Every May, the contributions and achievements of Jewish Americans are celebrated during Jewish American Heritage Month. Programs, ceremonies, and activities throughout the month honor the generations of Jewish Americans who’ve enriched our national culture. A tour of Cemetery recognizes the Jewish Americans who helped shape Atlanta’s history and construct the city’s cultural fabric.
Atlanta’s Jewish population dates to the city’s earliest days. The Hebrew Benevolent Society, a precursor to the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (now known as the Temple), formed in 1860 to provide burial ground and relief for the Jewish poor. The same year, six burial lots in Oakland’s Original Six Acres were set aside for members of the Society. Located near the Memorial Drive pedestrian entrance at Oakland Cemetery, the Old Jewish Burial Ground section is the final resting place for several members of Atlanta’s early Jewish community. It is the second-oldest Jewish burial ground in Georgia, preceded only by a colonial cemetery in Savannah.
As Atlanta’s population grew in the second half of the 19th century, so did the size of its Jewish community. In 1878, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation began purchasing land in another section of Oakland to accommodate the burial needs of its growing membership. In 1892, the Congregation sold a portion of the newly-acquired burial space to the Ahavath Achim Synagogue, a recently-formed congregation comprised of primarily Russian and Eastern European immigrants. These additional burial sections are known as “Jewish Flat” and “Jewish Hill.”
A sidewalk bisects the low-lying Jewish Flat area, which is flanked by the Confederate Memorial Grounds and Rogers Hill. The Hebrew Benevolent burial ground, occupying the northern half of the section, has simple and evenly-distributed markers. Situated closer to the cemetery’s brick walls, the Ahavath Achim lots are one of the most visually compelling areas of Oakland. Tall, ornate markers are densely packed into the space, creating a “forest” of monuments. All sidewalks have been removed to allow for more burials and almost every space is occupied. The burial styles of the Ahavath Achim and Hebrew Benevolent parcels create a juxtaposition of Old World versus New World, but the common symbolism found on grave markers unite the sections. Throughout this section, visitors can find many Judaic symbols on markers, such as the Star of David (divine protection); a pitcher with basin (grave of a Levi); and an urn with draped a veil (a prayer shawl).
Notable Jewish residents of Oakland Cemetery include entrepreneurs, reformers, physicians, and community builders. Dr. Joseph Jacobs was the founder of Jacobs’ Pharmacy, the Five Points drug store where Coca-Cola was first served. Jacob Elsas established the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills within sight of Oakland Cemetery. An executive secretary of Georgia’s Department of Public Welfare, Rhoda Kaufman dedicated her life to social reform and was named a Georgia Woman of Achievement in 1998. Morris and Emanuel Rich, Hungarian brothers who founded Rich’s Department Store, are buried on Jewish Hill. Their parents, Joseph and Rose, rest in eternal sleep in the first Jewish section of Oakland. Lucille Selig Frank, the widow of Leo Frank and eyewitness to his infamous trial, is buried between her parents on Jewish Hill.