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Virtual Jewish World: West Virginia, United States

West Virginia is a state in the Eastern Central section of the U.S. Coal mining has been the predominant industry, but with automation the number of coal miners has declined and there has been some migration out of the state. The Jewish population has also declined. From a reported high in 1956 of 6,000, the Jewish population fell to 4,755 in 1967, and to approximately 2,310 in 2020. Most of the communities that thrived from the 1890s to the 1970s virtually disappeared by the 21st century.

“From today’s standpoint, it is hard to believe that thousands of Jews lived in the coalfields during that 80-year time span, that Jewish life once flourished there,” historian Deborah Wiener wrote in “Coalfield Jews: An Appalachian History,” published in 2006. “Because of present reality, it is easy to look on their story as an oddity of history.”

Jewish life in the state has been largely a coextension of the religious organization. The first congregation, Leshem Shomayim (now known as Temple Shalom), was formed in Wheeling in 1849, 14 years before West Virginia became a state, and Charleston’s B’nai Israel was formed in 1873.

There were two synagogues in Charlestown, a traditional congregation with an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform Congregation. There was a Conservative Synagogue in Clarksburg and a joint Conservative/Reform Congregation in Huntington. There were Reform Synagogues in Logan, Martinsburg, Parkersburg, Welsch, Wheeling, and Williamson. Congregation B’nai Shalom in Huntington is listed on the U.S. National Register of historic places.

West Virginia’s congregations, their numbers permitting, have always tried to maintain rabbinical leadership on a regular basis. The smaller congregations, unable to do so, have, especially in the southern part of the state, welcomed Reform student rabbis. Over a period of two or three decades more than 60 such rabbis served the smaller communities.

Rabbi Victor Urecki of B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, the state’s largest city, is one of West Virginia’s six full-time rabbis. He laments, “The lack of young people is a problem in every congregation.”

One place where you can find young Jews is at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Rabbi Zalman Gurevitz runs the Morgantown Chabad which serves about 100 to 150 of the Jewish students.

The decline in the Jewish community is exemplified by Martinsburg, which had 60 Jews at its peak in the early 1950s. According to Larry Luxner, “Its synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, opened in 1912 in a former church as an Orthodox shul, became Conservative when it moved downtown in 1952 for the convenience of local merchants, and turned Reform before closing down in the late ‘60s.”

Today, Luxner notes, “Temple Shalom, with 80 member families, is America’s smallest Reform synagogue with a full-time rabbi.” He added, “About 70% of Wheeling’s Jews marry outside the faith. The last Jewish wedding here was 12 years ago.”

In addition to the congregations themselves, there are congregational women’s organizations in most of the communities and congregational men’s organizations in a few. Both the Zionist Organization and Hadassah are represented in five of the communities. The National Council of Jewish Women has a chapter only in Charleston. Fund-raising is conducted by a Federated Jewish Charities organization in Charleston, Huntington, and Bluefield-Princeton; in Wheeling it is conducted under the auspices of a Jewish community council.

In the last few years there has been a considerable influx of Jewish students from the northern cities. Morris Harvey College in Charleston has roughly 300 Jewish students; Marshall University in Huntington, 65; and West Virginia University in Morgantown, 300. The state university has a Hillel Foundation which was directed by Rabbi Herbert J. Wilner, who also served as spiritual leader of Morgantown’s Congregation Tree of Life.

Jews have always taken a vigorous part in public affairs. In 1957–58, Harold L. Frankel served as mayor of Huntington. Serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates (lower division of the state legislature) in the early 1970s were Ivor F. Boiarsky, Simon H. Galperin, Jr., and Leo G. Kopelman. Paul J. Kaufman was a member of the Senate. Fred H. Caplan was a member of the five-man Supreme Court of Appeals. Others serving in the previous decade in the House of Delegates were David A. Abrams, David M. Baker, Stanley E. Deutsch, and Fred H. Caplan. Rabbis, too, have been prominently involved in state affairs. Rabbi Martin Siegel of Wheeling was chairman of the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council; Rabbi Samuel Cooper, from 1932 rabbi of Charleston’s B’nai Jacob Congregation, was chairman of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission. Rabbi Samuel Volkman, rabbi of Charleston’s B’nai Israel Congregation from 1952 and regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1957 to 1959, served as a member of the West Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Jewish resident Benjamin Rosenbloom represented West Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1921-1925. Jewish Lithuanian immigrant Abraham Kaplon was one of the first people to settle in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and he served on the town council for 25 years. The home that Kaplon built still stands to this day.

Each year the descendants of Simon and Ida Meyer, some of the original Jewish residents of West Virginia, sponsor the West Virginia Jewish Reunion in Charlestown. Approximately 40 people attended the reunion in 2013.

“West Virginia,” Luxner notes, “has seen its share of anti-Semitism and bigotry. Its most celebrated politician, the late Sen. Robert Byrd, was a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young adult.”

In 2019, West Virginia correctional academy trainees gave a Nazi salute in a class photo and were subsequently fired. In 2020, state senator Robert Karnes posted on Facebook that Jewish financier George Soros “made his fortune selling Jews to the Nazis.”

Still, according to Luxner, Jewish leaders say they feel comfortable in West Virginia.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved;
A.I. Shinedling, West Virginia Jewry: Origins and History, 18501958, 3 vols. (1963);
Larry Luxner, “For the few Jews in West Virginia, one of America’s most struggling states, the pandemic has offered silver linings,” JTA, (December 23, 2020).