
Some former members of Temple Emanu-El now drive to Birmingham for services. Others worship in their homes, which was the practice of local Jewish families before the Temple was established.
For the foreseeable future, the building stands on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street and still bears the name Emanu-El, which is interpreted as “God is with us.”