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Temple Adas Israel

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1882–1920. Southeast corner of Washington and College Sts.
  • (Photograph by Gavin Townsend)
  • (Photograph by Gavin Townsend)
  • (Photograph by Gavin Townsend)

The oldest extant Jewish house of worship in Tennessee, Temple Adas Israel is located near the center of a 200 x 150–foot block in downtown Brownsville, two blocks north of the Haywood County Courthouse. Its prominent location reflects the significant position of the Jewish community in Brownsville during the late nineteenth century.

The origin of Jews in Brownsville can be traced to Jacob Felsenthal, who left Bavaria for the United States in 1840 and settled in Brownsville in 1847. After establishing himself as a merchant, Jacob was able to sponsor four of his younger siblings to join him. Two of the brothers served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and one was killed at the Battle of Shiloh. Jacob and his brother Joseph prospered during Reconstruction, establishing J. Felsenthal and Brothers, one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the state.

In the 1860s the Felsenthals were joined by other Jewish families from Bavaria, notably the Sternbergers—Joseph in 1860 and Jacob in 1864. In 1866, Joseph opened his house to serve as a place of worship, using a Torah his father gave him before he left Bavaria. Other Jews, many also from Bavaria, made their way to Brownsville: the Tamms, the Silversteins, the Greenwalds and Ankers, all of them engaged as grocers or merchants of some sort.

In 1867 the small but growing Jewish community in Brownsville founded the Adas Israel congregation. In 1878 the community purchased a burial ground where the graves of many of Brownsville’s Jews can still be found. Four years later the congregation of 25 members built a wooden synagogue. Perhaps modeled on the United Hebrew Congregation temple in Louisville, Adas Israel reflected the congregation’s adoption of Reform Judaism. A gallery in the rear of the sanctuary included space for an organ and a choir. Despite the modest size of the congregation, the temple was built to seat 200 people. This proved to be just large enough to handle the peak number of Jews who resided in Brownsville in the early 1890s. As it happened, most of them, like the Felsenthals and Sternbergers, came from Germany, not from Eastern Europe.

The economic turmoil of the mid-1890s caused many congregants to leave Brownsville. By 1900 only about 100 remained. Those who stayed continued to invest in their temple. Soon after 1900 wooden screens were added to provide space for religious instruction. Stained glass windows were added around 1910, with several of them featuring Judaic symbols like the Star of David and the menorah. In 1922 the temple was sheathed in brick, and brick buttresses were added to enhance the Gothic Revival lines. The short steeple of the original wood-framed building was removed.

Despite this work on the temple, the Jewish population of Brownville declined during the twentieth century. By 1937 only 60 Jews remained. Some older families held onto their property and business as long as possible; E. Tamm and Sons Department Store did not close until the early 1970s, while J. Felsenthal and Brothers remained open until 1974. Younger members of the congregation found little reason to remain in a town whose attractions could not compete with large cities like Memphis or retailers like Walmart.

As of 2014 only six members of the congregation remain in Brownsville. Nonetheless, Adas Israel continues to serve its original purpose, opening one Friday night a month for worship and public lectures. Within the temple one can still see the original 1880s walnut wainscoting and ark.

References

Church, Barbara Hume, and Dalton, Robert E., “Temple Adas Israel,” Haywood County, Tennessee. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1978. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, DC.

Rockoff, Stuart. “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities—Brownsville, Tennessee.” Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Accessed May 2, 2015. http://www.isjl.org/tennessee-brownsville-encyclopedia.html .

Writing Credits

Author: 
Gavin Townsend
Coordinator: 
Gavin Townsend
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Data

Timeline

  • 1882

    Built
  • 1922

    Brick veneer added. Steeple removed.

Citation

Gavin Townsend, "Temple Adas Israel", [Brownsville, Tennessee], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/TN-01-075-0080.

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