A History of the Jewish Community in Columbus, Georgia
Located on the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee River, Columbus was created by the Georgia legislature in 1828 as a trading post right across the border of Alabama. Initially, Columbus thrived as a cotton trading town, but soon became an industrial center as a growing number of textile mills and sawmills harnessed the power of the river.
According to some reports, Jews lived in the Columbus area as traders even before thetown was officially founded in 1828. As Columbus’ industrial economy blossomed, growing numbers of Jews were attracted to the west Georgia town. One of these was Jacob I. Moses, who was elected mayor of Columbus in 1844. By 1859, there were 20 Jewish families in Columbus, most of which were
involved in retail trade. Of approximately 37 Jews listed in the 1859 Columbus city directory, 17 were dry goods merchants and 3 were clothing merchants. Another seven were store clerks. Five were skilled craftsmen, including four tinners and one shoemaker. One of these merchants was Rebecca Dessau, who owned her own millinery shop while her husband owned a dry goods business.
This growing number of Jews banded together in 1854, forming the congregation B’nai Israel. Many of these founding members were German immigrants. They initially gathered in members homes, but later met in a building on the northeast corner of 10th Street and 5th Avenue. The group also used this rented space for a school, which taught the members children about Judaism, as well as teaching them Hebrew and German. In 1859, B’nai Israel purchased a house on 10th Street and 4th Avenue, which they converted into a synagogue. The women of the congregation raised the money to furnish the new building and sewed such things as curtains and ark curtains themselves.
Perhaps the most notable Jewish citizen of Columbus was Raphael J. Moses. Born and raised in South Carolina, Moses came to Columbus in 1849 from Apalachicola, Florida, where he had been a lawyer. Columbus was closely tied to Apalachicola through the cotton trade and Moses already had contacts and clients in Columbus when he arrived in 1849. Moses became one of the most prominent lawyers in the state of Georgia, but also joined the ranks of southern planters with his purchase of the Esquiline Plantation. By 1850, Moses already owned sixteen slaves. Moses soon became a pioneer in the development of the commercial peach growing industry in Georgia. In 1851, he became the first planter to sell peaches outside of the state, shipping his produce to New York. He had found a new way to preserve them when shipped, using champagne baskets instead of pulverized charcoal. Moses became a very successful planter, which required more labor. By 1860, Moses owned 47 slaves, and was listed as a “farmer” in the US Census, even though he continued his law practice.