Over a century ago, a small group formed the first Hebrew Congregation of Baton Rouge, today, called Congregation B'nai Israel. The size of the original congregation is unknown, but it must have been small; in those days, Baton Rouge was little more than a village.
Although there is no record of the original charter, evidence from various sources points to 1858 as our congregation's birth date. The oldest tombstone in The Jewish Cemetery is dated 1858, and congregational documents confirm a recorded death in that year. (The old death register provides interesting reading. It lists the causes of death and indicates that yellow fever took a high toll during '58, the year of the plague. Birthplaces, too, were recorded, and they varied widely. Named are Bavaria, Austria, France, Alsace, England, Poland, Germany, and many American locations.)
Further evidence that our congregation must have been established in 1858 is contained in a portfolio at the East Baton Rouge Parish Courthouse, which lists a sale of property in 1859 to the Hebrew Congregation Shaare Chesed, evidently organized the year before. The 60-by-120-foot plot, on the corner of Church (now Fourth) and North Streets, was bought at auction for $585. Other "items” sold at the auction, according to the portfolio, were furniture, carriages and slaves.
Records of our congregation prior to 1877 are sketchy indeed. In the Archives at Hebrew Union College, there is a letter from Isaac Mayer Wise to Rabbi Levi in Baton Rouge. This letter is dated 1859. Isaac Mayer Wise, the prophet of American Reform Judaism, was then just beginning his pioneering work in Cincinnati, and Reform Judaism itself was still very young when our congregation was formed.
In the beginning, finding a site for a House of Worship and fundraising to erect a Temple were this congregation's dominant problems. A Temple never was erected on the property at Church and North Streets. By 1871, the congregation was worshipping at Dalsheimer Hall, a community gathering place for speeches, meetings and dances. These were Reconstruction days following the Civil War, and life was not easy in the South. However, despite financial obstacles, the ladies of Congregation Shaare Chesed were determined to erect a permanent place of worship. They did not want to say their prayers in a dance hall forever. In January 1871, they organized a Ladies' Hebrew Aid Association. The preamble to their constitution states, "We the undersigned, have this day associated ourselves together for the purpose of building in the City of Baton Rouge a synagogue for Jewish Worship, and we have adopted the following constitution for our government.”
In 1876, their efforts seemed fruitful. Court House records show that in this year the Hebrew Congregation Shaare Chesed traded its property on Church and North Streets with Rev. Cyrille Delacroix for a lot and building (a former Catholic Brothers' School) on Fifth and Laurel Streets. To affect the trade, the congregation had to pay a balance of $200. In March 1877, the congregation moved to their new location. The Dedication Ceremonies were attended by dignitaries of the city government and friends of members of Congregation Shaare Chesed.
The ladies worked to purchase items essential to the Temple. Records show that in 1877, with a total membership of 17, the ladies raised $1,399.35—a huge sum in those postwar days. After much investigation and debate, they invested the money in Torah covers, carpets, chandeliers, draperies, an organ, and the Eternal Light.
The occupancy of the Temple was short-lived, for suddenly the congregation learned it did not have clear title to the property. A series of lawsuits followed, culminating in a hearing before the Louisiana Supreme Court. In 1880, the congregation received an eviction notice. The ladies' group lost heart at this disappointment, and since the congregation was once more worshipping in Dalsheimer Hall, they voted to disband in 1882.
Sometime between the acquisition of our first Temple and the disbandment of the Ladies' Hebrew Aid Association, the name of the Hebrew Congregation Shaare Chesed was changed to Congregation B'nai Israel. Our first accurate historical record of the change, however, is the charter of the Congregation B'nai Israel, passed in Baton Rouge. The charter was signed on August 13, 1886, by congregation members Simon Block, Jules S. Dreyfous, Joe Rothschild, Ben R. Mayer, Edward Klotz, Joe Mendelsohn, M. Seidenbach, S. Seidenback, J.S. Kowalski, Leon Block, Ed Schloss, Joe Gottlieb, Leon Moritz and Moses Gottlieb. These men formally organized under Louisiana Law a nonprofit corporation entitled "Congregation B'nai Israel (Sons of Israel).” The purposes of the corporation were set forth as "the cherishing, preserving and perpetuating the principles of pure Judaism, as well as for the cultivation and spread of enlightened religious sentiment.” In more recent times, the purposes have been expressed as being "to preserve, perpetuate, and embrace the principles of Reform Judaism.”
In 1885, the ladies, who were once again determined to end worship in a dance hall, reorganized the Ladies' Aid Association. Their goal: to find funds to buy back our Temple. Finances were always a problem for this group, but they persevered. In 1885, they held a "Moonlight Festival.” Other fund-raising affairs were a "Grad and Fancy Dress Ball and Supper” (1888), and a "Calico Ball” (1891).
By 1886, the building at Fifth and Laurel had been repurchased, and Congregation B'nai Israel was re-established in a house of worship all its own. However, the problem of insufficient funds remained. In 1894, the congregation was forced to borrow, and a mortgage in the amount of $1,750 was given to the District Grand Lodge No. 7, Independent Order of B'nai Birth. Signing for the congregation were M. Weis and Ben R. Mayer. The mortgage was eventually repaid, and the Congregation occupied the original building for the next 60 years.
Our present synagogue has been occupied by our congregation since 1954. Now, the greater Baton Rouge area has a population of more than 700,000, and we have grown with our city. Our synagogue underwent a major expansion in 1990. We have also purchased the vacant lot next to the synagogue. Although our building has undergone a recent expansion, we use the same burial ground they provided for us in 1858.
It is impossible to tell the history of a congregation simply in terms of financial setbacks, buildings, rabbis, or even synagogue activities. The history of a congregation is the history of its members, their families, their friends, and the community in which they lived together, worked together, and worshipped G-d. The proud history of Congregation B'nai Israel continues to be written by our dedicated members and the membership yet to come, continually inspired by our devotion to our faith and to G-d.