By Larry Pearlman, Guest Contributor
In many small-towns, synagogues are disappearing. Their communities are shrinking as Jews continue to move to the larger cities and head towards warmer climates. This exodus is placing historic places of worship in jeopardy; they are being sold or torn down. As an amateur photographer, I have been fascinated with finding and photographing small-town synagogues and temples. Because I travel for work, I typically bring a camera with me. I’ve photographed small town temples from Corsicana, Texas, to Lethbridge, Alberta.
As I’ve seen more of our houses of worship close, I felt obligated to photograph them as I come across them. When I moved to North Carolina in December of 2019, I had this idea of photographing every existing Jewish house of worship in the state, both current and former. Thus, I began my journey.
While wandering around Rocky Mount, I assumed that the town just had to have a temple. A quick Google search found Temple Beth El, and I began to photograph the building. A bit more research, and I found that the Institute of Southern Jewish Life has documented much of the South’s Jewish history. Later I was introduced to Jewish Heritage North Carolina and its historian Leonard Rogoff. From these sources I learned that the Rocky Mount community, like most in our area, had had a Jewish peddler working the area in the 1850s, and in 1878 seven Jews were listed in town. The community grew with the East European immigration. In 1949, they dedicated their building. The Torah came from nearby Tarboro.
The building’s architecture follows the pattern of the era. It’s a brick building. The structure is low lying, resembling Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style. Arches in the windows and some simple stained glass identify the Temple as a religious building. Fascinating to me were the massive wooden doors with a Mogen David (Star of David) carved in them.
Beth El never really grew beyond fifty families and then hit the decline of small-town Judaism as local industries declined. Their last service was for the high holidays in 2016.
It’s said in Judaism that we are all connected, and Rocky Mount proved that so. After doing some more research, I found that the Aron Kodesh was donated to an Orthodox synagogue in Skokie, IL. My wife, Lisa, grew up in Skokie. My heart was warmed knowing that a part of small-town North Carolina Judaism will be preserved! Expanding my research into the genealogical database of 23 and Me, I found that I have a relative buried at the congregation’s cemetery.
This is the first of several blogs about my photographic journey through North Carolina’s Jewish History.