The turbulent ’60s: A Jew in Asheville

Jerry Sternberg


In my last column, I told about my experiences in Israel at the end of the Six-Day War and that, after giving a public talk upon my return, I received numerous invitations to speak at venues such as civic clubs, schools and churches — including a couple of small evangelical churches.

I recognized that many in those audiences, particulary in the outlying counties, had never even seen, much less spoken to a Jewish person before and certainly hadn’t had a chance to interact with one.

I always tried to keep the presentation short enough to allow time for the questions attendees were just itching to ask.

In most of the churches, the first question, which was always the same, had nothing to do with the Six-Day War. It was “What do you Jews believe about Jesus?”

For me, this was always a challenging moment. From early childhood, we Jews were taught to always put our best foot forward in attempting to cultivate relationships with people of other faiths — if for no other reason than that we were few in number and, in our sometimes hostile environment, needed all the friends we could get.

So in these situations my answer was guarded: I had no wish to offend the faithful in the audience. Our religious teachers, I would explain, didn’t have much to say about either Jesus or the New Testament, and I was speaking solely for myself. My best understanding was that Jesus was a practicing Jew who preached service, caring and tolerance to his fellow man. We did not believe that he was the Messiah and a supernatural being.

You can bet that I moved away from this topic as quickly as possible, since the purpose of my presentation was to give an update on the current status of Israel and my firsthand experiences there.

After many such meetings, there would be an informal meet-and-greet. Everyone was quite friendly and complimentary at these gatherings, but many of them expressed sincere concern about my future well-being in the hereafter.

What are friends for?

One of my more memorable presentations gives me the opportunity to mention two outstanding Western North Carolina community leaders whom I was fortunate to call friends.

Paul K. Feree, better known as “P.K.,” opened a factory in Cherokee in order to provide meaningful employment opportunities for the Cherokees in the area, making moccasins and other Native American-themed souvenirs. P.K. was also a dedicated lay leader and supporter of the Montreat Conference Center.

I met him through my business, and we became great friends.

P.K. was very interested in Israel and invited me to come to Murphy to make a presentation to his Kiwanis chapter, which I did.

About six months later, just a few days before Christmas, I received a frantic call from P.K. saying that his scheduled Kiwanis speaker had to cancel and he desperately need a replacement. He heaped praise on my first presentation, saying he just knew the club would love to hear an update on the status of Israel. (Did I mention that P.K. was also an outstanding salesman?)

It was very inconvenient for me to make the trudge to Murphy, but I couldn’t turn down this great and generous man who did so much for his community and who was such a good friend.

When I arrived at the restaurant, however, I immediately noticed a big difference in the audience. On the previous occasion, I’d spoken to a couple of dozen male members in casual dress. This time, the room was packed. The ladies had been invited, and they were sporting their go-to-meeting attire; all the men wore jackets and ties.

For some reason, I hadn’t bothered to ask P.K. who the speaker was that I was replacing, so until he began introducing me, I had no clue that it was no less a personage than the Rev. Calvin Thielman, a revered and nationally recognized religious leader who served our community with dignity and humble care.

As a matter of fact, the reason he couldn’t speak that evening was that President Lyndon Johnson had sent him and other nationally known clergy on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam.

Well of course, I was gobsmacked but somehow managed to get through the speech.

I can’t imagine how disappointed the audience must have felt, having attended this event expecting to hear an inspiring Christmas message from the renowned pastor of the Montreat Presbyterian Church, where Billy and Ruth Graham frequently attended services. Instead, these poor people heard a talk by some Jewish guy who, many undoubtedly felt, had questionable religious beliefs.

Calvin, however, was also a good friend of mine. I’d met him when he was a chaplain at Appalachian Hall in Asheville. We used to see each other at the YMCA health club and had many wonderful discussions. I ran into Calvin shortly before he passed and this story came up. He graciously thanked me for filling in for him, and we had a good laugh about it.

Not welcome here

Meanwhile, despite the new respect that worldwide Jewry received after the war, antisemitism continued to rear its ugly head in Asheville, as demonstrated by two stories that community members shared with me.

Sometime in the late ’60s, the local Jewish community included a tall, very attractive teenager who belonged to a local modeling club. The group had scheduled a fashion show at the Biltmore Forest Country Club, and she was listed as a participant.

Just before they were to leave for the event, the organizer received a call from the country club, which had spotted the young woman’s name on the performance roster, asking if she was Jewish. When the organizer said yes, they said she couldn’t participate because Jewish people weren’t allowed there. As a private club, it was free to decide who could and couldn’t be admitted.

It’s worth noting that her father was a World War II combat veteran who’d flown many missions over Europe. But it didn’t stop there. He owned a small mom and pop grocery store on Valley Street in the Black community and very generously extended credit to people in need, undoubtedly ensuring that children didn’t go hungry. Nonetheless, it was firebombed and had the windows broken several times. Several other Jewish businesses were also attacked, and one manufacturing company was burned to the ground. Antisemitism was not confined to white extremists.

Also in the late ’60s, Asheville High School (then known as Lee H. Edwards High School) held its prom at the Biltmore Forest Country Club. One of the graduates was a young Jewish girl whose mother and father had escaped the Holocaust in 1939 and settled in Asheville. Needless to say, she was very excited about attending the prom in her beautiful dress, arm in arm with her tuxedo-clad date.

But when they checked in at the front desk and gave her name, the receptionist asked if she was Jewish, and when she said she was, they insisted that the couple leave.

Yes, folks, this stuff really happened, and there is more to come. Stay tuned.

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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One thought on “The turbulent ’60s: A Jew in Asheville

  1. Nostupid people

    Hm, if I claim to follow GOD and his law, why spread rhetoric of hate? Yes the past history has had hate in many forms. Why compress people with the world’s mistakes? As GOD would have you to forgive and love, move forward individually and focus on A positive change , by not speaking but showing with your actions. Don’t get caught up within self and your opinions, it can be a very depressing place sometimes! Don’t Forget, you’re not God don’t try to change the world change your environment within, something we have control of. Share compassion and love with your actions not with your mouth!

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