By Larry Pearlman, Guest Contributor
In my first blog, I described how synagogues in small town North Carolina are disappearing. That’s not always true. Sometimes, they are repurposed. In the cases of Temple Emanu-El in Weldon, NC and Temple Beth El in Wilson, NC, their synagogues became homes.
If you don’t know where Weldon is, it’s in the northern part of the state, not far off of I-95. The first verified Jewish resident arrived in 1890, although a Revolutionary War veteran by the name of Abraham Moses lived there in 1783. Weldon’s Jewish community was originally split between Roanoke Rapids and Weldon. It was decided that Weldon would be the location of the synagogue for the largely Orthodox Jewish community. Roanoke Rapids would be the home to the cemetery. As the community grew, Emanu-El synagogue and religious school was founded in 1912. It eventually would join the United Synagogue of America.
In 1954, a committee found a home that was up for auction. With $16,000, it was purchased and remodeled into a 52 seat sanctuary. The community grew a bit and the practices shifted away from Conservative Judaism. In 1976, the synagogue joined the Reform movement. Then the inevitable happened. The community shrunk. And shrunk. In 2000, the remaining community members voted to disband the congregation and sell the temple building.
According to A History of Temple Emanu-El: An Extended Family, a book that the Weldon community commissioned Jewish Heritage North Carolina (JHNC) to write, the congregation now continues to live in other places. One Torah scroll and yahrzeit plaques went to Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach. With the assistance of JHNC a second sefer Torah was placed in newly formed Havurat Olam in Concord. It was dedicated at a bar mitzvah with Weldon community members given Torah honors. A Temple Emanu-El Chapel was created at the Beth Sholom Village in Virginia Beach with the windows and artifacts from Weldon. A second set of windows and Judaica adorned a Chapel Emanu-El at the Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill. Weldon Jews have brought their dedication and community spirit to new congregations.
When I visited the building, it appeared that the Church that bought the building in 2000 was now defunct and that it had returned to private ownership as a home. The building had come full circle. Architecturally, the house is unremarkable, except for the stairs and the carved menorah in the stonework.
What is interesting is that rabbi turned comedian Jackie Mason was the Rabbi for this congregation. Jewish Humor Central notes that Mason “led congregations as their rabbi in Weldon, North Carolina, and Beth Israel Congregation in Latrobe, PA. He said that in synagogue, ‘I started telling more and more jokes, and after a while, a lot of gentiles would come to the congregation just to hear the sermons.’ Three years later, after his father died, he resigned from his job as a rabbi in a synagogue to become a comedian because, he says, ‘Somebody in the family had to make a living.’”
Wilson’s Jewish community traces its roots back to 1860 when the Oettinger brothers opened a store. By 1927, 140 Jews lived in the town. In 1953, there was a large enough population to build a synagogue. It had a sisterhood and a religious school. The congregation moved towards the Reform movement and eventually affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Wilson’s path was the same as Weldon’s. Decline and the eventual sale of the temple building. Temple Beth El closed in 1997. Temple Beth Or, my family’s temple in Raleigh, has the congregation’s two Torah scrolls. Proceeds from the building’s sale are administered by the NC Community Foundation and are used to support Barton College.
What I love about the building is that it is nestled in a quiet neighborhood. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d drive right past it. The owners have preserved the temple’s lettering on the very front. The narrow windows on the side appear to be original and the paint and landscaping is inviting and tasteful. I am really glad the owners decided to keep the exterior features of the Temple in an homage to their holy purpose… from a house of all people to a home for a family.