Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Charlotte, North Carolina
Charlotte, North Carolina is a major financial hub with a population of over 600,000 residents and is routinely rated one of the most attractive places to live or start a business. Though situated firmly in the Bible Belt, Charlotte has long had a Jewish population that has helped make it the city it is today. Charlotte’s Jewish community was somewhat of a late bloomer; its early Jewish residents seemed to have little interest in fostering Jewish religious life in the city. But in recent decades, Charlotte has emerged as a strong, growing Jewish community with many religious and cultural institutions concentrated in its innovative Shalom Park.
Charlotte’s first settlers were Catawba Indians. The earliest English-descended pioneers to inhabit these lands were Thomas Spratt and Thomas Polk, uncle to future president James K. Polk. The town of Charlotte was incorporated in 1768 in Mecklenburg County, both named after then Queen of England Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The region was quickly settled by English, Scottish, German, French and Swiss immigrants. Charlotte was a major hub of Patriotic activity during the American Revolution. In 1775, the citizens of the county signed the Mecklenburg County Declaration of Independence and later the Mecklenburg Resolves asserting their independence from Great Britain. Though a haven for both British and American troops, Charlotte was decried by English General Charles Cornwallis as a “hornet’s nest” for its fervent dedication to independence.
It was around this time that the first Jews arrived in Charlotte. Abraham Moses and Solomon Simons, cousins born in Surinam, both enlisted in the American war effort during the revolution, and are recorded as US citizens in the first census of 1790. When Moses died in 1821, he left money to the Jewish congregation Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina as well as the Baptist and Methodist Churches in Charlotte. Joseph Nathan volunteered in Washington’s Army in North Carolina. Other Jews served in the Revolutionary Army, such as Aaron Cohen and Sigmund Freudenthal, who fought in Brevard’s Company of the North Carolina Battalion. After the Revolutionary War, these Jews settled in Charlotte and operated stores in the city, though they did not create any kind of formal Jewish community. Most of these early Charlotte Jews were buried in the Presbyterian cemetery because they did not yet have a Jewish burial ground.
Following independence, Charlotte became an important commercial center of North Carolina, though the Jewish presence was limited. It was estimated by Charlotte resident Isaac Harby that the Jewish population of all North Carolina in was 400 people in 1826. Nevertheless, the formative decades of Charlotte’s history laid the foundation that would attract Jews later on. Like much of North Carolina, Charlotte’s commercial activity was heavily focused on agriculture and slavery, introduced to Mecklenburg County in 1764. In addition to plantation production, gold mining was a major source of wealth. In 1799, Conrad Reed discovered a gold nugget in a nearby stream, which resulted in the nation’s first gold rush. Charlotte quickly became the US’s largest center of gold production, leading to the establishment of the Charlotte Mint in 1837. The Gold Mines additionally brought in new immigrants to the city, including Germans, Poles, Italians and Welsh. Then, in 1854, construction of a railroad through Charlotte further established the city’s eminence in southern commerce. By the mid 19th century, the burgeoning market complexity of the city as well as the relatively high degree of civil freedoms offered in the U.S. beckoned European Jews to Charlotte.
According to local historian Morris Speizman, “the first quantitative impact upon Charlotte by people of the Jewish faith dates from the middle of the 19th century.” The 1850 census of Mecklenburg County includes the names of nine Jewish families. In the years between their arrival and the Civil War, these Charlotte Jews were involved in trades such as dry goods, tannery, groceries, furniture, and clothing. The most successful Jewish merchants were Jacob Rintels and Samuel Wittkowsky, co-owners of a large dry goods store. The two partners brought down a few Jewish teenagers from New York to help operate their business. Arriving in 1859 was Isaac Wallace and his family. The Wallaces later operated a dry goods business and eventually gained the friendship of future North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance. Wittkowsky and Vance were co-founders of the local Masonic Lodge. Wittkowsky was the first master of the lodge, which had several Jewish members. After the Civil War, Wittkowsky became the first elected president of the local Chamber of Commerce and served on the Charlotte Board of Aldermen. By 1860, over 50 Jews lived in Charlotte.
As evidenced by Wittkowsky, Charlotte’s Jews integrated into the cultural fabric of the city. This is further shown by the very high enlistment of Jews in the Confederate military. Of the nine Jewish families settled in Charlotte, eleven young men fought for the Confederacy. Among these were First Lieutenant E.B. Cohen, Captain J. Roessler, and Private Louis Leon. Leon kept a diary during his service in which he mentions Robert E. Lee’s granting passes to Jewish soldiers to attend religious services during the High Holidays. Leon also wrote about the arduous wartime realities faced by Confederate troops, including starvation rations and arduous weather. As seen throughout the South, Jews proved loyal Confederate citizens. The Jewish women of Charlotte raised $150 for grey-coat volunteers and in 1865 a Jewish grocer provided a haven for Mrs. Jefferson Davis following the collapse of the Confederacy.
Following the war, an influx of German Jews arrived in Charlotte, which led to the creation of the first Jewish institutions in the city, although not a congregation. In 1872, the newly formed Hebrew Benevolent Society received a charter from the state of North Carolina for a Jewish cemetery. A few years later, Charlotte Jews established B’nai B’rith Lodge No. 280. David Goldberg, H. Baumgarten, L. Hirshinger, and Civil War Veteran Louis Leon were among the community leaders who headed these new Jewish organizations. Yet these German Jews did not establish a congregation. According to Charlotte businessman Michael Kirschbaum, writing to the Baron DeHirsch Fund in 1906, “the wealthy Jews (who are Germans) have plainly shown that they do not care” about having a congregation and were unwilling to support a Jewish relief society. Charlotte is unique in this regard; smaller Jewish communities across the South founded congregations in the late 19th century, yet for some reason, Charlotte Jews seemed uninterested in establishing such institutions.
It was also during the late 19th century that future prominent Jewish families became rooted in Charlotte, such as the merchant Schiff family and the Heinemans. Dannie Heineman was born in Charlotte in 1872 and later became a very successful financier in New York and important philanthropist in Charlotte, creating the Heineman Medical Research Foundation. Jay Hirschinger, who owned a pants manufacturing company, became a strong advocate of education, serving on the Charlotte school board and winning a grant from Andrew Carnegie’s foundation to build the city’s first public library in 1891. By the turn of the century, it was evident that Jews were a significant element of the Charlotte community.
The industrialization of Charlotte, started during the Civil War, accelerated in the late 19th century. Cotton mills sprouted around the city and by 1903, almost half of textile production in the United States took place within a hundred-mile radius of Charlotte. The introduction of large banks and department stores resulted in a city that was the epitome of New South capitalist growth. This prompted a new wave of Eastern European Jews to settle in the city in the first two decades of the 20th century.
By 1895, enough Eastern European Jews had settled in the city to form Shaarey Israel (Gates of Israel), Charlotte’s first Jewish congregation. Many in the new wave of Jewish immigration had similar occupations as the German-descended Jews. For example, Sam White operated a furniture store while the Rosenbaum family and David Levy ran clothing stores. Shaaray Israel, an Orthodox congregation, initially met in the Chamber of Commerce building on East Trade Street. The group received substantial outside assistance, including $1500 dollars from Adolfo Stahl, a Brazilian philanthropist. The Orthodox congregation became known as Hebrew United Brotherhood and built a synagogue on West 7th Street in 1916, receiving donations from Jewish philanthropists like Jacob Schiff and Julius Rosenwald. The congregation had 25 member families at the time. Later, the group changed its name to Temple Israel.
World War I proved a crucial development for the Jewish community in Charlotte. With the establishment of the army base Camp Greene in the city, the Jewish population further increased. Several Jewish soldiers stationed there ended up staying in Charlotte. By 1920, the Jewish population in Charlotte had reached 350 inhabitants.
Beginning in the 1920s, Charlotte’s Jews achieved tremendous influence in the economic and cultural life of the city. In addition to the many small retail stores owned by Jews, several located at the intersection of Trade and Tyron Streets, larger Jewish-owned businesses began to emerge. Nathan D. Levy founded the Burt Shoe Company while Morris Speizman began Speizman Industries in 1936 selling industrial machinery and equipment. I.D. Blumenthal came to Charlotte from Savannah, Georgia in 1924 and built his Radiator Specialty Company. Blumenthal became an important leader of the North Carolina Jewish community, creating a circuit riding rabbi program that served small Jewish communities throughout the Carolinas and building the B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Temple Israel on Dilworth Road
Amidst this growth of Jewish activity, the religious life of the community was also in flux. The city’s lone congregation, Temple Israel, faced financial troubles during the Great Depression and had to sell its building. However, World War II and a modest rush of Jews afterwards was a catalyst in revamping Jewish religious life in Charlotte. In 1942, Charlotte Jews established the city’s first Reform congregation and purchased property at 1427 Providence Road, the future site of Temple Beth El. Five years later, the reform synagogue was officially incorporated with President George Siebert and Rabbi Phillip Frankel. On January 9th, 1949, Temple Israel laid the cornerstone for a new synagogue on Dilworth Road. Now a conservative congregation, Temple Israel was led by Rabbi Charles Arick and President A. Samuel Gittlin.
Both congregations grew quickly during the post-war years, as Charlotte’s Jewish community expanded from 720 people in 1937 to 2,000 by 1960, and 4,000 by 1984. In 1976, Temple Israel had slightly over 400 families while Temple Beth El boasted 250 families. Such an increase was not without its growing pains, as a group of Temple Beth El members left to form a new Reform congregation, Temple Beth Shalom, in 1970. This split was due to conflicting views over the rabbi and the curriculum of the religious school; in addition, Beth Shalom’s founders craved a smaller, more intimate congregation that had been lost in Beth El’s rapid growth. Temple Beth Shalom, which met at the Myers Park Baptist Church, affiliated with the Reform movement, joining the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. By the mid-1970s, Charlotte’s three synagogues ensured that a variety of religious offerings were available to local Jews.
While Charlotte Jews sometimes experienced prejudice, facing exclusion from elite clubs and neighborhoods, the Jewish response to the Civil Rights Movement reveals the insecure position of Jews in Charlotte. In the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League lent support to the plaintiff’s case to end segregation in public schools. Fearing Jewish association with a Civil Rights Movement that was quite unpopular among southern whites, several prominent Charlotte Jews urged the Anti-Defamation League to repeal its amicus curiae brief. “The southern Jewish point of view,” as Morris Speizman put it, was that “Jewish intervention in the Supreme Court deliberations would inevitably turn the attention of the opponents of desegregation into a storm of hatred for their Jewish neighbors who had betrayed the cause of white purity.”
While most Charlotte Jews kept silent during the struggle over civil rights, this was not the case with Harry Golden. Born in the Ukraine, Golden grew up in New York City, before moving to Charlotte in 1941, where he worked as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer. In 1942, he started the Carolina Israelite newspaper, which became a platform for his political satire and criticism of racial segregation. In response to lunch counter sit-ins, Golden satirically advocated the “the vertical Negro plan.” Golden noted that whites seemed to have no problem standing next to African-Americans, so he called for the removal of all seats in restaurants. Golden, a larger-than-life character, was a prodigious writer with a syndicated column that ran in 200 newspapers as well as a number of books, including the 1958 best-seller Only in America.
During the second half of the 20th century, Charlotte continued to attract Jewish immigrants. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Enrique Baicovitz, his brother Solomon and their business partner Herman Levine fled from Havana to Charlotte. While they had to leave a successful commercial operation in Cuba, they were aided by Morris Speizman, who helped them establish the Gold Seal Hosiery Mills. Other Cuban Jewish refugees arrived in this time, including the Kaplan and Wojnowich families, who jointly ran a very successful textile business. The Cuban arrivals have also been active in the Temple Israel congregation. Beginning in 1974, Soviet Jews began to immigrate to Charlotte. The effort was largely due to the philanthropic work of Walter Klein, the former president of Beth Shalom. Through B’nai B’rith, Klein was able to raise $10,000 to assist the settlement of several Soviet families. However, only three ended up staying in Charlotte.
Over the last several decades, the Jewish population of Charlotte has exploded as the city emerged as a banking and corporate center of the sunbelt South. In 1980, 3,300 Jews lived in Charlotte; by 1997, 8,500 did. Today, it is the largest Jewish community in the Carolinas. This growth, along with the assiduous efforts of local Jews, has led to the creation of a vibrant Jewish life in Charlotte. In 1974, the old Jewish country club built after World War II was converted into a Jewish Community Center. Around the same time, Temple Beth El had acquired additional property around its building. The accumulation of new land and resources invigorated a sense that Jews of different affiliations should begin to work together and build a united Jewish community in Charlotte. In 1987, Beth Shalom merged with Beth El, unifying the city’s Reform Jews. The previous year, Charlotte Jews had dedicated Shalom Park, the center of Jewish life in Charlotte. Opening in 1986 at a cost of $6 million, Shalom Park is the location of two of the city’s synagogues, Beth El and Temple Israel, the Jewish Community Center, Camp Mindy for children, the Charlotte Jewish Day School, and the Charlotte Jewish Federation.
Leon & Sandra Levine
An important funder of Charlotte’s growing Jewish institutions has been Leon Levine, who opened his Family Dollar Store in Charlotte in 1959, when he was only 21 years old. From this modest beginning, the Family Dollar Store grew to become a large chain with over 6500 locations across the country. Leon and his wife Sandra have become important philanthropists in Charlotte, funding the Levine Museum of the New South, the Levine Children’s Hospital, and a science research center at Duke University. They have also supported the Charlotte Jewish community, by helping to fund the Charlotte Jewish Community Center and Shalom Park.
While Shalom Park symbolizes the concentration of Charlotte Jews, the community has also seen expansion into the ever-growing suburbs outside of Charlotte. Many of these newcomers are northern transplants drawn by Charlotte’s economic opportunity. In recent years, three new congregations have sprouted in the Lake Norman and Concord areas north of Charlotte. Beth Shalom, an affiliate of Charlotte’s conservative congregation Temple Israel, meets at an Episcopal Church in Davidson. In 2006, a group of its members split off to form the Reform Lake Norman Jewish Congregation. While the growing congregation does not yet have a synagogue, they hired Rabbi Michael Shields as their full-time spiritual leader in 2008. In Concord, Jews organized Temple Or Olam in 2003. All three of these suburban congregations are growing fast, and pointing toward a future Jewish community that is no longer centered exclusively in Shalom Park.
Essential Source: Morris Spiezman, The Jews of Charlotte: A Chronicle with Commentary and Conjectures, (Charlotte: McNally and Loftin, 1978).