Old Jewish Burial Ground

This Hidden History was created by SCAD student Leigh Daniel as part of her SCAD art history department coursework with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2018.

The Old Jewish Burial Ground historical marker was dedicated in the twentieth century.  View the Old Jewish Burial Ground historical marker listing.

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1. Old Jewish Burial Grounds, Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

2. Colonel Mordecai Sheftall, unknown artist, courtesy of the Georgia Historical Society.

3. Sheftall Family Graves, photographed by Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

4. Grave of Mordecai Sheftall, photographed by Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

5. WPA Plaque 1, photographed by Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

6. WPA Plaque 2, photographed by Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

7. Minis Plaque, photographed by Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

8. Mapped location of Jewish Burial Grounds, Google Maps, May 27th, 2018.

9. Old Jewish Burial Ground Marker, photographed by Leigh Daniel, May 25th, 2018.

10. Savannah, GA. And vicinity, Orlando M. Poe, 1895, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.

11. Collage created at the Susie King Taylor school with 4th grader Kaiden.

The following essay is by SCAD student Leigh Daniel, 2018.

The First Jews in Savannah

Established in February 1733 by James Oglethorpe, Savannah was created as a buffer colony between Florida and South Carolina. Savannah was a small colony, and soon after its founding, the only town doctor died. Luckily for the colonists, in July of 1733, 42 Jewish immigrants on the ship William and Sarah landed off the coast of Savannah. Among the immigrants was a doctor, and the Jews were then welcomed to join the colony by Oglethorpe. Most settled around Ellis Square, and formed the first Jewish congregation in the South called the Congregation Mickve Israel. As the Jewish population in Savannah grew and Jews in the colony died, their need for a cemetery became more evident, prompting the establishment of the Jewish Community Cemetery just outside the city walls (Figure 1).

Mordecai Sheftall and the Jewish Community Cemetery

Mordecai Sheftall (Figure 2) was the son of Benjamin Sheftall, one of the immigrants on the William and Sarah, and the highest ranking Jewish officer in the colonial forces. During his time in Savannah, he saw the need for a larger space for Jews to bury their dead. He was considered the “undisputed leader of the Savannah Jewish community”[i] and was the driving force for establishing a Jewish cemetery in Savannah. Sheftall asked King George III for a plot of land to create a cemetery, and was granted that land in 1762. In 1773 Sheftall officially founded the Jewish Community Cemetery. The burial grounds are the first official cemetery in Savannah to be dedicated to only burying Jewish people. Mordecai and his family are buried in the cemetery (Figure 3 and Figure 4), along with many other members of prominent Jewish families that were part of the Jewish community in colonial Savannah. The cemetery was functional from roughly 1773 to 1860; the exact number of persons buried in the cemetery are unknown, although there are around 40 distinct graves that can be seen around the cemetery.[ii]

The Siege of Savannah

The Jewish Burial Grounds served as a key location during the attempted recapture of Savannah from the British in 1779. The siege of Savannah is considered the second deadliest battle in the Revolutionary War, which is noteworthy because it is the “first time the American and French land forces jointly acted against the British in the Revolutionary War.”[iii] French and American forces stormed Savannah and advanced as far as the Jewish Community Cemetery. The cemetery was located on a bluff, making it a perfect place for the American and French forces to observe the Battle of Savannah from above. Due to the lack of trees, there was not enough coverage for the forces, and they were unfortunately overpowered by enemy gunfire.[iv]

Stolen Graves

In the early 20th century, the Jewish Community Cemetery and its adjoining burial plot, the Levi Sheftall Burial Grounds, were ransacked. Impoverished people of Savannah went into the cemeteries, primarily the Levi Sheftall Burial Grounds, and stole headstones and bricks from the graves. They used the stolen property to build houses, construct sidewalks, or anything the stones and bricks could be used for. None of the stolen property has been found or retrieved, and the stolen bricks are presumed to be scattered around various parts of Savannah, mixed into the buildings and houses around downtown.

Works Progress Administration in Savannah

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, the United States government created the Works Progress Administration. The relief program was designed to create jobs for unemployed Americans in an attempt to help the economy. In Savannah, the WPA hired artists to create plaques to place in local cemeteries in an effort to clean them up. The Jewish Community Cemetery was one of the chosen sites. Three large plaques were made for the cemetery and placed on the inside of one of the cemetery’s walls. Two of the plaques (Figure 5 and Figure 6) memorialize dead Jewish colonists whom are believed to be buried in the cemetery, and the third plaque (Figure 7) memorializes the Minis family, who were prominent Jewish figures in Savannah’s history.[v]

The Cemetery Today

The Jewish Community Cemetery can be found off Selma St. in Savannah, nestled at the end of a small road called Coyle St. (Figure 8). The cemetery, along with the Levi Sheftall Burial Grounds across the street, is locked to the public for most of the year. Over the centuries, the Jewish community in Savannah has flourished immensely. The Congregation Mickve Israel remains a strong congregation for Jewish people in Savannah, and the Synagogue in Downtown serves as a national landmark for Jews across the United States.[vi] As Savannah grows as a community, the importance of passing down the history of the cemetery grows. Savannah citizen and former Mickve Israel Rabbi Arnold Belzer says that for the Jewish community, Savannah is unique. He believes that “keeping the community informed” of the Jewish Community Cemetery would be beneficial to keeping the history of the site alive.[vii] The cemetery provides an exemplary look into Savannah’s rich Jewish history, and is a prime example of one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in the South.

Personal Connection

I was primarily interested in the Old Jewish Burial Grounds because I have always had a fascination with old cemeteries. I had not heard of this cemetery before and thought it would be an interesting topic to research. I also have a number of family friends and colleagues in my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida who are Jewish, and I admittedly do not know too much about the Jewish religion or community culture. I knew that exploring this topic would be an excellent opportunity to educate myself and others. Researching the Old Jewish Burial Grounds was an extremely rewarding experience, and it made me not only appreciate the cemetery itself, but also how important the Jewish community is in Savannah.

[i] Levy, B. H. “Savannah’s Old Jewish Community Cemeteries.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (1982): 6.

[ii] Snapier. “Old Jewish Burial Ground.” Georgia Historical Society. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/old-jewish-burial-ground/.

[iii] Duncan, John D. The Georgia Historical Quarterly 58, no. 4 (1974): 458-59.

[iv] McMasters, Kristen L. “Savannah Under Fire, 1779: Expanding the Boundaries.” The MPC. Accessed May 21, 2018.

[v] “Works Progress Administration (WPA) Projects in Georgia.” American Civil War: Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library :: University of Georgia Libraries. Accessed May 22, 2018. http://www.libs.uga.edu/hargrett/selections/wpa/.

[vi] “Our History.” Our Sanctuary. Accessed May 28, 2018. https://www.mickveisrael.org/about-us/our-history.

[vii] Rabbi Arnold Belzer, interviewed by Leigh Daniel in Savannah, GA on May 21st, 2018.

Duncan, John D. The Georgia Historical Quarterly 58, no. 4 (1974): 458-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40580058.

Levy, B. H. “Savannah’s Old Jewish Community Cemeteries.” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 66, no. 1 (1982): 1-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40580850.

McMasters, Kristen L. “Savannah Under Fire, 1779: Expanding the Boundaries.” The MPC. Accessed May 21, 2018.

“Our History.” Our Sanctuary. Accessed May 28, 2018. https://www.mickveisrael.org/about-us/our-history.

Propst, Matthew, and Susan Varner. Houck. Savannah Cemeteries. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub., 2009.

Snapier. “Old Jewish Burial Ground.” Georgia Historical Society. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.georgiahistory.com/ghmi_marker_updated/old-jewish-burial-ground/. 

Stern, Malcolm H. The Sheftall Diaries: Vital Records of Savannah Jewry (1733-1808). New York, 1965.

“Works Progress Administration (WPA) Projects in Georgia.” American Civil War :: Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library :: University of Georgia Libraries. Accessed May 28, 2018. http://www.libs.uga.edu/hargrett/selections/wpa/.