By Jon W. Sparks –
The Baron Hirsch Congregation celebrates its 150-year history this year by looking to the past as well as the future.
Now, 150 years may not be much within the scope of the great Jewish narrative that spans more than 3,500 years. But in Memphis, not yet 200 years along, any institution that has survived and thrived for a century and a half has made its lasting mark on the community.
It’s been a long-enough period that there are four distinct eras in the congregation’s history, “each with its own special identity,” said Andy Groveman, chairman of the 150th anniversary celebration.
A series of exhibitions, titled “Connecting to Our Past — Building for Our Future,” is being held this year at the synagogue at 400 S. Yates.
The congregation’s beginnings came in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War. In the early years, the faithful would meet on the second floor of a bookstore at Second and Jackson.
Belz Enterprises CEO Jack Belz grew up in the Baron Hirsch community and, at age 85, is an expert on the congregation’s history. His grandfather came to Memphis in 1904 as did many immigrants in the years before and after.
“Most of the members were from Eastern Europe,” Belz said, “having fled to the United States for freedom of religion and freedom of opportunity. Poland was a big source of immigrants, as were Hungary, Romania and Germany.”
Memphis has gone through boom and bust periods, and the congregation has suffered and succeeded accordingly. The 1870s were a terrible time for Memphis, with thousands of people dying from yellow fever outbreaks. Residents fled — some 25,000 in one four-day period — and the congregation was reduced to only two families, Belz said.