Our Congregation was founded in 1866 by a small group of Western European and German Jewish businessmen, most of whom had been mustered out of the army following the War between the States. Chattanooga was from its beginnings a transportation crossroads: the Tennessee River connected it to other parts of the country, and in 1849, the railroads came and assured Chattanooga industrial and business growth. It was the hub of the whole southeast. The Jewish Community played an integral role in improving and diversifying the life and culture of Chattanooga. The Mizpah Religious School was established in 1870, and the Mizpah sisterhood was established in 1877.
The early history of the congregation was most influenced by the Julius Ochs family, who moved to Chattanooga in 1878, and the Isaac M. Wise family of Cincinnati. Julius and Bertha Ochs were the parents of Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of both THE CHATTANOOGA TIMES and THE NEW YORK TIMES. Isaac M. Wise is considered by many as "the father of Reform Judaism in America" since he established the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today known as the Union for Reform Judaism) and the Hebrew Union College. One of Wise's sons, Jonah, was Rabbi in Chattanooga for a while. Another one of his sons, Harry , lived here for two generations. And one of his daughters, Iphigene, married Adolph S. Ochs and lived here for a while.
From the very start, Mizpah was a very Classical Reform Congregation - an organ, a paid choir, little Hebrew, and little celebration of holidays. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Feinstein served the congregation from 1932 to 1966 and then was elected Rabbi Emeritus from 1966 to 1985. His period of service is the longest of any rabbi in the Mizpah Congregation's history.
(Mizpah Temple, designed by J.S. Moudy, was dedicated in September 1904. The Reform congregation used the classic style synagogue until 1928, when it moved to a larger building on McCallie Avenue. This building is stillstanding at Oak and Lindsay streets in Chattanooga.)
Mizpah has occupied three sanctuaries: in 1882, the Walnut Street Temple was built and dedicated; in 1904 the second Mizpah temple was built on the corner of Oak and Lindsay Streets; and in 1928 Adolph S. Ochs presented Mizpah Congregation with its third temple, located at 923 McCallie Avenue, in memory of his parents, Julius and Bertha Ochs. The building's design features Colonial and Georgian architecture with Georgian marble leading up to the entry. It was designated as a Tennessee Historical Preservation Site in 1979.
(Our Sanctuary, prior to the groundbreaking of our school building)
In September, 1997, a project three years in the making was completed by the artist Erin Yon, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Harold and Eleanor Schwartz in conjunction with Mrs. Ruth Holmberg’s ongoing commitment to Mizpah (which is in keeping with a long Ochs family tradition). Originally conceived as a memorial to Harry and Ethel Miller and Rebecca and Julius Schwartz, parents of Dr. Harold and Eleanor Schwartz, eight exquisite art glass windows, each depicting one of the Jewish Holidays, were designed and installed in the Sanctuary. The windows became a huge gift to the congregation and to the entire community. Click here to see the windows.
In 1985 the Sisterhood was disbanded; then reorganized into an evening Sisterhood. In the 1990's the daytime Sisterhood was reorganized. Both groups finally disbanded again in 1996 -- the women were needed to run the congregation.
In 1994, Mizpah, B'nai Zion (conservative), and Beth Shalom (orthodox) congregations combined their religious schools. A professional religious educator was hired to run the school using funds provided by the Jewish Federation. However, this system was fraught with many problems, and in 2004, Rabbi Lief insisted on a change in direction and the congregations reclaimed control of the school. A three-year curriculum of God, Torah and Israel was instituted, allowing for intergenerational learning and sharing. These changes have engendered new excitement for religious education in the whole Jewish community.
In 1996, the Leadership Development Committee acted upon an idea to create a multi-purpose outdoor space with the intent to provide a new avenue for congregational involvement. During the next two years, the Outdoor Space Committee organized fundraising and over sixty volunteers to build and plant Mizpah's Garden of Life. It was dedicated in 1999. Also eight huge exquisite Art Glass Windows, each depicting one of the Jewish holidays, were designed and installed in the sanctuary, a gift from the Miller/Schwartz family and from Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg.
At present, Mizpah has a membership of 210 families. We treasure the Classical Reform heritage of our past, while striving to keep our ritual practices and worship relevant for our modern congregants. There is a mix of Hebrew and English in our Friday night and Saturday morning services. Most children have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and then continue on to Confirmation. Many adult education opportunities, as well as Hebrew and B'nai Mitzvah classes are offered every week. We are proud of our historic Sanctuary, and recently completed a massive restoration and refurbishment. Our energetic Officers and Board of Directors lead a congregation involved in preserving Judaism and bettering our lives, our community and the world.
In October 2010, Mizpah's Religious Activities Committee, with donations from several congregant families, coordinated the design and preparation of new Torah covers. These beautiful new Torah covers can be viewed by clicking here.