Eighteen Artifacts: A Story of Jewish Atlanta

Learn how visionary leaders in the Jewish community helped Atlanta grow from a small, backwater railroad town into the sprawling metropolis we know today.

Map of Atlanta (1864) by Atlanta City CouncilWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In the beginning...

In 1845, Jewish merchants Jacob Haas and Henry Levi moved their general store six miles to the recently renamed city of Atlanta. By 1860, the Jewish population of Atlanta had reached twenty-six and accounted for one percent of the population. The story of Jewish Atlanta began as it did in many other Southern towns, but its narrative would take dramatic turns as Atlanta became a stage for regional, national, and international events over the next 170 years. In every significant event in Atlanta’s history, Jews played a role, and in many cases Jewish men and women led in the creation of essential educational, business and social organizations. 

Kiddish cup (1867)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

“We expect much of Atlanta. The city has been fearfully devastated during the late war…Still, it is a center of commerce, and the reasons which caused it to be built are yet active enough to be the means of its restoration. Israelites will, to a certainty, take their share in the regeneration of Georgia…”
- Rabbi Isaac Leeser, 1867

David Mayer (1830)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

David Mayer settled in Atlanta prior to the Civil War. During the Civil War, he worked with Georgia’s Governor Joseph E. Brown as his commissary officer and became an important leader in a rebuilding Atlanta. Most notably he led the effort to establish a public school system for Atlanta’s white children. Mayer’s accomplishment was built on earlier Jewish led efforts to create an English-German-Hebrew academy that instructed both Jewish and Gentile children.

Stained glass window (1926)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Turmoil and the rise of violent pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe resulted in increased immigration of Jews from Russia, Poland, and other Eastern European countries to the United States in the 1880s and 1890s.

Eastern European Jews founded Congregation Ahavath Achim (AA) in 1887. The founding of a second religious institution indicated that the growing Jewish population of Atlanta would always be a diverse and complex community, negotiating their relationship to Atlanta and to each other.

Jacobs PharmacyWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Whether from a Central European background in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s or from the immigration of Eastern Europeans in the 1890s, individuals from both groups followed a similar pattern towards economic success. Atlanta Jews created the largest stores in the city and built some of the largest factories. In 1867, Morris Rich, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, founded Rich’s Dry Goods, which eventually grew into the largest department store in the Southeast. In 1872, German-Jewish immigrant Jacob Elsas founded the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, which soon became one of the largest employers in Atlanta and spawned the creation of the neighborhood Cabbagetown. With a need for highly trained engineers, the mill championed the creation of Georgia Institute of Technology. Jacob’s son, Oscar, was one of the first graduates from the newly created school. Another staple of Atlanta, Coca-Cola, also can attribute its origins to the Jewish community. Jacobs Pharmacy, owned by Jewish pharmacist Dr. Joseph Jacobs, was the first establishment to offer John Pemberton’s newly created drink.

Terracotta remnants (1889)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In 1889, the Gate City Lodge of B’nai B’rith lobbied their fraternal order’s regional office to open a Hebrew Orphans Home in Atlanta, the first non-profit organization in the state. The Hebrew Orphans Home located on Washington Street housed several hundred Jewish children – some orphaned, but many from poor families – from throughout the Southeast. Many were of Eastern European lineage.

The increasing number of Eastern European immigrants in the 1890s changed the emphasis of Jewish charity in Atlanta.

Dance card (1919-12-31) by Standard ClubWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

The economic crisis of the 1890s gave proponents of antisemitism throughout the United States the opportunity to exploit nativist fears about both the newly arriving immigrants and Jews in general.

By 1900, Central European Jews, who for years had participated in the civic and social life of Atlanta, began to have limited access to non-Jewish organizations.

Newer Jewish immigrants who were creating thriving businesses in downtown neighborhoods and attended synagogues that aligned with their traditional religious beliefs, established the Progressive Club in 1913 for social gatherings and recreational activities.

Minutes (1912) by Federation of Jewish CharitiesWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Atlanta’s Jews never stopped giving to secular and civic charities, but the rise of antisemitism highlighted the need to provide for Jewish organizations.

In 1906, the Federation of Jewish Charities was established to coordinate Jewish philanthropy. Initially the Federation simply helped to continue previous efforts by the established Jewish community, but in coming decades it would take the lead in unifying the myriad of Jewish communities in Atlanta and focus charity efforts where it was most needed.

Pencil (1913) by National Pencil CompanyWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

No other event in the history of Atlanta is as intimately linked to the Jewish community than the trial and lynching of Leo Frank.

The community that had been integral in rebuilding Atlanta out of the ashes of the Civil War no longer felt safe and with few exceptions steered clear of the city’s political life in subsequent decades. The incident also had a lasting effect of hatred as it inspired the Ku Klux Klan to revive atop Stone Mountain soon after the lynching.

Mess cup (1944) by United States ArmyWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

The turmoil surrounding the Second World War brought a shared focus to the separate Jewish communities of Atlanta like at no other time.

Atlanta’s Jews of all ethnic backgrounds and religious practices rallied in support of resettling Holocaust survivors and the founding of the State of Israel.

Temple Bomb rubble (1958-10-13) by The TempleWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

On the morning of October 12, 1958, fifty sticks of dynamite were ignited at the northern entrance of The Temple and created a massive hole in the building.The attack on The Temple was believed to be a reaction by white supremacist groups against the The Temple’s Rabbi Jacob Rothschild who challenged racial segregation in the South.

After The Temple bombing many non-Jews, led by Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield, publicly supported the Jewish community and condemned those who would perpetrate these horrific actions. After almost half a century of living in the shadow of the Leo Frank lynching, this public display of support helped Atlanta’s Jewish community begin to feel comfortable again in the city they called home.

Martin Luther King Jr. correspondence (1965-03-15) by Martin Luther King, Jr.William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In 1964, the Nobel committee awarded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr. asked Rabbi Rothschild to organize a recognition dinner in Atlanta for Dr. King’s achievement and give the city a chance to demonstrate it was an exception to the racial hatred in the rest of the American South.

On January 27, 1965, at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel, Atlantans gathered to honor Dr. King in what was the first integrated dinner in Atlanta of its kind. The list of sponsors for the dinner included many prominent members of the Jewish community.

Commemorative bowl (1967) by Lenox IncorporatedWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In 1967, Rich’s Department Store celebrated its 100th anniversary. It soon grew into the largest department store chain in the Southeast.

Rich’s and the Rich family exemplified the Jewish concept of tzedakah, or the obligation to give. In 1930, the city of Atlanta was unable to pay its employees cash and instead issued scrip, a sort of promissory note. Rich’s accepted the scrip at face value and customers could also exchange the scrip for cash that they used to pay mortgages or other bills. Rich’s believed in Atlanta and knew it would survive beyond this crisis and set an example for how businesses and the private sector were integral to the success of the city as a whole. In 1936, Walter Rich started the Atlanta Dogwood Festival, an event still popular today in Atlanta. In 1948, the Rich Foundation gifted an FM radio station, WABE, to the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems for educational purposes, which still operates today as Atlanta’s NPR station.

Tree of Life glass sculpture (1972) by Hans Godo FrabelWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Between 1970 and 1990 the Jewish community expanded from 16,500 to 65,000 throughout the metro area. That number continued to increase during the 1990s and today over 120,000 Jews make their home in metro Atlanta.

In that same period the total number of synagogues increased from seven congregations to twenty-four.

Key to the city (1970) by City of AtlantaWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In 1970, Sam Massell became the first elected Jewish mayor of Atlanta. He won election by winning 90% of the African American vote and 25% of the white vote from mostly working-class neighborhoods.

Contemporaries of Sam Massell include Stuart Eizenstat, who served on Jimmy Carter’s administration and later was appointed as ambassador to the European Union by Bill Clinton, and Elliott Levitas, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975-1985.

Home Depot apron (1979) by The Home DepotWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In 1979, Marcus and Blank opened the first Home Depot in North Atlanta. The company began trading on NASDAQ in 1981 and by 1989 they had opened their 100th store. Today, The Home Depot is the largest home improvement store in the world.

As their business grew, they quickly became involved in important civic and philanthropic causes. Arthur Blank became the owner of the Atlanta Falcons in 2002 and in 2014 he announced his ownership of Atlanta’s future Major League Soccer team. Since its creation in 1995, The Arthur Blank Family Foundation has provided over $300 million to charitable organizations. In 2005, Bernie Marcus provided a $250 million dollar donation that launched the Georgia Aquarium. Also in 2005, he funded and founded the Marcus Institute that provides comprehensive services for children with developmental disabilities.

Miss Daisy costume (Circa 1988)William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

In 1989, Driving Miss Daisy gave filmgoers across the nation an intimate and touching look at Jewish Atlanta. The story, based on playwright Alfred Uhry’s 1987 Pulitizer Prize winning play of the same name, concerns wealthy Jewish widow Daisy Werthan and her African American chauffeur Hoke Colburn. Miss Daisy and Hoke are based on the playwright’s memory of his grandmother and her driver.

Olympic torch (1996) by International Olympic CommitteeWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

A public campaign led by the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta pressured the IOC to finally recognize the victims of the 1972 terrorist attack in Munich. On August 4, 1996, the Israeli athletes were, for the first time, remembered during the Closing Ceremonies of the Atlanta Olympic Games.

This series of events demonstrated that like the city they called home, the Jews of Atlanta were willing and able to take the lead on a world stage.

Emory University Historymaker Award (2012) by Emory UniversityWilliam Breman Jewish Heritage Museum

Dr. Perry Brickman worked with Dr. Eric Goldstein and Emory vice president Gary Hauk to create the film “From Silence to Recognition,” which premiered at Emory University on October 10, 2012. At the screening, Emory President James Wagner publicly apologized for the antisemitism that took place in the dental school. Once again, the Jewish community of Atlanta was able to lobby a major organization to recognize discrimination to the Jewish people.

Credits: Story

To see the exhibition in-person, please visit the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.

This exhibition explores the history of Jews in Atlanta through artifacts, images, and oral histories. The story of Jewish Atlanta began as it did in many other Southern towns, but its narrative would take dramatic turns as Atlanta became a stage for regional, national, and international events over the next 170 years. Jews played a role in every significant event in Atlanta's history, and in many cases Jewish men and women were instrumental in creating essential social, business, and educational organizations. By showcasing important artifacts representing major turning points in this story, we hope all who visit will leave with a sense of the significant ways the Jewish community has shaped the city of Atlanta. As visitors encounter these Eighteen Artifacts they are encouraged to consider and share their own connections to the selected people, places, or events of Atlanta Jewish history.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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