Touring historic Savannah and finding North America’s oldest Torahs

One of the historic Torahs at Congregation Mickve Israel. MIRIAM PORTER PHOTO

Like our Jewish ancestors roaming the desert so many centuries ago, my son Noah and I trekked through the quaint streets of Savannah, Ga., in scorching summer temperatures, in search of a Torah.

With sweat dripping down our faces and determination in our hearts we soldiered on despite the heat and lack of familiarity in this southern city.

Well maybe it wasn’t exactly the same thing since we did have a map and an address, but if you have ever walked in 40C sunshine with your tween you understand.

Luckily it didn’t take us 40 years to find the Torah, as we had to catch a flight back to Toronto in a few hours. And unlike the Jews in the desert searching for spiritual growth or development, I simply wanted to add a little Jewish flair to our Georgia trip.


We had arrived in Savannah via Atlanta two days prior but only the night before did someone tell us about Congregation Mickve Israel. I had no idea there was such an important synagogue within walking distance of our hotel in the historic district, Hotel Indigo.

Congregation Mickve Israel was founded in 1733 and boasts 280 years of history in Savannah. This Reform synagogue is the only neo-Gothic one in the United States and has a museum, library, shop, and school.

Perhaps most impressive, and why we were wandering with determination through the desert, er, city streets, is because it’s home to the two oldest Torah scrolls in North America. The Torah scrolls date back to the 1400s and you can check them out on a synagogue tour (Monday to Friday excluding holidays).

We walked past an adorable old-style trolley with tourists snapping photos of the picturesque streets. Old Savannah Tours is a popular company with guides dressed in period attire to portray Savannah’s most notable personalities so you can go on a journey through history. They make stops along the way over the cobblestone streets, through iconic squares, parks, fountains, mansions and moss-draped oak trees the Old South is famous for. You can also tour the magnificent riverfront that Noah and I explored the night before. River Street is packed with old world charm and the nine-block area is ideal for an evening stroll to watch the ships sail in and out and pick up souvenirs after dinner. There are also galleries, artists’ studios and a vibrant music scene reflecting the cultural influences here.

The Congregation Mickve Israel synagogue in Savannah, Ga. MIRIAM PORTER PHOTO

Halfway on our journey to find the Torahs, just like out of a movie, we passed by one particularly pretty city square with an artist holding a colourful paint palette in front of her canvas, painting the drooping trees. It’s such a pretty neighbourhood, people literally come here to paint it.

We continued past low-hanging American flags and waved to the new feline friends we made the day before at E Shaver Bookseller. Savannah’s oldest bookstore is home to T.S. Eliot and Bartleby, the literary cats hanging out among fiction and non-fiction books lining the shelves.

These meowing scribes posed for selfies with Noah and I, they must have known we are cat lovers with two of our own back home. The sophisticated cats may even join you for a cup of herbal tea in the adjoining shop, The Tea Room.

Just when we thought we had walked too far because the synagogue blends in with the houses, we arrived at Mickve Israel. Moments later we were on a tour with Joel, a friendly and smiling volunteer guide who was very knowledgeable about the strong Jewish history in Savannah and temple.

E Shaver Bookseller, the oldest bookstore in Savannah, Ga. MIRIAM PORTER PHOTO

Starting in 1840 there was a wave of German-Jewish immigration so by 1874 the small original synagogue could not contain the growing congregation. Thus began plans for a larger building designed by famous New York architect Henry G. Harrison, and is the Victorian-era temple still standing today. By the middle of the 19th century the Reform movement in the United States was starting to grow in popularity.

The services at Mickve Israel, mostly in Hebrew, are fully egalitarian and are a mix between traditional and creative. They attract a crowd ranging from Orthodox backgrounds to Jewish by choice. Members are active in the Savannah community and involved in tikkun olam (repairing the world) though their social action committee and backpack buddies initiative – a wonderful program providing weekend meals to students that need them.

We entered a spiritual realm as we stepped into the gorgeous sanctuary with huge stained glass windows in every colour of the rainbow, flowers, flags, siddurs, and hanging tallit to borrow. The magnificent Ark looks like the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem and exudes a peaceful calm.

Joel lead us upstairs to the museum that is home to letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and 10 other presidents, impressive even for two Canadians. But it was the ancient Torah scrolls that really stood out. Like two awestruck kids looking into a candy store from the outside, we pushed our faces right up against the glass. The oldest of the cherished Torahs dates back to the 15th century and the congregation reads from it annually on July 11 – the day that 42 Jewish colonists arrived in Savannah in 1733 and founded Congregation Mickve Israel.

It’s not often I find a way to incorporate Judaism into my travels with Noah, and as our plane took off for Toronto, I was happy I added a Jewish theme to our southern trip – and even have a “Shalom Y’all” fridge magnet to prove it.