“From Manteo to Murphy” is a phrase that North Carolinians employ when they speak of the breadth of our state from coast to mountains. For Jews, “from Kitty Hawk to Franklin” might be more appropriate. As you unpack your bags at the beach house or country cabin this Memorial Day Weekend, you’ll find a congregation nearby. The Mountain Synagogue of Franklin is celebrating its 40th anniversary while the Jewish Community of the Outer Banks at Kitty Hawk is now observing its good-luck chai (18th) year. Beyond social gatherings, a place to be among other Jews, these congregations offer holiday services and monthly or semi-monthly Shabbat worship.
How is it that these communities have sustained themselves in places seemingly lacking Jews and Jewish resources? After all, so many rural small-town congregations—Weldon, Wilson, Jacksonville, Lumberton, Whiteville—have closed their doors as members aged and youth departed. To sustain a congregation requires a critical mass of local Jews.
Well, for one thing, southern resort towns are beneficiaries of changing national Jewish demographics. The Sunbelt South is gaining Jewish population at the expense of the Northeast and Midwest. For another, the Jewish population is aging, and retirees are settling in places where they can enjoy the pleasures of coastal breezes and mountain views. Rather than snowbirds, North Carolina is drawing halfbacks – Jews who winter in sunny Florida and spend their springs and summers in the cool mountains or balmy coast. Some congregations, like Franklin, meet seasonally as summer sojourners supplement all-year residents.
When the Jews in High Country held parlor meetings to plan their new synagogue they gathered both in Boone and Boca Raton. The Temple of the High Country now meets at the Schaefer Jewish Community Center in downtown Boone.
Jewish congregations tend to form, as one historian put it, by “spontaneous combustion.” Often a chance meeting of Jews will spark an initiative to create potluck Shabbats, holiday gatherings, or social circles. From these seeds grow congregations. Boone is representative. Since the 1970s the community had an unaffiliated congregation, followed by a havurah and a cultural group. In Brevard Norman and Shelley Bossert put an ad in a local newspaper asking “Are you Jewish” with an invitation to a Shabbat dinner and Torah study. That match lit the flame for the Brevard Jewish Community. Like many such groups, Brevard Jews first found sanctuary at a local church, which is why they sometimes refer to themselves as the Sacred Heart Synagogue.
Meanwhile, established small-town congregations on the coast and mountains which may have faced closure have been revived with the arrival of retirees. The Hendersonville area was once known as the “Southern Catskills.” It supported Jewish resorts, boarding houses, and summer camps. In 2002 Hendersonville’s Agudas Israel left its small downtown shul, dating to 1922, for a new suburban facility. In the foothill’s Hickory’s Temple Beth Shalom supports itself with a core of some 40 families. New Bern’s historic B’nai Sholem, dating to 1908, drew new members, many of whom were windjammers who docked their sailboats in nearby Oriental.
Asheville and Wilmington, like many larger southern communities, have both a liberal Temple and a traditional shul dating to the nineteenth century. More recently, Chabad has established centers in both Asheville and Wilmington. Wilmington’s Temple of Israel, the state’s oldest congregation, still meets in its 1876 sanctuary, while B’nai Israel is installing a new rabbi. Asheville’s Beth HaTephila has recently expanded while Beth Israel has also welcomed a new rabbi. Asheville, true to the town’s liberal, eclectic character, supports a Jewish Secular Community. The beach community of St. James features its own havurah.
No longer do Jews need to take a vacation from Judaism. Safe travels!