Guide to the Records of Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas), undated, 1875-2006

Processed by Adina Anflick, Marvin Rusinek

American Jewish Historical Society

Center for Jewish History

15 West 16th Street

New York, N.Y. 10011

Phone: (212) 294-6160

Fax: (212) 294-6161



© 2018, American Jewish Historical Society, Boston, MA and New York, NY. All Rights Reserved.
Finding aid was encoded by Marvin Rusinek on August 16, 2006. Description is in English.

Descriptive Summary

Creator: Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas)
Title: Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas) Records
Dates:undated, 1875-2006
Abstract: The records of Temple Beth El offer a valuable insight into a small town Southern Jewish community. The community members, composed mainly of German Jews devoted to the Reform movement, participated actively in charity work and mutual benefit societies, and maintained a close relationship with Jewish communities throughout the South. Temple Beth El was one of the first members of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Its history reflects the struggles a small town Jewish community experienced in maintaining their Jewish identity as well as the cooperation and acceptance of their non-Jewish neighbors. A significant part of the collection concerns the activities of women in the Helena Jewish community, who were a tight knit group that conducted extensive charity work. The Sisterhood took an active role as member of the Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods. The records also include minute books for the B'nai B'rith Esther Lodge. The collection contains correspondence, real estate deeds, financial ledgers, minute meetings, news clippings, a scrapbook, and photographs.
Languages: The collection is in English.
Quantity: 3.2 linear feet (3 manuscript boxes; 1 [16 x 20"] oversized box)
Identification: I-470
Repository: American Jewish Historical Society
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Historical Sketch

Helena, Arkansas Jewish Community
Temple Beth El (1867-2006)

The first Jew to settle in Helena, Arkansas remains a mystery, although Jews were known to have lived in Helena by the 1840s. In 1846, a small number of Jews in Helena borrowed a sefer Torah for High Holiday services from Congregation B'nai Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio. The community, made up of young families and single men, were primarily German peddlers, who having saved enough funds, put down roots in Helena and opened up stores, often with brothers or friends. Their link to Ohio was likely economic, since wholesale suppliers were located in larger cities.

In 1867, sixty-five Helena Jews formed the congregation Beth El (House of G-d). The congregation first met in members' homes and rented rooms such as a storeroom (in 1873) and an abandoned Presbyterian Church. Interest in the congregation flourished after a brick synagogue was built and dedicated on Perry and Pecan Streets in October 1880. Among the guests at the dedication was Rabbi Max Samfield from Memphis, Tennessee. The Jewish community in Memphis and other Southern cities would continue to have strong religious, economic, and social links with Beth El. The current synagogue, in Greek revival style, was erected in 1916, and served as the oldest existing synagogue in Arkansas until its deconsecration in 2006.

In 1875, Beth El joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, embracing Reform Judaism and becoming one of the earliest members of the Union. Before the Congregation's first Rabbi arrived in 1879 (Abraham Meyers), the congregation often used the local Methodist minister, Reverend Dr. Garrison, to officiate at life cycle events. While new churches were being constructed, Christian congregations worshiped in the Temple's building.

The strong interfaith relationships between Jews and Christians in Helena helped widen Jewish involvement in social and political arenas. The Helena Country Club invited Jews to join upon opening in 1916, and several Jewish members served as Presidents. Aaron Meyers (term 1878-1880) and Jacob Fink (elected 1906) served as the town's mayor. Jacob Treiber, who settled in Helena in the 1860s, became the first Jewish federal court judge in the United States in 1900. Many of Helena's Jewish businessmen who began as peddlers thrived, diversifying and expanding their businesses, specializing in dry goods, cotton, produce, and real estate, among others. They were joined beginning in the 1890s with Eastern European immigrants.

As the Jewish community grew, charity, mutual benefit, and social organizations were established, the earliest being a Hebrew Benevolent Association. B'nai Brith Esther Lodge was formed in 1871. In 1892 the Helena Literary and Social Circle evolved into the Lotus Club, with primarily Jewish members. Women's organizations such as Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Association, Ladies Temple Aid and the Sisterhood were active in civic and social affairs. Members of these and other local Jewish organizations included residents of smaller towns in the area, such as West Helena, Marianna, Marvell, Holly Grove, and Trenton. Beth El served as the region's synagogue.

Despite Beth El's importance to community Jews in the area, it was difficult for the congregation to maintain full time Rabbis. Although they hired several recent graduates from the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College, many were dissatisfied with living in a small, rural town and left for larger communities. Challenges to find replacements were compounded by the small graduating classes for HUC, which were generally only ten men. Between 1879, when the first full time Rabbi arrived and 1960, Beth El had twenty-one rabbis. After Samuel R. Shillman, the last fulltime Rabbi retired, Beth El depended upon visiting rabbis from nearby Memphis, TN and Jackson, MS to hold monthly services.

According to the American Jewish Year Book, four hundred Jews were living in Helena in 1927. Since then, the community has gradually declined, as college aged children found opportunities in larger cities, the economy burst into the technological age, and fewer newcomers arrived. In 1967, when Beth El was celebrating its 100th anniversary, the congregation consisted of 109 members. In April 2006, fifteen members remained, to close the synagogue and donate the beautiful building for a community cultural center.

LeMaster, Carolyn Gray. A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas, 1820s-1990s. University of Arkansas Press, 1994.

Public Lecture Delivered by Stuart Rockoff, Historian of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, April 27, 2006, Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas) Records, I-470, Box 3/Folder 8, Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society, Newton Centre, MA, and New York, NY.

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Scope and Content Note

The records of Temple Beth El offer a valuable insight into a small town Southern Jewish community. The community members, composed mainly of German Jews devoted to the Reform movement, participated actively in charity work and mutual benefit societies, and maintained a close relationship with Jewish communities throughout the South. Contributors to the Southern economy, their synagogue activities often reflect their business interests; a bale of cotton was once used in a fundraising auction. The strength of their Jewish commitment is reflected in their efforts to keep the synagogue active, despite difficulties in hiring and maintaining Rabbis for the pulpit.

A significant part of this collection concerns the activities of women in the Helena Jewish community. Tightly knit as members of a small community, the women stretched beyond their insulated group to help local needy individuals and donate to relief charities throughout the United States and overseas. Their dedication to their synagogue, and being Jews in a largely non-Jewish town, is depicted through the aid they gave to the building's upkeep, including donating funds for the construction of new buildings. The Sisterhood took an active role as member of the Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, hosting MAFTS conventions and workshops in Helena.

Many of the records for the Helena Jewish community have been lost, destroyed by fire, or discarded by community members. This collection, which contains correspondence, real estate deeds, financial ledgers, minute meetings, news clippings, a scrapbook and photographs, is representative of the majority of historical items pertaining to the Helena Jewish community that exists today.

The collection is arranged into the following four series: Series I: Administrative; Series II: Women's Organizations; Series III: Esther Lodge; and Series IV: Anniversaries and Closing Ceremonies.

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The collection has been arranged into four series as follows:

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Access and Use

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers by permission of the Director of Library and Archives of the American Jewish Historical Society, except items that are restricted due to their fragility.

Use Restrictions

Information concerning the literary rights may be obtained from the Executive Director of the American Jewish Historical Society. Users must apply in writing for permission to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection. For more information contact:
American Jewish Historical Society, Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY, 10011

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Preferred Citation

Published citations should take the following form:
Identification of item, date (if known); Temple Beth El (Helena, Arkansas) Records; I-470; box number; folder number; American Jewish Historical Society, New York, NY, and Boston, MA.

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Access Points

Click on a subject to search that term in the Center's catalog. Return to the Top of Page

Container List

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.

Click the box in the request column to open the form that allows you to request a box for onsite viewing in the reading room at the Center for Jewish History, New York, NY.


Series I: Administrative, undated, 1880, 1896-1914, 1923-1937, 1967, 1978-1982, 1985-1995, 2006

Box 1, Folders 1-7

Folders are arranged alphabetically by subject and format.

Scope and Content:

This series is composed of legal documents, Board and committee minutes, financial records, correspondence, and copies of UAHC proceedings. Box 1, Folder 1 consists of real estate deeds dating from 1880-1967. The folder also includes a list of items related to Temple Beth El that are located in the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, OH. Among these items is correspondence concerning Temple Beth El's admission into the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1875. Box 1, Folders 2-4 contain minutes of meetings dating from 1896-1913 and 1978-1995. Interspersed within the minutes are listing of officers and financial statements. Box 1, Folders 5 and 6 contain financial ledgers dating from 1923-1937. Box 1, Folder 7 lists Rabbis who have officiated in Temple Beth El (with no dates) and lists the Temple's existent records and window memorials.

11Incorporation Papers, Deeds, UAHC Membership information1880, 1912, 1914, 1967, 1993, 2006request_box
13Minutesundated, 1978-1982request_box
14Minutes, Disbursements, Receipts, Structural Reports1985-1995request_box
15Financial Ledger1923-1934request_box
16Financial Ledger1930-1937request_box
17Rabbis, Temple Beth Elundatedrequest_box
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Series II: Women's Organizations, 1875-1975

Box 1, Folder 8, Box 2, Box 3, Folders 1-5

Folders are arranged by the title of ladies' organizations.

Scope and Content:

This series documents three Jewish women organizations in Helena: Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, Temple Ladies Aid Society, and Temple Sisterhood.

Box 1, Folder 8 and Box 2, Folder 1 contain ledgers maintained by the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society, which was formed in 1875. Minutes generally consist of applications for membership, collection of dues, benefit events like the annual Purim Ball, donations for relief charities and local needy individuals, and memorials to departed members. Box 1, Folder 8 dates from the inception meeting of the Society and includes the first Constitution and By-Laws. Box 2, Folder 1 continues Board minutes beginning January 1911. One entry dated October 4, 1911 regarding the first donation toward the new Temple building reads; "…that this be kept a profound secret…but our wise President, recognizing the almost impossible difficulty of expecting twenty women to keep a secret even from their husbands, for five days, imposed a fine of five dollars upon any who proved traitor."

Box 2, Folders 2-4 consist of items relating to Temple Ladies Aid Society, formed circa 1890. Box 2, Folders 2 and 3 consists of a ledger and its loose material that contains members' dues and minutes, dating from 1906-1916. Of interest is a donated bale of cotton that was sold to the highest bidder (see Box 2, Folder 2, December 1911-February 1912). Box 2, Folder 4 contains three small books kept by the Society's treasurer, dating from 1919-1946.

The remainder of Series II is devoted to the Temple's Sisterhood. Box 2, Folders 5-9 includes annual reports, budgets, lists of committee members, constitutions, and disbursements for specific years. Box 3, Folders 1-4 consists of minutes, dating from 1944-1975. The Sisterhood was a member of the Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, District 16. Box 3, Folder 5 contains financial reports and convention proceedings for MAFTS Board Meetings that were held in Helena in 1955, 1959, and 1963.

18Ladies Hebrew Benevolent SocietyFebruary 20, 1875-December 7, 1910request_box
21Ladies Hebrew Benevolent SocietyJanuary 4, 1911-March 1919request_box
22Ladies Temple Aid, Members, Dues, Expenses, CorrespondenceOctober 16, 1906-May 8, 1916request_box
23Ladies Temple Aid, Loose material removed from ledger(October 16, 1906-May 8, 1916)request_box
24'Temple Aid,' 3 small books1919-1946request_box
25Sisterhood, Annual Meetings, Annual Reportsundated, 1954-1966request_box
26Sisterhood Budget1963-1968request_box
27Sisterhood Committees1951-1974request_box
28Sisterhood Constitution1950-1971request_box
29Sisterhood Disbursements1966-1973request_box
31Sisterhood, Minutes1944-1950request_box
32Sisterhood, Minutes1950-1954request_box
33Sisterhood, Minutes1954-1970request_box
34Sisterhood Minutes1970-1975request_box
35Sisterhood, Mississippi-Arkansas Federation of Temple Sisterhoods (MAFTS), Board Meeting (In Helena)1954-1963request_box
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Series III: Esther Lodge, 1886-1923

Box 3, Folders 6 and 7

Ledgers are arranged chronologically.

Scope and Content:

This series contains the earliest extant minutes for Independent Order B'nai Brith, Esther Lodge, no. 159, which was formed in 1871. Earlier books, as noted in the first entry, dated January 31, 1886, were destroyed in a fire. Among the pursuant entries are lists of members' dues, death notices, applications for membership, changes in beneficiaries, election of officers, and treasurer reports.

36Esther Lodge No. 159. 10BB (B'nai Brith)January 31, 1886-December 10, 1894request_box
37Esther Lodge No. 159, 10BB (B'nai Brith), MinutesJanuary 6, 1895-January 14, 1923request_box
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Series IV: Anniversaries and Closing Ceremonies, 1957, 1967, 2006

Box 3, folders 8 and 9, and oversized Box 4

Folders are arranged by subject.

Scope and Content:

This series relates to the 90th and 100th anniversaries of Temple Beth El and the closing ceremonies that took place in 2006. Box 4 contains a scrapbook devoted to the 90th and 100th anniversaries of Temple Beth El. The scrapbook consists of Temple Bulletins announcing anniversary events, news clippings, telegrams, and correspondence of well wishers. The majority of letters are directed to the synagogue's President, David Solomon, Jr.

Box 3, Folders 8 and 9 pertain to the deconsecration service. Box 3, Folder 8 includes a list of services and activities for April 28 and April 29, 2006, a final services program, closing remarks, news clippings, a yartseit list, and correspondence. A significant item is the transcript of a public lecture given by Stuart Rockoff, Historian of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, on the history of Temple Beth El. Box 3, Folder 9 consists of a CD of photographs that form the basis of a book titled Temple Beth El: Helena, Arkansas 1915-2006, which is located in the AJHS library.

38Closing Ceremonies MaterialApril 2006request_box
39CD of Images used for book Temple Beth El (book moved to AJHS Library, call #BM225.A7T46)request_box
4OS190th and 100th Anniversary Scrapbook1957, 1967request_box
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