Area’s Only Jewish Synagogue Shuts Down Due to Lack of Worshipers | News
BLUEFIELD – An era of worship in Mercer County came to an end with the closure of the Ahavath Sholom Synagogue in Bluefield.
The synagogue recently closed after serving predominantly Jewish families in Bluefield and Princeton since 1949, when the new church opened on Albemarle Street, leaving its previous location on Scott Street.
“We just don’t have enough people to support him,” said Doris Sue Kantor of Bluefield, a life member of the Ahavath Sholom congregation, and who, like many Jewish residents in the area, raised her family in the synagogue.
Kantor said that while the general population is declining in this region as a result of the downturn in the coal industry, the Jewish population is also declining, following opportunities elsewhere.
âUltimately the population has shrunk and we just don’t have enough Jews to maintain a rabbi and a synagogue,â she said. âMany are retiring and leaving the region. Lots of people have already moved.
As the number of people attending services dwindled and former Rabbi Stanley Funston retired, student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati had come to hold services on Friday nights and often discussions on Saturday mornings.
But the number of people in attendance dwindled to the point where it was not possible to have a visiting rabbi, Kantor said, and the church had no choice but to close its doors.
âIt’s sad. Norris (Kantor) and I got married here. All my kids went to Sunday school here. Mark (son) was Bar Mitzvahed here. There are many wonderful memories.
The synagogue flourished for decades, she said, with many Jewish residents who grew up in the church and a large congregation flourished.
Large doors separate the sanctuary from an auditorium, which includes a stage.
âIt was full,â she said, âand if you didn’t get there early enough, you had to sit on the stage.â
But big crowds require a big local population, and that’s no longer the case.
During the pandemic, the small congregation used the Zoom virtual platform for Charleston services, and the closest synagogues to attend now are in Blacksburg and Roanoke, she said.
After the synagogue closed, some of the items used for services have already been sent to other synagogues, including the Torah mantles, which are cloth coverings that not only decorate but also protect the Torah scrolls. .
The scrolls are the first five books of the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – all written by Moses and all in Hebrew.
A hallway wall display with plaques of deceased synagogue members has also been removed.
Kantor said this relates to Yahrzeit, the Yiddish word for “birthday,” and it refers specifically to the day a member of the congregation died. On this day, the person is recognized during the service and each exposed wound has a light next to it that is lit on the Yahrzeit of the member’s death.
âYou tell the services their names that day so you never forget,â she said.
All plates were individually removed and returned to family members.
Various plaques were also on the walls to honor members for their contributions to the synagogue and these were also given to families, if possible.
âWe’ve done everything we can to get them back into the family,â Kantor said of all the plaques.
The sanctuary also has two very large and beautiful stained glass windows.
âThey will stay hereâ¦ we hope so,â she said.
Although the synagogue may have closed its doors, the legacy of those who were in congregations over the years is long and distinguished.
The story actually began around 120 years ago, when many people came to this region in search of opportunities associated with the growing coal industry.
Kantor, whose father was the late Mercer County Circuit Court judge Jerome Katz (who also founded the Katz Kantor Stonestreet & Buckner law firm in Bluefield), said his grandfather came here after other parents moved to Bluefield to start businesses.
âWhen I was little there were five or six stores for men, stores for women, a hat store, jewelry storesâ¦ A lot of them belonged to Jewish residents,â she said. âWe had all these Jewish merchants. The charcoal burners lived here and this is where people came to shop.
In Julian H. Preisler’s book, Jewish West Virginia, he says that Jews settled in Biuefield in the early 1900s with the first synagogue, Ahavath Sholom, formed in 1902.
The first permanent synagogue was the Old Presytherian Church on Scott Street, which was consecrated in 1907, with the New Synagogue on Ablemarle Street consecrated in 1949.
Preisler writes that active community groups included the temple fellowship and youth group, B’nai B’rith Lodge, United Jewish Charities of Bluefield-Princeton, and Hadassah. A section of Jewish cemetery exists at Monte Vista Park Cemetery.
Most Jews were involved in the retail business, with some of the early businesses owned by Isadore Cohen, Nathan Platnick, Henry Rodgin, Morris Rosenberg, and Samuel Turk.
Much of the Jewish population was also doctors and lawyers, Preisler said in his book.
The Colonial Theater on Princeton Avenue was built by Samuel Matz in 1916, and it was adjacent to the Matz Hotel. Both structures were demolished in 2009 after the partial collapse of Matz.
Kammer Furniture on Bland Street, established in 1932 by Harry Kammer, is still in business.
Preisler said Princeton also had Jewish families and an informal Jewish congregation. The businesses included those of the Barbakow, Baum, Lisagore, Nelson and Tomchin families.
Sandra Deitz of Princeton said that her stepfather, Henry Deitz, and her brothers formed the Deitz Brothers general store in Princeton, which operated from 1918 to 1993,
The Deitz brothers, along with Joe Tomchin, immigrated here from Russia.
Tomchin Furniture, founded by Joe Tomchin, has been a mainstay of Mercer Street in Princeton for decades.
In the 1950s, the Jewish populations of Princeton and Bluefield merged into one community.
A Jewish community also lived in Pocahontas and a synagogue was used there for some time before the congregation moved to Bluefield. Other small synagogues in McDowell County were formed when the county’s population, which had reached nearly 100,000 at one point, thrived on coal jobs.
But that scenario has changed, with McDowell County’s population falling to less than 20,000 and Mercer County’s to about 58,000, from its peak of around 75,000 in 1950.
Kantor said she knew many churches were struggling to maintain a congregation, but not necessarily because of the loss of population.
âPeople are here, they just don’t come anymore,â she said. “We don’t have the people.”
– Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]
Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]