Jews appeared in early colonial times, but a community did not develop until the late antebellum era, a trend that accelerated after Reconstruction with the rise of an urban and industrial New South. In the later 20th century, as the state transformed from an agrarian, southern society into the prosperous, multicultural Sunbelt, Jewish population grew dramatically.
North Carolina was the site of the first Jewish settler in a British colony in North America when Joachim Ganz, a native of Prague, arrived in 1585, well before the much heralded date of the 1654 settlement in New Amsterdam, on Raleigh's second expedition to Roanoke Island. Ganz, a metallurgist, returned to England two years later. John Locke's Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 opened the Carolinas to "Jews, heathens, and other dissenters," but the colony, beset by sectarian politics, was inhospitable. The 1776 state constitution included a religious test that restricted public office to Protestants. With few navigable rivers, a swampy coast, and a forested terrain, North Carolina lacked commercial opportunities for Jews.
In the early colonial era a few Jewish settlers followed coastal and inland trade routes from Virginia and South Carolina. A 1702 petition protested illegal votes by undesirables, including Jews. Jewish names appear on Masonic rolls and militia rosters. In the Charlotte area were storekeepers and Revolutionary War veterans Abraham Moses, Solomon Simons, and Aaron Cohen. A 1759 document identifies Joseph Laney as a Jew. Newport merchant Aaron Lopez sent 37 ships to North Carolina between 1761 and 1775. Eighteenth-century Sephardic Jews in Wilmington included Rivera, Gomez, David, and Levy. A rabbi, Jacob Abroo, is reported to have died in New Berne in 1790. The Benjamin family, whose son Judah became a U.S. senator and later a Confederate statesman, lived in Wilmington and Fayetteville after 1813.
The most notable family was the Mordecais who settled in Warrenton in 1792, and in 1808 opened the Warrenton Female Seminary, which pioneered the liberal education of women. Jacob Mordecai was a Hebrew scholar who later served as lay leader of Richmond's Beth Shalome. His daughter Rachel, married to the Wilmington merchant Aaron Lazarus, was a literary figure, and his son Alfred graduated from West Point in 1823. Mordecai children, including George Washington Mordecai, a railroad builder who served as president of the Bank of North Carolina, largely assimilated into the Christian community.
In 1808 Jacob Henry of Beaufort was elected to the state legislature, but a year later his constitutional right to serve as a Jew was challenged. After an impassioned speech, Henry was permitted to hold his seat, but the legislature reaffirmed the religious test repeatedly, and it was not removed until 1868. German Jews immigrated after 1835 when the state reformed its constitution and embarked on internal improvements. Jews from Norfolk, Baltimore, Charleston, and Richmond settled in coastal ports and market towns along rivers and rail lines.
Peddlers, like the Bloomingdale brothers, worked the countryside before opening stores. In the 1850s Lazarus Fels operated a peddler's way station in Yanceyville. In 1858 Herman Weil arrived in Goldsboro, later joined by his brothers, and the family over generations organized the state's Jewry. By 1850 Charlotte had nine Jewish families, and Wilmington claimed 26 Jewish merchants. By 1852 Wilmington supported a burial society, and an Orthodox congregation formed in 1867, which was supplanted by a Reform one in 1872.
When Civil War came, the state's Jews were ardent Confederates. More than 70 Jews served in North Carolina regiments, including six Cohen brothers. Civil War Governor Zebulon Vance, grateful to a courtesy from the merchant Samuel Wittkowsky at war's end, penned a celebrated philo-Semitic speech, "The Scattered Nation," which was delivered and reprinted repeatedly across the South.
As the textile, furniture, and tobacco industries expanded in the New South era, Jews found opportunity in emerging mill and market towns. By 1878, 16 North Carolina towns reported Jews, and the population center began moving from the coastal plain to the piedmont. Country peddlers and urban storekeepers served both a black and a white clientele. Rail lines linked merchants to distribution centers in Baltimore and New York. In 1871 the Wallace brothers of Statesville created the country's largest herbarium. Samuel Wittkowsky, as president of the Board of Trade and founder of the South's first savings and loan, underwrote much of Charlotte's development. In 1895, Moses and Ceasar Cone, traveling agents for the family's Baltimore commercial house, built their first textile factory in Greensboro, and, joined by partners Herman and Emmanuel Sternberger, Cone Mills ranked among the world's largest producers of denim, flannel, and corduroy. In the 1880s Tarboro had 11 Jewish stores and supported a congregation, a B'nai B'rith lodge, a YMHA, and a Jewish Literary Society; in 1885 Henry Morris was mayor. The first synagogue, Temple of Israel, was erected in Wilmington in 1875, followed by Oheb Sholom in Goldsboro (1886) and Temple Emanuel in Statesville (1892). All evolved to Reform. By 1900
With an increasing East European immigration, the 820 Jews of 1878 grew to 8,252 by 1927, and congregations increased from one to 22. In the early 1880s J.B. Duke imported more than 100 Jewish immigrants to roll cigarettes in his Durham factory. Jews arrived in family chains, a pioneer drawing relatives and landsleit. Like the Germans before them, they often peddled before opening stores, and they maintained an ethnic economy, mostly in dry goods. The Baltimore Bargain House financed and supplied young immigrants and directed them to towns across the state. In 1929, 53 percent of the state's Jewry was rural. Upward mobility was rapid. Moses Richter of Charlotte earned the title of Peach King for his marketing. William Heilig and Joseph Max Meyers, two Latvian immigrants, expanded their Goldsboro store into the nation's largest furniture chain.
During World War II, Jews headed to North Carolina to serve in military bases and to provide commercial services in camp towns. North Carolina welcomed émigrés from Nazi Europe. The Van Eeden colony, a dairy and agricultural collective on the coastal plain, housed refugee families from the 1930s to 1949. The state's universities offered havens to European scholars. Duke University gave sanctuary to German psychologist Louis Stern , physicist Fritz London , and Polish law professor Raphael Lemkin , author of the Genocide Convention, who coined the very word genocide. In 1981 the state created the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust.
North Carolina's Jews have been notable for their philanthropies and public service. Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro was created by a family endowment, and the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in Greenville was named for a local family. The Blumenthals of Charlotte supported the arts, health care, and Jewish causes including the interfaith retreat, Wildacres, and the Jewish Home for the Aged in Clemmons. In 1954 I.D. Blumenthal created a unique Circuit Riding Rabbi program, with a bus outfitted as a synagogue, to serve rural communities. Leon Levine of Charlotte, who created a national network of Family Dollar Stores, has endowed museums, universities, and Jewish facilities. Prominent Jews include Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro, a suffragette leader, who was a tireless advocate for social and racial justice as well as for Jewish and Zionist causes. In 1918 Lionel Weil organized a statewide campaign for the Jewish War Sufferers Fund, and his North Carolina Plan became a national model. Jews have served in the state legislature. Charlotte's Harry Golden published the North Carolina Israelite, which was outspoken in its advocacy of liberalism and civil rights. In 1955 the North Carolina Association of Rabbis passed a resolution calling for rapid integration of the public schools, a stand that they reiterated a year later when the governor called for voluntary segregation.
Solomon Fishblate was elected to his first term as Wilmington mayor in 1878. Jews have also been elected mayors of Chapel Hill, Durham, Fayetteville, Gastonia, Greensboro, Hendersonville, Holly Ridge, Lumberton, Morganton, Tarboro, and Wilmington. E.J. Evans served six terms as mayor of Durham, 1951–1963. Numerous Jews have served in the state legislature.
The success and social acceptance of Jews contrasts with a latent antisemitism that turned occasionally violent. In 1909 a new immigrant to Charlotte, Max Kahn, was murdered, and in 1925 a salesman, Joseph Needleman, was castrated outside Williamston by a mob after he allegedly affronted a woman. In the civil-rights era bombs were planted at synagogues in Gastonia and Charlotte. Jews were generally not accepted into social elites, and the Pinehurst golfing resort maintained antisemitic housing codes. In 1933 University of North Carolina president Frank Graham forced the resignation of the medical-school dean who refused to end a Jewish quota.
North Carolina's Jews maintained communal ties through a network of B'nai B'rith Lodges, Hadassah, and National Council of Jewish Women chapters. The North Carolina Association of Jewish Women, founded by Sarah Weil in 1921, was a nationally unique organization that united communities across ethnic, denominational, and geographical divides. In the 1950s the Jews of High Point sponsored a statewide debutante cotillion. The mountains were home to Jewish summer camps, most notably Blue Star in Hendersonville. Jewish federations, linked to the United Jewish Communities, formed in the Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Durham-Chapel Hill areas.
The Sunbelt has welcomed the Jewish doctor, scientist, retiree, and entrepreneur just as the New South welcomed Jewish peddlers, merchants, and industrialists. North Carolina benefited from national demographic trends, which saw Jewish population shift southward. Jewish communities in Charlotte, Wilmington, the Research Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill), and the Triad (Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem) on the high-tech interstate corridor grow while small-town, agrarian communities like Tarboro, Weldon, and Wilson wane or expire. Coastal and mountain resort communities have drawn Jewish retirees. With the breakdown of academic barriers, college towns also have grown dramatically. Jewish studies programs flourish at Duke University, which in 1943 had become the first southern university to establish such a program, and at the University of North Carolina campuses in Asheville, Chapel Hill, and Charlotte. Highlighting the professional migration, Gertrude Elion and Martin Rodbell won Nobel Prizes while working at the Research Triangle Park.
With rapid Jewish population growth, the number of havurot and congregations has grown to more than 40 by 2005. Greensboro is the site of the American Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic boarding school with a global outreach. Charlotte supports the Shalom Park campus that includes a day school, federation headquarters, library, community center, and Reform
As of 2017, North Carolina's Jewish population was approximately 35,435 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. E. Bingham, Mordecai: An Early American Family (2003); E. Evans, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South (2005); H. Golden, "The Jewish People of North Carolina," in: North Carolina Historical Review (April, 1955); L. Rogoff, "Synagogue and Jewish Church: A Congregational History of North Carolina," in: Southern Jewish History (1998).