Sunday schools

Jewish communities persist in Charleston, West Virginia – Appalachian Voices

By Caleb Guedes-Reed

When a Jewish congregation in Charleston, West Virginia, put their daily services online at the start of the pandemic, the rabbi was unsure of what to expect. Much to Rabbi Victor Urecki’s surprise, the number of members of the congregation has increased.

“People from Illinois, Texas, California and Florida log on every night to be part of our community,” says Urecki, who has been the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jacob in Charleston for 35 years. . “These are people who have moved and the children of people who have moved but have never found a temple or synagogue where they feel at home. This is their home.

Rabbi Urecki speaks during a weekly Torah study class before the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Congregation B’nai Jacob

For the first time in many years, families are now able to spend important services together, even when they are not in the same place.

“There is a yahrzeit [a Yiddish word meaning ‘anniversary of a death’] coming and now three or four generations of a family can connect from all over the country to be together, ”says Urecki. “This may never have happened before because maybe only one member of the family still lives locally.”

Although Charleston is known for many things, including a history of coal mining, beautiful mountain scenery, and pepperoni rolls, the city’s vibrant Jewish history surprises some.

The B’nai Jacob congregation sits on the corner of tree-lined streets Virginia and Elizabeth, just two blocks from the Kanawha River which divides the city in two. Although they have met there since 1948, the city’s congregation and Jewish community are much older. There are gravestones in the cemetery for Jews with dates dating back to 1806 and the B’nai Jacob congregation was founded in 1894.

B’nai Jacob Cemetery in the South Hills neighborhood of Charleston has been maintained since approximately 1894. Photo by Debbie Hill

“The Jewish community was growing in the early 1900s and continued to grow as more and more people began to immigrate to the United States,” says Urecki, adding, “Many came to West Virginia to support mining activities. coal.

Rabbi Joe Blair serves Temple Israel, a Reform Jewish community in Charleston, West Virginia, and has led the congregation for the past three years. Blair describes the 1930s to 1960s as the heyday of Charleston’s Jewish community.

“Charleston was a great destination for Jews because of the river, transportation, trains, roads, etc. He said. “There was also major mineral activity like iron, copper, salt.” The Schoenbaum family, who founded the Shoney’s restaurant chain in 1947, were members of Temple Israel.

Urecki agrees that the 1960s were the heyday of Charleston’s Jewish population. “We had huge Sunday schools and a dozen basketball teams,” says Urecki. “There was bar mitzvah [Bar mitzvah is a Jewish coming of age ritual for boys, bat mitzvah is the equivalent for girls] every week.

At one time, there were Jewish communities all over West Virginia. “There were thriving communities in Charleston, Huntington, Bluefield, Williamson and others,” says Urecki.

stone building with hebrew lettering

The current Temple Israel home in Charleston, West Virginia, was built in 1960. The congregation began informally in 1856 and was legally incorporated in 1873. Photo by Gregory S. Proctor

However, the city’s population began to decline in the late 1960s, as automation led coal companies to downsize their workforce. The trend has continued in recent years; between 2010 and 2019, Charleston’s population declined 9.4%.

“A lot of people, including Jewish families, have moved,” says Urecki. “The children became educated and instead of working as traders, they became doctors, lawyers or accountants and they started to go elsewhere in the country. This reflected the larger Jewish population in general. “

Charleston had a population of nearly 90,000 in the 1950s. Today there are approximately 48,000 residents.

Urecki and Blair estimate that there are today between 200 and 250 Jewish families living in Charleston. “A lot of people think it must be hard to be Jewish in the Appalachians,” says Urecki. “But that’s not the case, at least not here in Charleston. The Jewish community has a strong presence and we are highly respected. ”

He says there are many interfaith activities, such as interfaith seders and interfaith participation in bar and bat mitzvot. “People ask if they can come to a service; they want to be invited, ”says Urecki. “Every time we have a social activity, we have as many non-Jews as there are Jews.

people gather around a table

A Wednesday night class on the Jewish prayer book meets ahead of the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Congregation B’nai Jacob

One afternoon in March, Urecki was teaching a virtual Torah class that had a total of 14 students, and six of them were not Jews. “What we have is the ability to share our traditions,” he says. The Charleston Library even hosts its annual Temple Israel fundraiser because it’s bigger than the library.

The B’nai Jacob congregation is the only traditional synagogue in West Virginia that maintains daily services in Hebrew, and Urecki says many Christian communities want to see and experience some of the Jewish traditions.

“Because we are such a small community, we stay together,” he says. “There is a connection to each other that you don’t always find in large communities. ”

Even with the slow decline of the population, the Congregation B’nai Jacob and the Temple Israel were able to maintain themselves. “We have enjoyed amazing leadership from well-established rabbis,” says Urecki. B’nai Jacob’s last rabbi served for 49 years. “Both congregations were financially strong and did what was necessary to survive,” he says.

They were even able to avoid merging, as other Jewish communities in West Virginia had to. Even though the population declined, Congregation B’nai Jacob was able to maintain daily services and a Saturday morning service. Temple Israel offers a service on Friday evenings.

The Torah scrolls are kept in the ark of the Temple of Israel. Photo by Gregory S. Proctor

While Urecki is happy with the growth in membership driven by virtual participation, he is uncertain about the future of Charleston’s Jewish community. “There are factors beyond our control,” he says. “West Virginia is not doing the things economically or politically that will bring a new generation to West Virginia, unfortunately.”

Like Urecki, Blair does not see a revival of the Jewish population in Charleston in the near future due to the lack of industry and general economic stagnation. “It’s been like this for a long time,” he said. “The kids go to study and find better opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back. ”

For now, Urecki is enjoying the increase in the number of members of his congregation and the chance for the faithful to reunite with old friends. The congregation now offers blended services with the ability to attend in person and online. Whereas before, Urecki feared that he would not have the 10 Jews required to make a minyan [the quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for certain religious obligations], they now have more than 20 people during daily services.

“Maybe this mixed Zoom service will be the real survival of small communities,” says Urecki. “It’s awesome.”

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