Temple members mark 50th anniversary of blast

ATLANTA --- The bombing of a prominent Atlanta synagogue in 1958 claimed no lives, but the community outrage that it prompted helped galvanize the city's Jewish community to embrace the civil rights movement.


Members of The Temple gathered Sunday for the blast's 50th anniversary, recalling its terrifying aftermath and the way it changed their congregation's mission to promote racial equality.

"What could have been a terribly tragic event had the effect of making the congregation more confident, and more willing to get involved in controversial events," said Ellen Rafshoon, who curated an exhibit on the bombing at Emory University.

The Reform congregation had for years discouraged conflicts with Atlanta's dominant Christian community. But the synagogue's message changed when it hired Rabbi Jacob Rothschild to lead the congregation in 1946.

Sermons encouraging racial equality soon became an annual tradition on Jewish holidays, and the rabbi slowly pushed his congregants to work for integration.

"He suspected all along that he was endangering the congregation and his family," said Rabbi Rothschild's widow, Janice Rothschild Blumberg, who remarried after the rabbi's death in 1973. "But he felt he had to do it, that this was his duty -- as a rabbi and a human being."

On the morning of Oct. 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite exploded in the synagogue's entryway.

The city's Jewish community worried the bombing would be met with a halfhearted response, as had happened in the aftermath of the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Temple member who was killed by a white mob. Instead, The Temple was flooded with letters and donations, messages of support from Girl Scout troops, concerned clergy -- even a white citizens council in Alabama.

Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield visited The Temple and quickly went on television to condemn the bombers.

City, state and federal investigators arrested five suspects with ties to anti-Semitic groups. One suspect, George Bright, was acquitted in a high-profile trial, and charges against the other four co-defendants were dropped.

Rabbi Rothschild continued to urge his flock to embrace racial equality. Among his proudest accomplishments was co-hosting an integrated dinner after Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel prize in 1964.

Congregants on Sunday mingled with residents who came to pay respects in a new building near the site of the explosion. Some recalled it as a terrifying introduction to racism. Some said it cemented the Jewish community's role in Atlanta.

To Ms. Blumberg, it was ultimately proved to be positive. "I felt it was like lancing a boil, like a surgeon opening a wound that didn't heal right," she said.

That helps explain the name she coined for the blast: "The bomb that healed."