The bombing of a prominent Atlanta synagogue in 1958 claimed no lives, but the community outrage that it prompted helped galvanize the city's nervous 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's rare manuscripts library.
The Reform congregation, housed in a handsome cluster of buildings on one of Atlanta's busiest streets, 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.
Working for integration
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 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 early morning of Oct. 12, 1958, some 50 sticks of dynamite exploded in the synagogue's entryway, destroying a part of the building. At least six other synagogues around the nation had been targeted by bombs in the previous year.
But it was a particular shock for congregants who believed Atlanta — whose leaders fostered a reputation as a bustling, progressive city — was immune from the hate crimes spreading across other parts of the South.
"We were so naive at the time," said Jill Shapiro Thornton, a Temple member and a ninth-grade student at the time of the bombing.
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 and the politicians who he said should share the blame.
"Whether they like it or not, every political rabble-rouser is the godfather of these cross burners and dynamiters who sneak about in the dark and give a bad name to the South," he said. "It is high time the decent people of the South rise and take charge."
Five suspects arrested
Dozens of city, state and federal investigators fanned out across the area, arresting 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.
Rothschild, meanwhile, 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. Some 20 percent of the event's donors were Jewish, Rafshoon said.
"Jews had become complacent and afraid, reluctant to stick their necks out," said Rafshoon. "The rabbi had pushed the congregation to take a stand, to support the civil rights movement. After the bombing, the big hug that came their way made Jews in Atlanta feel they could have the confidence to move forward on this controversial issue."
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 Blumberg, it was an act of violence that 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 surprising name she coined for the blast that shook Atlanta: "The bomb that healed."