Located along the Flint River in southwest Georgia, Albany was first settled by Connecticut businessman Nelson Tift in 1836, who named the future city after the capital of New York. A handful of Jewish immigrants were soon attracted to the bustling seat of Dougherty County in the 1840s. In 1854, four Jews incorporated the United Hebrew Society of Albany, which was founded for the expressed purpose of purchasing land for a cemetery and building a house of worship. In 1858, land was purchased for a cemetery. Despite this early growth, Albany Jews did not officially form congregation B’nai Israel until 1876, when an estimated 100 Jews lived in the city. From its founding, B’nai Israel was a Reform congregation. The congregation’s religious school was founded in the late 1870’s. The congregation built a small synagogue in 1882 and a larger one fourteen years later. The first Rabbi was hired in 1885 and in 1898, they hired a 22-year-old graduate of the Hebrew Union College, Edmund A. Landau, who spent the next 47 years leading B’nai Israel.
By 1930, many Jews of Albany had established business in downtown Albany. This cluster of Jewish businesses was hard hit by a tornado that devastated Albany on February 10, 1940, and destroyed the Temple. It was rebuilt on the same site. Albany’s Jewish population went from 290 Jews in 1937 to 475 in 1960, before peaking at 525 in 1968. B’nai Israel grew as well, from 70 members in 1940 to 150 in 1962. The 1950s and 60s were the peak years for the Albany Jewish community, as their religious school was packed with children.
Unfortunately, many of these children did not stay in Albany once they grew up. Many left for larger cities like Atlanta, seeking greater economic and social opportunities. By the 1980s, the Jewish-owned stores of Albany were closing due to competition from national chain stores and the lack of interest of the owners’ children in joining the family business. Over the last few decades, Albany’s Jewish population has dropped precipitously. By 1997, only 200 Jews still lived in Albany. B’nai Israel sold their building in 1995 to a bank and built a new synagogue dedicated in 1999.
While the number of Jews in Albany has continued to decline, B’nai Israel has remained active. After Rabbi Landau’s death in 1945, the Congregation had a series of rabbis, including Harry Caplan, Martin Hinchin, Joseph Freedman, Charles Lesser, David Zielonka, and William Cohen. In 1987, Rabbi Elijah Palnick came to Albany from Little Rock, serving B’nai Israel for the next twelve years. Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan led the congregation between 2001 and 2011. Student Rabbi Kelly Levy guided the congregation from 2011 until summer of 2013. Student Rabbi Andy Dubin led our congregation until May of 2014. Rabbi Holly Levin Cohn lead our Congregation. from July 2014 to June 2017. Rabbi Phil Cohen, Ph.D., led our Congregation from July 2017 until June 2020. Rabbi Larry Schlesinger, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Israel in Macon, currently leads our Zoom Sabbath and Holiday services. He also provides general Rabbi services to the Congregation.