Jews in Small Towns:
Legends and Legacies



Waycross is a small city of 25,000 population in southern Georgia. The closest "large" communities are Jacksonville, Florida (75 miles southeast) and Savannah, Georgia (110 miles northeast).

The first Jewish family in the area was Alex and Annie Gilmore, who settled in Blackshear, Georgia, in 1902. Blackshear is only nine miles from Waycross and is considered the Waycross Community. Together Alex and Annie opened a clothing store, which was very typical of the Jewish families who settled in small Georgia towns. The Gilmore family grew, with four sons and four daughters, before Alex's death in 1934 at the young age of forty-eight. In addition to running the store, Annie raised the family in a Jewish environment. Although the nearest source for kosher food was Savannah, and although there was no refrigeration as we know it today, Annie kept a kosher kitchen.

There was no formal organization formed until the early 1920s when more Jewish families emigrated to the area. A review of the community's origin was given in a pamphlet prepared for a 1935 Dedication Service for a Sefer Torah given by Mrs. Annie Gilmore and her children in memory of Alex Gilmore, husband and father.

The brief history reads as follows: "Congregational meeting of the Jewish citizens of Waycross and surrounding territory was instituted in the early part of the year 1920. The first records of this organization date from the year 1924. Services during the holidays were held at Moose Hall on Haines Avenue with a visiting rabbi conducting the services. During the early part of 1924, the Jewish citizens decided to make the organization into a well-knit society for the betterment of Jewry in and around Waycross and to bring a friendly feeling to all the Jewish citizens in this vicinity. The first meeting was held in Waycross, Georgia, with the election of Alex Gilmore, President; Morris Jacobson, Vice-President; Harry Bennett, Secretary; and Max Gilmore, Treasurer. The charter members of the Waycross Hebrew Congregation were: Alex Gilmore, Morris Jacobson, Harry Bennett, Max Gilmore, Saul Zelmenovitz, B. K. Salzman, Harry Scher, Harry Weisser, M. Mazo, Morris Kraft, Harry Yermovsky, Jacob Bennett, and John Schreiber."

Travel was slow and tedious in those days, but the congregation's membership began to grow with additional members from Alma, twenty-four miles away, and Baxley, twenty-one miles further up the highway. Mr. and Mrs. Sam Elkins moved to Alma in 1920 and Nathan Cohen brought a new bride, Rebecca, to Alma in 1924. They were followed by Nathan and Sara Finkelstein, who settled in Baxley in 1934. Blackshear also saw more growth. After losing her husband the previous year, Sophie Golub settled there in 1938 with her three sons. There were additional settlements by Jewish families throughout the early years. These included the Sam Schreibers and their sons, Joe and Harry; Mack and Eleanor Aaron; Julius and Adeline Rudnick; Mr. and Mrs. Simon Shalloway and others.

The vast majority of the Jewish families in Waycross, Blackshear, Alma, and Baxley,owned their own businesses. Business was flourishing, and so was the Jewish community. Early years saw the opportunity for families to establish small businesses, but the decline of the "mom and pop" stores saw the closing of these family investments.

In 1992, there were no family-owned retail stores in Waycross or Blackshear. Jerald Cohen had taken over the clothing store that his father started in Alma and was joined by his son Marc in the venture. Another son, Rees, has a small sports card collection business in the adjoining building. Another generation has carried on the Finkelstein tradition in Baxley. Finkelstein's is run by Adele (Finkelstein) Effel, Marvin and Judi (Elkins­descendant of Sam Elkins) Finkelstein and Ronnie and Marsha (Finkelstein) Haysman.

The balance of the men in the local area presently are in various occupations as follows: real estate broker; state employee; attorney; orthodontist; used car salesman; road salesman, and at least eight retirees. A  majority of the Jews are in the upper-middle class but, going with the trend of the nation, most of the wives are also employed.

There are other dues-paying members who have moved from the Waycross area but have kept their affiliation. Some were descendants of the early settlers, and some were newly settled in the area.

Throughout the years, it has been a fact that nearly all Jews living in the area of Waycross have supported and participated in the Jewish community activities. Where there has been intermarriage in a family, or when some non-member has been non-religious, the Jewish or concerned family member maintained some form of contact with Judaism. Even when a family did not wish to participate in the functions of the congregation, monetary
donations were usually f0rthc0ming. With all the changes of the generations of early settlers, it is now obvious that the Waycross Hebrew congregation consists of newcomers to the Waycross area. Over half of the membership consists of retirees and the future looks bleak for the congregation, but that has been stated for many years.

Until 1926, the Jewish community held its activities in a rented meeting room at the Moose Hall. From 1926 until 1953, space was rented in the hall of the Knights of Pythias in downtown Waycross. Members used their own prayer books and someone had brought a Sefer Torah. One incident typifies the trials of and reaction to the struggling community. During the High Holy Days one year in the 1930s, the congregation was conducting services when carpenters began their work for the day, remodeling the facilities of the restaurant in the building. The cantor and the families were hesitant to approach the owner of the building to ask that the work­men halt their work. Finally, a representative of the congregation went to the owner to tell him of the problem. He began by assuring the owner that he was not attempting to tell him his business, but that the members of the congregation were observing a very important religious service and that they were unable to hear due to the work. He asked if it might be possible for the workmen to do some other tasks for the few hours. The owner immediately complied and said he was grateful for the way the matter was handled and was appreciative of the chance to help.





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