Monday, June 20, 2016

In West Virginia

West Virginia, which became a state on this day in 1863 after breaking away from the more southernly aligned State of Virginia, is not generally thought of as a state with a wealth of Jewish history. However, there have been Jewish communities in this area since the mid-1840s (Wheeling) and Jewish immigrants are recorded as early as 1770s.

Coal mining was a critical industry for West Virginia, a broad strip of which is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Few Jews worked in the mines, but a fair number of Jews settled in the mining centers, providing retail alternatives to the company store. Jewish communities developed and still exist in quite a few of the state’s small mountain cities such as Beckley, Bluefield and Logan. Many others, however, have disappeared.

In Huntington, which is the second largest city in West Virginia, Congregation B’nai Sholom is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The story of B’nai Sholom is a unique picture of communal unity. Until 1974, Huntington had two synagogues: Ohev Sholom (established in 1887) and B’nai Israel (established in 1910). The first synagogue affiliated itself with the Reform movement, while the other was founded as an Orthodox congregation but later joined the Conservative movement.  By the 1970s, the Jewish population of Huntington could no longer support two synagogues. Already the city’s religious schools had merged. Negotiations began and, by 1974, Ohev Sholom and B’nai Israel became B’nai Sholom. According to the agreement, Friday nights followed the Reform liturgy and Shabbat morning was a Conservative service. While the merged congregation was located at the Ohev Sholom building, the historic windows that had graced B’nai Israel were transferred to the congregation’s new home.

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