Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem
Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem side.JPG
Basic information
Location 3525 Cloverdale Road,
Montgomery, Alabama,
Geographic coordinates 32°20′26″N 86°17′32″W / 32.340661°N 86.292344°W / 32.340661; -86.292344Coordinates: 32°20′26″N 86°17′32″W / 32.340661°N 86.292344°W / 32.340661; -86.292344
Affiliation Conservative Judaism
Status Active
Leadership Rabbi: Scott Kramer
President: Neil Sass[1]
Architectural description
Year completed 1957[2]

Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem ("Congregation of Israel Tree of Life") is a Conservative Jewish congregation located at 3525 Cloverdale Road in Montgomery, Alabama.[2] Agudath Israel was established as an Orthodox synagogue in 1902 by Yiddish speaking Ashkenazi Jews, recent European immigrants who rejected the Reform practices of Montgomery's established Congregation Khal Montgomery/Temple Beth Or. After renting quarters for a number of years, the congregation purchased its first permanent building on Monroe Street in 1914, and constructed a new building at McDonough and High Street in 1928.[3]

Agudath Israel came to national attention in 1955 because of the Civil rights movement activism of then-rabbi Seymour Atlas,[4][5] who eventually left the synagogue as a result of it.[6] Cynthia "Cyndie" Culpeper became Agudath Israel's rabbi in 1995, the first Conservative woman rabbi in Alabama, but left in 1997 to seek treatment for AIDS, the result of an accidental needle prick while working as a nurse.[7][8]

Etz Ahayem, was established in 1912 by Ladino speaking Sephardi Jews, particularly from Rhodes. The congregation grew slowly, and completed construction of its first building in 1927. In 1962 the congregation moved to a new building, but by the 1990s it had dwindled, as children of congregants moved away from Montgomery, and had difficulty finding rabbis to lead it.[3]

In 2001, the congregations merged, and adopted the current name.[3] From 2002 to 2006 Stephen Listfield was rabbi,[9] and in 2007 Scott Kramer took on the role. As of 2008, Kramer was Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem's rabbi and Neil Sass was the president.[1]

Agudath Israel

Early history

Agudath Israel was established in 1902 by 16 Ashkenazi Jews, immigrants from Eastern Europe who had been members of Montgomery's oldest synagogue, Temple Beth Or.[2][3] Though originally organized as the Orthodox Congregation Khal Montgomery in 1849, during the 1870s the congregation had steadily adopted reform practices, changed its name to Temple Beth Or, and officially joined the Reform movement in 1879. The more recent European immigrant members wanted a service in Hebrew that followed Orthodox practice, and decided to organize their own synagogue.[3]

The congregation's first president was Max Shuwolf, a Hungarian Jew who had first immigrated to Galveston, Texas, then ran a small dry goods store in Montgomery. He donated two rooms in his house, where the new congregation held its first services. The congregation's first constitution was written in Yiddish, and services were held in Hebrew and Yiddish. Men and women sat separately, and men covered their heads.[3]

Over the next few years the congregation grew, and moved to a number of rented locations, including "rented office space above the National Shirt Company on Court Square and an annex of the First National Bank." In 1914 the congregation dedicated its first permanent building, on Monroe Street, and hired its first full-time rabbi.[3] The State of Alabama purchased the building on Monroe in 1927, and the congregation built a new synagogue on land at McDonough and High Street,[3] a handsome, brick Rundbogenstil building, notable for its hexagonal shape.[10] At the time Agudath Israel had 65 member families.[3]

1950s to 2000

Agudath Israel came to national attention in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. At that time, then-rabbi Seymour Atlas had been serving as Agudath Israel's rabbi for almost ten years.[11] A southerner (from Greenville, Mississippi), he was "in the 8th generation of a line of rabbis", and had become friends with Martin Luther King, tutoring him in Hebrew, and speaking at his Dexter Avenue Church.[3] As a result of his friendship with King, Atlas became involved in the Civil rights movement, and became known for his liberal sermons, and for frequently appearing on local television and radio stations with King, where he would discuss civil rights movements and issues including desegregation and the boycott.[5]

In 1956, during National Brotherhood Week Atlas spoke on a panel of clergy at the local WRMA radio station, which also included Michael Caswell, a white Roman Catholic priest from nearby Gunter Air Force Base, Roy Bennett, a black Baptist minister, and black activist Ralph Abernathy; Bennett and Abernathy were subsequently arrested "on an obscure conspiracy charge".[3] A picture of Atlas, Bennett, and Abernathy appeared in Life magazine in an article about the boycott, and the leadership of Agudath Israel grew concerned that Atlas's activism would lead to an antisemitic backlash. The trustees called an emergency meeting, and sent then congregational president Yale Friedlander to demand Atlas recant his support of the boycott, ask Life to withdraw the article, and agree to submit all public speeches to the board in advance for pre-approval. Atlas refused, and insisted that his participation in Brotherhood Week was not an endorsement of the boycott.[12] However, Atlas wrote a sermon for the following Shabbat which included a prayer for the participants of the boycott.[13] The sermon, as with all others, was to be printed beforehand in the Montgomery Advertiser, and a typesetter there called one of the synagogue's trustees to inform him of the contents. The trustee asked Atlas to modify the sermon, but he refused.[3] The trustees responded by shunning him, literally turning their backs when he was around.[4]

When his contract came up for renewal that year, Atlas argued that the matter should be put to a congregational vote. The trustees refused to do so, and voted 27 to 1 not to renew the contract.[6] After Atlas left, the trustees unanimously voted that the next rabbi would have to sign an agreement not to discuss "Negroes" or segregation.[4][5]

Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem Star

A Star of David at Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem

During the 1950s the synagogue had been "Traditional", rather than strictly Orthodox; for example, the Monroe Street building had seating for men on the left, seating for women on the right, and mixed seating in the middle. Following Atlas's departure, the congregation formally moved from Orthodox Judaism to Conservative, hiring a Conservative rabbi, Joseph Reich,[14][15] and, in 1957, moved to its current location at 3525 Cloverdale Road.[2] In 1959, however, it hired as rabbi Aaron Borow, who had just graduated from the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University.[16] While Borow did not undo the synagogue's mixed seating, he did turn off the synagogue's microphone, and turn the bimah so that the cantor faced the front of the synagogue (rather than the congregation), in the Orthodox style.[14] In November 1964, Borow was hired as rabbi of the Orthodox Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation of St. Louis, Missouri, where he served until his retirement in 1999.[17] David Arzouane, also a graduate of Yeshiva University, joined Agudath Israel in 1986 as director of the Hebrew education program, a position he has held since then.[1]

Agudath Israel hired Cynthia "Cyndie" Culpeper as rabbi in 1995. Culpeper, a convert from Catholicism and former nurse, had been posted at Agudath Israel as a rabbinical intern, and was hired there full time upon graduation from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first Conservative woman rabbi in Alabama. However, the following year she revealed that she had AIDS, the result of an accidental needle prick while working as a nurse.[7][18] The congregation rallied around her, insisting she continue to work, and wearing red AIDS awareness ribbons,[7] but in 1997 she gave up her position and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where she could get "cutting edge" treatment at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's AIDS research clinic. Culpeper died in 2005.[8]

Notable members

Aaron Aronov, former president of Agudath Israel, was inducted into the Alabama Academy of Honor in 1988.[19] Former Secretary of State, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and Governor of Alabama Don Siegelman and his family were also members of Agudath Israel. Though Siegelman is Catholic, his wife Lori—who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama—and two children are Jewish. His daughter Dana celebrated her Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue in February 1998.[20]

Etz Ahayem

Ralph Nace Cohen, a Sephardi Jew from Rhodes, settled in Montgomery in 1906. Other Sephardi Jews followed, first from Rhodes, and then from the rest of Greece and Turkey. By 1908 this small community celebrated held its first High Holiday services in the Orthodox Community Center, space which was rented by Agudath Israel. In 1912, they named themselves Congregation Etz Ahayem ("Tree of Life"), writing a constitution in Ladino, and in 1916 they formally incorporated. The congregation bought a plot of land of Sayre Street in 1918, but it was not until 1927 that they completed construction of a building there. At the time the congregation comprised 27 families.[3]

During the German occupation of Greece almost all the Jews of Rhodes were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp; as a result, most members of Etz Ahayem had close family members who were killed in the Holocaust. Before the occupation, however, members of the Kal Grande congregation in Rhodes had buried their Torah scrolls. After the war the scrolls were retrieved and sent to Israel, and a Dr. Nace Cohen was able to procure one of them for Etz Ahayem.[3]

During the 1950s Etz Ahayem added a great deal of English to its prayer services, which had formerly been conducted solely in Ladino and Hebrew. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, then rabbi Solomon Acrish spoke in favor of the boycott and against segregation, "citing the demand in Torah for social justice". However, after being followed, and told by gentile friends he could no longer come for dinner, and after Etz Ahayem received a bomb threat, he "toned down his support for desegregation."[3]

In 1962, the congregation moved to a new building, but the children of the congregation generally moved away from Montgomery. By the 1990s the congregation dwindled, and had difficulty finding Sephardi rabbis, relying instead on "lay leaders and the occasional rabbinic services from nearby Maxwell Airforce Base." In 2001 Maxwell Air Force Base ended its rabbinic services, and the congregation was down to 22 member families. The board of directors decided to accept an offer from Agudath Israel to enter into merger negotiations.[3]

Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem

Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem sign

The sign of Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem

Agudath Israel and Etz Ahayem merged in 2001. The new congregation combined Ashkenazi and Sephardi rituals, and combined traditions and names.[3] From 2002 to 2006 Stephen Listfield was rabbi. Listfield led protests by the congregation against the posthumous induction of prominent United States Navy officer, frequent political candidate, and outspoken antisemite John G. Crommelin into the Alabama Military Hall of Honor.[9]

In 2007, Scott Kramer became the congregation's rabbi, his first rabbinic post. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, Kramer had a Master's degree in physics from the University of Utah, and for over two decades had worked as a software engineer. He began studying at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in 2002, and was ordained there in 2007.[1] As of 2008, Kramer was Agudath Israel Etz Ahayem's rabbi and Neil Sass was the president.[1]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 About Us, Synagogue website.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Synagogue website.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 Institute of Southern Jewish Life (2008).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Staub (2002), p. 60.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Fobanjong (2002).
  6. 6.0 6.1 According to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (2008) the trustees refused to renew Atlas's contract. Staub (2002), p. 60 writes that Atlas resigned, quoting the 1957 account of Harry Golden, editor of the Carolina Israelite.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Katz & Brook (1996).
  8. 8.0 8.1 Brook & Wall (2005).
  9. 9.0 9.1 Reeves (2003).
  10. Augudath Israel Orthodox Synagogue, at High and McDonough Streets in Montgomery, Alabama, Alabama Department of Archives and History website.
  11. Staub (2002), p. 59.
  12. According to the Institute of Southern Jewish Life (2008). Staub (2002), p. 60 writes that it was the board that insisted that Atlas state participation in Brotherhood Week was not an endorsement of the boycott, quoting the 1957 account of Harry Golden, editor of the Carolina Israelite.
  13. According to Institute of Southern Jewish Life (2008). Staub (2002), p. 60, writes that Atlas "offered up a prayer for the success of the bust strike against racial segregation", quoting the 1957 account of Harry Golden, editor of the Carolina Israelite.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Oberstein (2006).
  15. Oberstein (2008).
  16. Who's who in American Jewry, 1980, p. 59.
  17. Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation History (1901 – 2005), Jewish Federation of St. Louis website.
  18. Connolly (2005).
  19. Aaron Morris Aronov, Alabama Academy of Honor website, Current Members of the Academy of Honor.
  20. Brook, Larry. "Alabama ousts governor, a Christian right advocate", j., November 6, 1998.


Further reading

External links