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Anshe Emeth

On March 13, 1867, Anshe Emeth became the first Jewish congregation to receive a charter from the Arkansas state legislature. Anshe Emeth was served by a number of well-educated rabbis who not only sought to bring the Jewish community together but became well-known for the ways they enhanced the local Pine Bluff community through their battle against racial injustice.

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In the 1820s, European immigrants and Black slaves first settled near the site that would become Pine Bluff when Arkansas was still a territory. Pine Bluff was centrally located between the Arkansas River and Bayou Bartholomew, two major 19th-century transportation routes just as steamboat travel developed. Consequently, Pine Bluff grew into a major river port in the Delta region as locals shipped cotton and other row crops from surrounding plantations to larger cities. 

In the 1850s, German immigrants including many German Jews flocked to Pine Bluff to take advantage of the economic opportunities. By the 1850s more than a dozen Jewish families lived in Pine Bluff. In 1859, these families began to gather for religious services. 

In the early 1860s, the Jewish community prepared to officially organize a congregation, but the Civil War hampered their initial efforts. During the Civil War, they held minyans (a quorum of 10 Jewish men) in the city on important Jewish holidays and met in homes for services. Many of those services were held at the home of Solomon Solmson and led by Aaron Reinich and Max Weil. 

Immediately following the Civil War, efforts to establish a congregation resumed. In May of 1866, the Pine Bluff congregation chose the name Anshe Emeth (Men of Truth) and purchased a lot at Third Avenue and Laurel Street to build their house of worship. In October of that same year, the laying of the temple’s cornerstone was accompanied by a parade downtown and featured speeches by the Pine Bluff’s mayor and Protestant ministers. 

On March 13, 1867, Anshe Emeth became the first Jewish congregation to receive a charter from the Arkansas state legislature. Soon after, Pine Bluff’s Jewish community became the first Arkansas community to establish a B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant) chapter, a benevolent Jewish fraternity. By 1879, Pine Bluff was home to three of Arkansas’ eight chapters. 

Despite Pine Bluff’s relatively remote location, Anshe Emeth was served by several well-educated rabbis who not only sought to bring the Jewish community together but became well-known for the ways they enhanced the local Pine Bluff community. Jews and non-Jews attended the lectures and sermons given by Anshe Emeth’s rabbis. 

The Jews in Pine Bluff freely practiced their religion and observed Jewish festivals. During this time, City Hall was used for their Purim balls. It always made the local news when there were no public celebrations of Jewish holidays. Although the Jewish community in Pine Bluff was generally accepted, they did experience a devastating anti-Semitic incident in 1876 when a Jewish cemetery was vandalized. 

In 1902, as their membership significantly increased, Anshe Emeth built an impressive new temple at West 2nd and Poplar Street. Over the years, the congregation was generous with the use of its buildings. They were used as classrooms by secular educators and even by various churches on occasion. In June 1894, the First Christian Church was organized in the Anshe Emeth temple. The local Musical Coterie utilized Anshe Emeth’s piano and organ for instruction and presented their programs in the synagogue and temple. 

​Despite racism in the Jewish community, a few Jewish individuals explicitly challenged the norms. In the early 20th century, Anshe Emeth hired several Rabbis heavily involved in social justice work. Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, who served from 1904 to 1912, advocated for “bringing black and white people together”. He also became close friends with Isaac Fisher,  a protégé of Booker T.  Washington and the principal of Branch Normal College (now known as the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). Fisher sought to bring Pine Bluff’s black and white citizens together by stressing diplomacy and Negro self-improvement. During his tenure, Rabbi Frisch publicly defended Fisher from political attacks, citing his industry, integrity, and decorum. Fisher eventually faced prejudice as his position became unpopular among even Pine Bluff’s black citizens. In 1911, Fisher resigned from his position at the College and left Pine Bluff. Rabbi Fisch accepted a rabbinate in Far Rockaway, New York the following year. Frisch was active in social justice movements for the rest of his life.  

Rabbi Leonard Rothstein was another Pine Bluff rabbi involved in civil rights activism. Rothstein, who served Anshe Emeth from 1919 to 1923,  publicly denounced the Pine Bluff School Board’s decision to permit Dr. John Moore, a national Ku Klux Klan lecturer, to speak at the local high school. He left Pine Bluff in 1923 disillusioned by the “narrowness and blindness of the community at large.” 

Jewish community leaders also stood up against racial injustices. Sam Levine, a Pine Bluff attorney who served in the Arkansas General Assembly as a congressman and a senator, was the most notable among these community leaders.  In 1959, two years after the Little Rock Nine integrated Central High School, Levine single-handedly filibustered legislation from white supremacists like Governor Orval E. Faubus aimed at filling the school board with loyal segregationists. On the last day of the legislative session, he strategically launched his filibuster right before a major highway bill so that the school board bill would be shelved. This move effectively ended Levine’s political career. In 1962, he tried to run for chancery board but lost in the primaries to an opponent who ran an anti-Semitic campaign. 

By the late 1980s, the Jewish population declined because of the economic challenges in Pine Bluff and the surrounding areas. Young Jewish adults often left Pine Bluff for educational and professional opportunities in larger cities.  The rise of discount retail chains negatively affected local Jewish businesses. In the mid-1980s, many Jewish-owned stores began to close as older generations retired and younger generations moved elsewhere. 

Congregational membership fell as the Jewish population decreased.  Anshe Emeth’s last full-time rabbi was Leslie Sirtes, who served the congregation from 1970 until the mid-1980s. After Rabbi Sirtes’ tenure, Hebrew Union College rabbinical students led services at Anshe Emeth. By 1992 as the congregation’s membership had dwindled to 40 individuals,  Anshe Emeth began planning to permanently close its doors.

On June 11, 2016, Anshe Emeth hosted its final service. Congregants donated a Torah scroll to a synagogue in Guatemala, moved their yahrzeit plaques to Hot Springs, and created a trust to maintain Pine Bluff’s Jewish cemetery. Anshe Emeth is now the home of the True Vine Triple “E” Missionary Baptist Church. 

Even with the decline of Pine Bluff’s Jewish population, traces of Pine Bluff’s Jewish history remain. Shop signs from Jewish merchants hang from a few downtown buildings. Anshe Emeth’s second synagogue building still boasts its stained glass windows decorated with menorahs.


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

Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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