Passing the torch: A Jew in Asheville

Jerry Sternberg


Over time, the area’s Jewish population grew significantly, and so did its level of acceptance by the broader community, both socially and politically.

Much of this can be attributed to a generally more liberal climate, locally and across the country, in terms of things like intermarriage. Of course, the great success of Israel in the fields of science, agriculture, electronics, education and the arts gave the Jewish community a certain amount of gravitas. And in more immediate and tangible matters, Jews were in the leadership of many significant local charitable and service organizations.

In 1989, Asheville native Ken Michalove became the first Jewish person to be elected mayor of our fine city. His cousin Don Michalove was Hendersonville’s mayor from 1981-93. Both did a great job and served with dignity.

During this period, the Ku Klux Klan applied for permits to march and hold rallies in the streets of both cities. Imagine their mortification when, in each case, they had to obtain their permit from a “Jew mayor.” The march was said to have been closely monitored by law enforcement personnel to prevent violence and ensure that no laws were violated, including those governing the carrying of firearms.

One of the Klan leaders supposedly remarked that “All mayors in Western North Carolina are named Michalove, and they’re all Jews — and they’re not coming back.” History, however, has proved him wrong: In the last 35 years, Asheville has had six mayors, and three of them have been Jewish, including our present one.

Time for a change

Another watershed moment in the evolution of Jewish social acceptance came in 1992, when the Biltmore Forest Country Club accepted its first Jewish member. This trailblazing individual was a very successful Asheville businessman, and both he and his wife became the first Jews ever elected to serve on certain civic and bank boards. Here, in his own words, is the story:

“My wife and I came to Asheville in 1961 and were unable to join a country club. The Bath and Tennis Club at Grove Park Inn was our country club! And the Downtown City Club.

“Over the years, we became friendly with many people from Biltmore Forest and BFCC. Some as a result of my wife’s involvement with community projects and my involvement on boards, etc. Quite often we would be invited as guests to dine at BFCC. (Quite a difference from my in-laws’ experience in the early years in not being welcome at BFCC.)

“In about 1992, several of our friends felt that the time was right for Jews to be admitted into BFCC. A group got together and asked me if they could propose me for membership. They cautioned that I could very well be blackballed, but I told them to proceed … that someone needed to be the Jackie Robinson of the club. Our membership was approved and we became the first Jewish members.

“We only heard one negative comment: Someone remarked that the kitchen will need to be changed to a kosher kitchen. Otherwise, smooth sailing, particularly when the old guard died out. A few years later, our daughter was married in the first Jewish wedding at the BFCC.”

Thereafter, several Jewish couples joined the club, and a few years later — wait for it … wait … the Biltmore Forest Country Club elected one of its Jewish members president.

Religion or bigotry?

Yet another point of interest took place in 2000. In a landmark decision, Santa Fe Independent School District v. Jane Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not allow student-led prayer before high school football games, reinforcing the separation of church and state as mandated by the First Amendment. This sparked protests across the South led by Christian evangelicals, and in Asheville, thousands of people packed Reynolds stadium for a “We Still Pray” rally that jammed up the highways for miles around. Many members of the clergy spoke vigorously against this ruling, and since nothing draws politicians like a large het-up crowd, it was hardly surprising to see several local pols join the chorus of naysayers.

Having been a victim of forced evangelism in the public schools, however, I was particularly upset when two Buncombe County commissioners, in their official capacity, spoke out against the ruling. Both men were good friends for whom I had great respect, and to whose political campaigns I had given substantial support. In my view, they had every right to express an opinion as ordinary citizens but not in their role as elected officials.

I called them both the next day and asked if they’d be willing to meet with a few local Jewish leaders so we could explain why their official remarks supporting school-sanctioned religion gave our community such heartburn. At the same time, I made it clear to both sides that there were to be no admonitions or criticisms, just an honest presentation of the issues as we saw and felt them.

The meeting was frank, cordial and respectful. We all came away with a better understanding of a complex ethical question. I think both men were grateful for the experience, and our close friendships endured for many years. I, meanwhile, felt the meeting symbolized the progress the Jewish community had made in gaining the acceptance and respect of Asheville’s mostly non-Jewish institutions and power structures.

Looking to the future

This column concludes my series on having grown up and lived as a Jew in Asheville over many decades. I believe it’s an important story to tell, and there are few left who could tell it.

Today we have three Jewish houses of worship and an outstanding Jewish Community Center, many of whose services are offered to the non-Jewish community as well. At UNC Asheville, we have a special program called the Center for Jewish Studies.

Of course, when I started this series early last year I had no idea that the horrible attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza would take place. Accordingly, I have steered clear of those politically inflammatory subjects because they are not part of what I set out to do, which was to share some stories that would shed light on the history of Jews in this community.

As I have pointed out, Asheville’s Jews have made great strides in gaining acceptance in both the social and political arenas. Yet we now, once again, find ourselves the target of increased antisemitism coming from both the extreme left and extreme right ends of the political spectrum. That only underscores how critically important it is for the local Jewish community to continue its tradition of leadership in supporting local charities and working for the benefit of all area residents. However, we must also actively participate in local and state politics and be prepared to stand up and defend our rights as good and productive members of this great community.

Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at An anthology of his columns is available from Pisgah Legal Services for a donation of $25 or more. To order your copy, visit, or send a check labeled “Jerry’s book” to: PLS, P.O. Box 2276, Asheville, NC 28802. All proceeds support the nonprofit’s work.


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