Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Lumberton, North Carolina
Sitting on the border between North and South Carolina, Robeson County was founded in 1787 by residents and Revolutionary war heroes General John Willis and Colonel Thomas Robeson, for whom the county was named. A few small towns already existed in the area, including one at the site of Lumberton, the future county seat. A large number of Native Americans, primarily belonging to the Tuscarora and Lumbee tribes, also inhabited the region. Today, the county’s population of 123,339 is evenly split between whites, African Americans, and Native Americans. Lumberton, the county seat, is located near the Lumber River, and was the location of the only Jewish synagogue in the county.
The first Jews on record in Robeson County are the Fine family, headed by Moses Fine. He and his wife Sarah immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1883. According to the 1900 United States Census, they lived in Maxton with five children who were all born in North Carolina. The children’s birthplace suggests that the family moved into the area in the early 1890s. Moses Fine worked as a merchant, and, in 1900, the family rented their home. The business was apparently successful since by 1910 the family owned their own home outright.
After the Fines, more Jewish families moved into the county. Most were first generation immigrants from Russia, Lithuania (specifically the Kovno region), and Poland, and included the Weinstein, Shocket, and Gordin families. One of the earliest settlers, Myrtill Mayer, emigrated from Germany. A small number of American-born Jews moved to the area in the 1920s. Harry Levinson, originally from Manning, South Carolina, moved his family to Fairmont, North Carolina and opened Levinson’s Department store. His son, David, later took over the store and raised his own family in Fairmont.
Most of the early Jewish residents of Robeson County worked as merchants or peddlers, and came to Robeson by way of Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, Baltimore merchants were trying to expand their markets, and paid the way for Russian Jewish immigrants to work as peddlers in rural and small town North Carolina. The most famous of these suppliers was Jacob Epstein, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who founded the Baltimore Bargain House when he was 17 years old. It is impossible to tell which Jews moved into Robeson County on their own accord, and who worked for Jacob Epstein and his colleagues. However, there is a very good chance that Milton Klavons, Abram Brooks, and Jacob Cohen, all young, single men who worked as either peddlers or merchants on their “own account,” often boarding with other families, worked for the Baltimore entrepreneurs. None of these men appear in the census records for Robeson County more than once. Some who came to Robeson as travelling salesmen moved back to Baltimore, as did Marcus Blacker, or moved to other parts of North Carolina, like Nathan Kremer. Others, like Aaron Weinstein, remained in Robeson County.
Aaron Weinstein became one of the most prominent Jews in the area. He immigrated to the United States from Lithuania in the mid-1880s, first settling in Baltimore. He arrived in Lumberton in the early 20th century with his wife, Rebecca, and two children, Hilda and Miriam. Four more children – Morton, Israel, Robert and Mildred – arrived after the move. Weinstein opened his own general store, called “Weinstein’s,” on North Elm Street in Lumberton, and quickly became successful. In 1908, he donated land for the growing Jewish community to build the county’s first synagogue on Water Street. He also donated a large amount of money to aid the African American population in building their first Baptist church. Weinstein’s store stayed in business until 1987, when Israel Weinstein retired. That same year, David Weinstein, Aaron Weinstein’s grandson, took office as Lumberton’s first Jewish mayor. He served until 1991, and was later elected to the North Carolina State Senate in 1997. After serving twelve years in the state senate, Weinstein became the director of the state Highway Safety Program in 2009.
Extended family ties were crucial for Robeson County Jews. Aaron’s brother Harry Weinstein, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1900, first lived with his wife Yetta in his parents’ home in Lumberton. By 1920, Harry and Yetta had moved out and bought their own home in Fairmont. There, Harry opened Weinstein’s Department Store on Main Street—just two stores down from the Levinson’s—and was later elected town mayor. Yetta, meanwhile, worked to educate the larger community about Judaism as an Old Testament teacher at the First Baptist Church’s Sunday school. Harry and Yetta’s sons Morton and Rayford, too, later became very active in the region’s civic and religious community. In 1916, after her husband George M. Wright died, Eva Wright moved back in with her parents, Moses and Sarah Fine. She remained with her mother for the rest of her mother’s life. Jacob Shocket boarded with his aunt and uncle, Samuel and Rosa Dunie, in Fairmont in 1930 after his father, Morris Shocket, died. The Shocket family had lived in Robeson County in the first decade of the 20th century, but moved back to Baltimore, Maryland, with Jacob, at some point before 1920. Jacob later married and lived in Fairmont until his death in 1978.
Because the Jewish population in Robeson County was so small, Jewish families rarely lived near their co-religionists. Their neighbors were overwhelmingly white, despite the racial diversity of the region. Among their white gentile neighbors, however, the Jews were highly assimilated, and few can remember experiencing any anti-Semitism. Jewish-owned stores in Robeson decorated for Christmas with secular ornaments like holly, ribbons, and images of Santa, and eventually welcomed African Americans and Native Americans as both customers and employees. The public schools let out for the High Holy Days in the fall, and Jews and gentiles offered financial support for each other’s building projects.
The Jewish families in Robeson County valued education, and they sent both their sons and daughters to school through their late teens. Some men and women, such as Miriam and Mildred Weinstein, Morton Weinstein, and Leonard Blacker, received schooling after the age of 18, which suggests that they attended college.
Rayford Weinstein, moreover, went on to be the first Jewish student at Wake Forest School of Medicine. For a long time afterward, he was the only Jewish doctor in eastern North Carolina. Most sons, however, like Abner Blacker and Abraham Fine, became merchants and worked for their fathers before they married and moved out. Some wives, like Annie Sugar, also worked as sales clerks in the family business. David Levinson’s family had sent him to New York, where he met his wife, Glorie. He was working as an engineer, but returned to Fairmont with his new wife to take over Levinson’s Department Store when his father fell ill.
About one-third of the businesses in Robeson County were Jewish-owned in the middle of the 20th century. Today, the only Jewish-owned business remaining is Joe Sugar’s, a men’s clothing store in Saint Pauls. Joe Sugar and his wife, Annie, were both of Russian-Jewish descent and lived in Maryland before coming to North Carolina, although it is not clear whether Joe was born in Maryland or in Russia. Joe and Annie moved to North Carolina, and opened up a dry goods store in 1916. In time, the store came to specialize in men’s clothing. Today, it is owned and operated by the third generation of Sugars in Saint Pauls.
The Jews of Robeson County formed a congregation in the first decade of the 20th century, and Aaron Weinstein donated land for their first synagogue in 1908. In 1937, the congregation numbered about 31 members. Most of the families came from Lumberton, with a few from the surrounding towns. Although some of the oldest members, like the Weinsteins, were raised Orthodox, and the transplants, like the Levinsons, were originally Reform, the congregation considered itself Conservative. By the 1950s, most of the congregants were native-born southerners.
By the early 1950s, the original synagogue building was in poor condition. The congregation built a new facility in 1954 with the aid of their gentile neighbors. They held services and ran a Sunday School there until 1988. A circuit-riding rabbi, from the program sponsored by Charlotte’s I.D. Blumenthal, visited Lumberton once a month. During Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, however, the congregation hosted a student rabbi from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Most of the time, however, community members led services every Friday night. Beth El never had a full time rabbi. The congregation was a very close-knit community. Most holidays, including Passover, were celebrated at the synagogue with the whole congregation, which was never much larger than 20 families.
The congregation experienced a period of growth in the 1960s when industry moved into the county. However, that growth turned into decline in the next decade. When Glorie Levinson’s son Drew attended Sunday School at Beth El in the 1970s, there were only about 10 to 15 students in the school. Most young people went off to higher education, and, because they had little desire to work as merchants in the family business, never returned to Robeson County. By the late 1980s, the Jewish community could no longer sustain a congregation. In 1988, Temple Beth El was forced to close. Shortly thereafter, their synagogue was sold to an African American Baptist church. Instead of dividing its $30,000 endowment among its remaining members, the temple donated the money to the nearby University of North Carolina at Pembroke, stipulating that it was to use the money to create a fund to promote racial harmony at UNC’s most diverse campus. In 2001, the bimah chairs, menorahs, and a reading desk from Temple Beth El were taken out of storage and donated to the Chapel Hill Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
About 100 Jewish families have lived in Robeson County over the course of the 20th century. However, because young people have left the area and older members have passed away, the Jewish population numbered only five individuals in 2005. Every year during Rosh Hashanah, however, David Weinstein blows the shofar in the former Temple Beth El for its Christian patrons to remind them of the building’s history and the story of the Jews of Robeson County.
Essential source: Lasting Impressions, documentary film by Drew Levinson and Melinda Weinstein, 2005.