Thoroughly Modern Abby: Savannah’s First Jewish Mother

44127092_132244189224-1In honor of Mickve Israel’s upcoming 281st anniversary, Yo, Yenta! is featuring guest blogger and all-around balabusta Phoebe Kerness.

THOROUGHLY MODERN ABBY: The story of Abigail Minis, founding member of Congregation Mickve Israel, business entrepreneur and independent woman.

Abigail Minis, one of the original Jewish settlers of the colony of Georgia and one of the original members of Congregation Mickve Israel, is considered to be one of the most foremost women in American Jewish History.

On July 11th, 1733, she arrived in Savannah at the age of 32, along with the 40 other original Jewish settlers, on the ship the William and Sarah. She was accompanied by her husband Abraham Minis and her two oldest daughters, Leah and Esther.

Welcoming her in Savannah was a rough and primitive environment lacking access to the necessities of life. She devoted herself to her children. Over a period of 11 years, Abigail gave birth every two years, followed by her youngest child four years later at the age of 47. In total, she gave birth to nine children, five girls and four boys, and raised eight of them to adulthood.

Possessed of a hearty constitution, Abigail survived her pregnancies and births at a time when pregnancy death rates were high. When Abraham died in 1757, she went on to display fortitude of will and wisdom. Upon his death, Abraham stipulated Abigail as the executrix of his estate to insure that she had the wherewithal to support, educate and to bring up their children.

By the time of his death, Abraham had established himself as a successful planter and businessman. Abigail took over his businesses and doubled his fortune. She invested in real estate in and around Savannah. In 1764 she opened the Minis Tavern which was to become a highly successful enterprise.

When the Revolutionary War broke out, she convinced Royal Governor Wright to grant her and the children safe passage and protection in Charleston until the British were defeated. She hired someone to manage her affairs in Savannah in her absence. At the same time, she assisted the Continental army with money, food ammunition and uniforms. When the War ended she returned to Savannah, regained control of all her properties and businesses, again doubling her fortune and continuing to increase her real estate holdings.

Abigail Minis died in October of 1794 at the age of 93. She was survived by her five unmarried daughters and six grandchildren. Her sons had all predeceased her. She was way ahead of her time and would have been hailed as such by the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s. She was a single mother, a well-respected citizen and a shrewd business woman. To have lived to be 93 in the 1700’s was remarkable.

Although documentation is scarce that verifies that Abigail Minis’s family was active in Savannah’s Jewish community, it is reasonable to assume so. The Minis and Sheftall families, the only German Jewish families in the earliest days of the colony, were close in business as well as cultural background. Reverend Bolzius, the Salzburger minister who lived in Ebenezer and who had friendly connections with Savannah’s German Jews, commented on the strict tradition of the two German Jewish families.

Abigail Minis was buried in the Mordecai Sheftall cemetery and her husband and two of their sons were buried in the original Jewish Burial Plot in the area of the present monument at Bull and Oglethorpe Streets. Philip Minis, Abigail’s son, was the first parnas of Mickve Israel after its post-Revolutionary reorganization. Finally the ultimate confirmation: descendants of Abigail and Abraham Minis were connected with the Savannah Jewish community and Mickve Israel for about 260 years.

Mickve Israel’s Museum Committee wants to remind our congregants that, although women have not always held official positions of leadership in American Jewish congregations as they do today, women have always been leaders in our Savannah congregation.

Abigail Minis set very high standards for generations of Mickve Israel women who followed her. She was a true heroine of Congregation Mickve Israel and Savannah, one of the foremost women in the history of American Jewish life, and a thoroughly modern woman.

 

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