In the beginning, Asheville’s Beth Israel Synagogue often found itself without a rabbi.
Although the advent of the railroad in the late 1880s ended Asheville’s isolation and allowed new Jewish families to move into the area (among them merchants like the Lipinksys and the Michaloves), a slow-to-grow congregation left ambitious rabbis inclined to seek more satisfying climes after brief stints in the mountains.
Despite being frequently leaderless, though (lay members were often required to officiate during High Holiday services), the synagogue not only endured, but flourished. Today, Beth Israel boasts a vibrant, well-mixed congregation in which every member enjoys an active role. Since 1987, the synagogue has elected two women presidents.
“We are very diverse,” affirms Dr. Joseph Schandler, a coordinator for the synagogue’s 100-day birthday celebration, which began in mid-February. “We have working people, CEOs, professionals, artists” — and the list continues to grow, he adds.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, the synagogue that eventually became Beth Israel was established as a more conservative branch of the area’s original synagogue, Beth Ha-Tephila. Certain members decided to organize a more orthodox congregation, naming it Bikur Cholim (Visitation of the Sick).
Bikur Cholim operated at the Masonic Temple and at Church Street’s Odd Fellows Hall before building its own house of worship on South Liberty Street. Shortly after the synagogue’s completion, however, it was destroyed by fire, forcing the congegration to start anew. Undeterred, they reopened in the same spot seven years later, remaining there for 45 years. It was during this time that the Ladies’ Auxiliary (now the Beth Israel Sisterhood), was formed; one of its jobs was to make chicken soup for Jewish patients in Asheville’s tuberculosis sanitariums.
In the 1960s, the Asheville Development Commission bought the Bikur Cholim property as part of a series of urban renewal programs; after a massive fund-raising campaign, the Beth Israel synagogue was built on its present Murdock Avenue site. The official dedication by President Benson Slosman and Rabbi Samuel Friedman was held on May 29, 1969.
Nearly 200 families worship at Beth Israel today (up from 70 in 1980, and 100 in 1990). The swelling attendance reflects the overall population increase in Buncombe and Henderson counties, as well as the work of Rabbi Shmuel Birnham, who was instrumental in recruiting Jewish families moving into Western North Carolina.
But the synagogue’s present vitality may be equally attributable its members’ collective strength. Back in the days when little formal leadership existed, “the congegration showed their willingness to help out in times of need,” notes Schandler.
“We still try, even now, to teach people to take over certain parts of the service,” he reveals.