Temple Emanu-El was founded on June 28, 1882 by members of the pioneer Simons, Marx and Hochstadter families along with more recent arrivals from the Schuester, Fox, Wise, Lazarus, Jacobs, Adler and Welman families. The group began meeting on the Masonic Hall in the First National Bank Building on 20th Street and 1st Avenue North. The first president of the organization was Abe Wise. During that first year's holy days Joseph Stolz a student at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College was engaged to lead services at Cumberland Presbyterian Church on 5th Avenue North. Frank P. O'Brien organized a choir made up of singers from a "conglomeration" of religions to accompany the services. Isaac Hochstadter founded a Sunday School in 1883, just as many new Jewish arrivals were moving to Birmingham.
Later that year the congregation purchased a plot of land northwest of the city for use as a cemetery. In 1884 it bought another plot from the Elyton Land Company, facing West Park, at the corner of 17th Street and 5th Avenue North, for a worship hall. Samuel Ullman joined Emanu-El that Spring and immediately applied his skills as a leader. Hochstadter, noting his spiritual gifts, invited Ullman to conduct services as a lay-reader as well. In 1886 he became president of Temple Emanu-El, just as the building committee prepared to contract with Henry Allen to build the temple. The cornerstone of the new building, the first synagogue in Jefferson County, was laid on July 31, 1886.
Construction was interrupted by the need to raise additional funds, partly because the membership of the organization was already outgrowing the planned temple's capacity. The enlarged structure was dedicated on January 24, 1889. A year later the rapidly-growing group faced a split as 30-40 members, led by Joseph Beitman, broke off to found B'nai Israel. The splinter group rejoined Emanu-El in November, after the resignation of Rabbi Maurice Eisenberg.
After a call to a prominent Jewish leader was declined, the congregation made the unprecedented move of asking Ullman, a layman, to become rabbi. His resistance to making the move was overcome by the earnestness of the call and Ullman took the pulpit in 1890. Over the next few years financial setbacks in Birmingham's economy threatened the congregation's mortgage. The leadership of Burghard Steiner as president and of David Marx and Morris Newfield as rabbis helped Emanu-El triumph over the threat and grow to the point that two new wings were added to the synagogue in 1896.
Newfield, a young Hungarian immigrant, was elected to lead the congregation in 1895 and stayed for over 45 years. Over the next 20 years the congregation swelled to over 300 families. $10,000 was spent to enlarge and improve the cemetery with a funeral chapel.
By 1910 the congregation was planning for a move to a larger synagogue and chose a site on Highland Avenue, convenient to the city's newer residential development. A grand, domed sanctuary was designed by architect William Weston for the site at the corner of 21st Street South and Highland Avenue. Construction was completed in 1914 and the building remains in use.
Arriving the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Rabbi Milton Grafman took the reins of Temple Emanu-El and led the congregation for the next 34 years — through World War II, the establishment of Israel, and the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham.
Rabbi Jonathan Miller joined Temple Emanu-El in 1991. Under his quarter century of leadership, the congregation continued to grow in size and activity. In 2002, with leadership and participation from both the congregation and the clergy, Temple Emanu-El completed a $17 million campaign for renovation of its spiritual home on Highland Avenue and to further build its endowment. Part of the expansion included the Abroms Banquet Hall.
Between 2014 and 2020 Temple Emanu-El operated a year-round, full-day Discovery School preschool program. After the program ended, its former space was renovated for use by the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.
- Joseph Stolz (contracted for holiday services), 1882 and 1883
- Samuel Ullman (lay reader), 1884–1886
- Alexander Rosenspitz, September–December 1886
- Maurice Eisenberg, September 1887–November 1890
- Rosenberg (lay reader), November 1890
- Samuel Ullman (lay rabbi), December 1890–1894
- David Marx, September 1894–June 1895
- Morris Newfield, September 1895–1940
- Myron Silverman, 1940–1941
- Milton Grafman, December 1941–1975
- Jonathan Miller, 1991–2017
- Adam M. Wright, 2019–
- Newfield, Morris (November 4, 1911) "The History of the Jews of Birmingham." The Reform Advocate.
- "Emanu-El Closes Discovery School" (May 2020) Southern Jewish Life. Vol. 30, No. 5, p. 6
- Temple Emanu-El website