How could Jews in North Carolina observe the High Holidays before there were congregations here?
North Carolina did not have a synagogue until 1876, but we know that Jews have been here since 1585. Wilmington hosted a small community in the late 1700s, and by antebellum days Jews could be found in budding mill and market towns. How did Jews observe the High Holidays without rabbis or ten Jews for a minyan?
One answer was to head to the nearest synagogue, often out of state. In 1792 Jacob and Judith Mordecai settled in Warrenton, south of the Virginia state line. They traveled to Richmond, worshipping at Beth Shalome, where he was a prayer leader. Their daughter Rachel and son-in-law Aaron Lazarus, who had settled in Wilmington in 1795, joined the local James Episcopal Church but also held membership at K.K. Beth Elohim in his native Charleston. Joining them in the Charleston temple were Wilmington Jews, Judah Mears Levy and Abraham Isaacs.
Commonly, Jewish peddlers and storekeepers had family, commercial, and religious ties to Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Richmond, or New York, places where they stocked their stores or wagons and visited their kinfolk. These buying trips were often timed for the High Holidays when they could also attend services and join family. Thus, Jewish merchants in the newspapers, even in towns without congregations, would advertise that they were closed for religious holidays. Presumably, they had taken a steamer or train to Baltimore or Philadelphia for the holiday.
Another common practice was to hold home ceremonials. In 1821 for Yom Kippur Rachel Lazarus wrote that they fasted and gathered at home for services. Without rabbis, women led the services. The custom of observing the holidays with parlor readings was common. In Raleigh tailor Michael Grausman, who had rabbinical training, kept a Torah and a room dedicated as a shul in his home, where he led services. In his diary, dating from 1886, Abe Oettinger of Kinston records fasting with his wife on Yom Kippur, closing his store, and keeping his children home from school. Rather than attend the Goldsboro synagogue, they gathered in the parlor for Bible readings. More commonly, Jews from outlier communities would drive their wagons to the nearest community with a congregation. Asheville was a magnet for mountain communities, while Durham, Raleigh, and Greensboro drew Jews from small towns across the Piedmont. In the early 1900s Jews from Monroe and Carthage joined for the holidays although neither town would ever have a congregation.