Clio Logo

Temple Israel was constructed in 1960 by Elmer A. Stuck & Associates, a local architect. The building has served as the center for Jewish life in Jonesboro since then. The building is an excellent example of the mid-century modern style.


  • View of Temple Israel looking east
  • View of Temple Israel looking south

Though Jews have a long history in the United States, Jewish immigrants did not reach Arkansas until 1823 in the midst of what is known as the second period in American Jewish history heralded by the arrival of German Jews “prompted to emigrate by the scarcity of land, rural poverty and government restrictions on marriage, domicile and employment.”[1] These first arrivals were predominantly young men who began working as peddlers and eventually established substantial businesses. Because German Jews tended to “adapt both their customs and their religion to American life,” they quickly gained footing in the middle class and, in some instances, became influential members of their communities.[2] According to Jewish Virtual Library, by 1860 Arkansas boasted roughly 200 Jewish merchants and a number of these men also served in the Confederate Army. Arkansas’ Jewish population greatly increased after 1865. Several Arkansas towns were founded by or had Jews for their namesakes, including Berger (Pulaski County), Felsenthal (Union County), Goldman (Jefferson County), and Bertig (Greene County).[3]

 

Jonesboro, county seat of Craighead County was established in 1860 and incorporated in 1883. The town lacked a Jewish population until the arrival of the railroad in the early 1880s. Among these first arrivals were Rudolph H. Meyer, who established what would become the largest department store in Jonesboro, and Marcus Berger, who operated a retail store as well as a wholesale supply business. Both men eventually became founding members of the Temple Israel Congregation in Jonesboro. The arrival of the railroad in Jonesboro coincided with a larger influx of Jews to the United States. Over two million East European Jews arrived in America between 1881 and 1914 to flee persecution under Alexander III of Russia. Their arrival revived Orthodox Judaism in America and increased demand for more Traditional congregations in Arkansas. Fearing a backlash of persecution from their non-Jewish neighbors, Arkansas’ German Jews implemented a plan by Cyrus Adler to Americanize East European Jews with Conservative Judaism.[4]

 

Jonesboro counted among its population a fair number of East European Jews by 1890. By 1892, Morris and Rachel Shoenberger hosted the first High Holy Day services of an Orthodox congregation in their home. Participants included those who resided in Jonesboro as well as others who travelled from nearby towns of Manila, Trumann, and Monette. These were soon joined by participants from other neighboring towns of Paragould, Corning, Newport, Marked Tree, Wynne, Luxora, and Lepanto. Following their initial meeting at the Shoenberg residence, the Orthodox congregation met regularly at Jonesboro’s Masonic Hall until 1927. Several new congregations, a mix of Orthodox and Reform, organized between 1892 and the 1930s in such places as Newport, Osceola, Forrest City, and Blytheville.[5] These congregations were composed primarily of East European Jews who tended to practice more conservatively. Among these new congregations was Temple Israel, the Reform congregation established in Jonesboro in January 1896 following a period of informal practice in rented rooms. Following its organization, Temple Israel joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and immediately began plans for its own place of worship. By the next year (1897), the congregation began construction of a synagogue “on a 79 by 190 foot strip of land between Union and Main Streets located midway between Jefferson to the North and Matthews to the South” which they purchased for $750.00 from W.L. and A.M. McCool.[6] The new synagogue was dedicated on January 2, 1898 by Rabbi M. Samfield of Memphis. Rabbi Isaac Rubenstein served as the first rabbi of a congregation of twenty families composed of over 80 founding members, “75% of whom were foreign born, mostly from Germany and Austria.”[7] Rabbi Rubenstein worked to establish a Jewish cemetery in Jonesboro and became the first person to be buried there following his death in 1899.[8]

 

Temple Israel quickly became the center of Jewish life in Jonesboro. The congregation held its first confirmation in 1899 and the same year the Ladies Aid of Temple Israel (now the Sisterhood) was formed “to support Temple Israel and Temple Israel Cemetery.”[9] The Ladies Aid played an important role in the congregation’s affairs. Its early duties included maintaining the facilities as well as budgeting and organizing temple business. The Ladies Aid also conducted the religious school established immediately after the temple organized. The Temple Israel congregation was very successful in its early years. For 25 years the congregation supported a full-time rabbi and in 1904 the congregation completed plans for a “modern structure, two stores high [with] all conveniences” to house its rabbis behind the temple.[10] In the 1920s the congregation suffered a drop in membership as well as mounting financial burdens. In order to cover Temple Israel’s expenses, the Ladies Aid Society sold the parsonage constructed in more prosperous times. Beginning in 1922, Temple Israel associated itself with Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College. As a result, the congregation benefitted from the services of student rabbis on High Holy Days.[11]

 

Temple Israel enjoyed a second period of prosperity and growth following the formation of the Arkansas Jewish Assembly in the 1930s. The congregation continued to grow throughout the 1940s and 1950s. As a result, Temple Israel decided to build a larger synagogue. The congregation sold their original structure to the local First Baptist Church and began construction on a plot located on the corner of Oak and Madison. The new synagogue reflected contemporary mid-century modern construction and stood nearly double the size of the original temple. The new building was completed in time for Rosh Hashanah and was dedicated a month later, on October 9, 1960, with Rabbi Louis Binstock of Chicago’s Shalom Temple presiding.[12] Unfortunately, the congregation failed to continue to grow as expected. The Temple Israel congregation suffered another decline in membership following the completion of the second synagogue as original participants died, others relocated, and general interest waned. Though small, the congregation still utilizes the synagogue for High Holyday services. To supplement dues and help maintain the building, the congregation allows Jonesboro’s Unitarian congregation to utilize the synagogue for a monthly fee. Temple Israel remains an important symbol of the Jewish community that flourished in northeast Arkansas and made valuable contributions to Jonesboro’s civic and economic life.


[1] The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, “American Jewish Immigration,” jewishmuseum.net/collections/Oklahoma-jewish-experience/American-jewish-immigration/ (accessed Aug. 2, 2015).

[2] Carolyn Gray LeMaster, A Corner of the Tapestry: A History of the Jewish Experience in Arkansas 1820s – 1990s, Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1994, 77, 152.

[3] Jewish Virtual Library, “Virtual Jewish World: Arkansas, United States,” 2013, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Arkansas.html (accessed Aug. 2, 2015); Stuart Rockoff, “Jews,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture Online, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2297 (accessed Aug. 4, 2015).

[4] LeMaster, A Corner of the Tapestry, p. 80, 152.

[5] Stuart Rockoff, “Jews,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture Online, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2297 (accessed Aug. 4, 2015).

[6] LeMaster, A Corner of the Tapestry, p. 75, 80-81, 254; Sam Leavitt, “A History of Temple Israel, Jonesboro, Ark.,” p. 7-8; Charles A. Stuck, The Story of Craighead County: A Narrative of People and Events in Northeast Arkansas, Jonesboro, Arkansas, 1960, p. 260; Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Jonesboro, Arkansas,” 2014, www.isjl.org/arkansas-jonesboro-encyclopedia.html (accessed July 12, 2015).

[7] Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Jonesboro, Arkansas,” 2014, www.isjl.org/arkansas-jonesboro-encyclopedia.html (accessed July 12, 2015);

[8] Leavitt, “A History of Temple Israel, Jonesboro, Ark.,” p. 7-9; Stuck, The Story of Craighead County, p. 260; LeMaster, A Corner of the Tapestry, p. 81; Temple Israel 60th Anniversary Booklet, “History of Temple Israel,” Temple Israel Archives, January 15, 1958, p. 10.

[9] Ozarks Watch, “Temple Israel,” 58.

[10] Jonesboro Weekly Sun, “Temple Israel Will Build,” June 16, 1904

[11] Sam Leavitt, “A History of Temple Israel,” 9-10; LeMaster, A Corner of the Tapestry, 75-76; Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Jonesboro, Arkansas,” 2014, www.isjl.org/arkansas-jonesboro-encyclopedia.html (accessed July 12, 2015).

[12] LeMaster, A Corner of the Tapestry, 366-367; Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Jonesboro, Arkansas,” 2014, www.isjl.org/arkansas-jonesboro-encyclopedia.html (accessed July 12, 2015); Stuck, The Story of Craighead County, 260.

Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Jonesboro, Arkansas,” 2014, www.isjl.org/arkansas-jonesboro-encyclopedia.html (accessed July 12, 2015).

 

Jewish Virtual Library, “Virtual Jewish World: Arkansas, United States,” 2013, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Arkansas.html (accessed Aug. 2, 2015).

 

Jonesboro Weekly Sun

 

Leavitt, Sam, “A History of Temple Israel, Jonesboro, Ark.”

 

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

 

The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, “American Jewish Immigration,” jewishmuseum.net/collections/Oklahoma-jewish-experience/American-jewish-immigration/ (accessed Aug. 2, 2015).

 

Stuck, Charles Albert, The Story of Craighead County: A Narrative of People and Events in Northeast Arkansas, Jonesboro, Arkansas, 1960.

 

Rockoff, Stuart, “Jews,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture Online, http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=2297 (accessed Aug. 4, 2015).

 

Temple Israel Archives