Our thanks to Joel Drouet for this interesting article about the place of his childhood and the Jewish community of Monroe, Louisiana, USA.
It was good to visit this topic; to me, it seemed that, for a middle-sized city in the Deep South, Monroe was remarkably–well, if not cosmopolitan, then diverse and tolerant. As I was remembering and writing, I thought about how prominently our community figured in the city’s history alongside others of quite different backgrounds. We WERE quite diverse, and maybe for that we avoided much of the racism, anti-Semitism, and intolerance that could be found unfortunately not too far away from Monroe. It wasn’t a bad place in which to grow up. So–thanks for asking me to contribute an article for the “NHC Jewish Travel Blog”; it was good to revisit and reflect. JD.
The Jewish community in my home city of Monroe, Louisiana—the “Bayou Jews”—can trace its roots back to the early 19th century. With a rich cultural heritage that includes French and African-American influence, Monroe become home to a number of immigrants from the Old World—not only Jews but, for example, Italians who made their way to the banks of the city’s Ouachita River and Bayou DeSiard. A Jewish cemetery was purchased by the mid-19th century, and by 1868 the Congregation “B’nai Israel” was chartered—the name of the current synagogue in Monroe—and there followed regular Shabbat services and educational and social organizations.
Monroe’s Jews were among some of the founders of Monroe’s thriving business community in the early and mid 20th century and took part in the local political system, with Mayor Arnold Bernstein serving for nearly 20 stable and prosperous years; Bernstein Park is named for him. Other landmarks bear the names of Jewish families who played significant roles in the city’s life, growth, modernisation, and development: Strauss Theatre Centre…Masur Museum of Art…Saul Adler Recreational Centre. By 1917, a stately and spacious Temple was completed in the heart of downtown Monroe near the river, courthouse, and the Franciscan hospital; this synagogue could accommodate up to 400 people. Sadly, it was demolished in 1969, eight years after the new temple was constructed near Park Avenue—very close to the house in which I was born.
The synagogue that was opened in 1961, Temple B’Nai Israel, reflects the architectural style of that era in the United States and is still in use. It can accommodate perhaps 300 or so people on the High Holy Days; there is a kitchen and dining area, and there are classrooms and a library on site. Needless to say, it’s also air-conditioned—a necessity in Louisiana’s humid-subtropical environment! There’s also a sustained effort to maintain a “Precious Legacy” of artifacts and documents about Jewish history in northern Louisiana.
I was active there during its heyday, when Monroe still had a Jewish population of around 500 people. At one point there were perhaps a dozen of us as students at Northeast Louisiana University. We benefited from three excellent rabbis during that era as well as a stimulating connection with my university on the bayou, where one of our rabbis—Rabbi Kline—was a part-time lecturer. Our president at the time and my academic advisor, Dr. Richard Chardkoff, later wrote a gripping biography of one of our members, the late Sol Rosenberg, who survived Treblinka, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Dachau—and ended up in Monroe, where he and his wife raised a family, created a successful industry, and contributed generously. (There’s a copy of “Sol’s Story” in the NHC library; please check it out).
Our regular services were on Friday nights, as they are still to this day. Sadly, Monroe’s Jewish population, reflecting the overall demographics of Monroe itself, has declined since the 1990s. Today there are perhaps 130 Jews in Monroe itself, with individuals and families scattered throughout the region, and there is a visiting rabbi who serves part-time.