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Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah Celebrates Its 275th Anniversary

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
November - December 2008

On the weekend of July 11, 2008, congregants, descendants, the Jewish community and guests celebrated the 275th anniversary of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah, Georgia.  
The Rambler (Fall 2008), the journal of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, sets forth the story of the congregation’s founding: “On July 11, 1733, five months after General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia, a group of 42 Jews crossed the Atlantic from London on the ship, the William and Sarah. One child died in transit. The 41 remaining passengers disembarked onto what is now River Street in Savannah. Thirty-three of these were Portuguese Jews, refugees from the Inquisition, and 8 were members of two German families.”  
During Friday night services, there were two speakers: John Sheftall, a descendant of one of the German families, and Michael Brandon, representing London’s Bevis Marks Congregation, Mickve Israel’s mother synagogue, which was responsible for sending the original group of Jews to Georgia.  
According to The Rambler, “Mr. Sheftall, whose family became Episcopalian many generations ago, told of his parents’ and grandparents’ pride in their Jewish ancestry. Mr. Brandon brought greetings from Bevis Marks. Also coming from London was baroness Ruth Deech, a life peer in the House of Lords, and an academic, bioethicist, and former governor of the BBC ...”  
A highlight of the weekend, reports The Rambler, “was the brunch for the descendants ... Approximately 140 descendants attended, coming from all over the U.S. and Canada. B.H. Levy, Jr., chair of the weekend and descendant of settler Benjamin Sheftall welcomed the attendees. He called on members of different family units to speak. Tony Cohen, an African American descendant, said that he discovered that his great-great grandfather was the son of a free black woman and Jackson Sheftall, the great-grandson of Benjamin Sheftall. Mr. Cohen is currently filming a documentary, Patrick and Me, about his family roots. After representatives of the Minis, Sheftall and Nunez (Nunes) families spoke, families got together to meet kin for the first time.”  
Originally Orthodox, Mickve Israel in 1867 elected its second full-time rabbi, the Rev. Raphael D.C. Lewin who played a pivotal role in transforming the congregation into a stalwart of Reform. Among the liturgical transformations he initiated was the organization of a choir with mixed voices and music for use in worship services. English was increasingly introduced as the language of the religious service. Such reforms in Savannah and in congregations in Charleston, South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia quickly spread throughout the South.

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