Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Raleigh, North Carolina
In the late 1780s, North Carolina’s General Assembly began to discuss the establishment of a permanent capital city for the state. Not wanting to choose between the existing settlements, the leaders decided to build a brand new, centrally located city that would serve as North Carolina’s seat of government. On December 31, 1792, the General Assembly approved the creation of Raleigh, named for the 16th century English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh. Despite its role as North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh grew slowly in the early 19th century. It did not develop significant industry while most of its economy was based on retail businesses that provided goods to the town’s residents. By the time of the Civil War, fewer than 5,000 people lived in Raleigh.
The first Jew to move to North Carolina’s new capital city was Moses Mordecai, son of Jacob Mordecai, a successful Jewish merchant in Warrenton, North Carolina. Moses was a talented lawyer who established a flourishing practice in Raleigh in 1810. His younger brother George Washington Mordecai later joined him in Raleigh. Both Mordecai brothers drifted away from the Jewish faith. Moses married into a prominent local Episcopal family, and all of his children were baptized in the Episcopal Church. George converted to Episcopalianism after his father died. Interestingly, George Mordecai later sold land to Raleigh’s small Jewish community in 1871 for use as a Jewish cemetery.
The first practicing Jews to settle in Raleigh were Michael and Regina Grausman, who came to the capital from Warrenton in 1862. The couple had emigrated from Bavaria five years earlier. During the Civil War, Grausman was commissioned to make uniforms for the Confederate Army. After the war, Grausman opened a wholesale and retail grocery business in Raleigh. Grausman was joined by a growing number of Jews who settled in Raleigh in the years after the Civil War.
Most of these new arrivals, who had come from Germany, opened retail businesses in Raleigh. The Rosenthal family was a significant part of the late 19th century Raleigh Jewish community. Prussian-born Leopold Rosenthal settled in Raleigh after the Civil War, opening a dry goods store. His nephews Isadore and David Rosenthal later joined their uncle, working at his store and living with him. Gustav Rosenthal moved to Raleigh from Wilmington in the early 1870s, and became an official at a local paper manufacturing company. Morris Rosenthal also came to Raleigh, marrying Hannah Grausman, Michael’s daughter. Morris Rosenthal joined his father-in-law’s retail and wholesale grocery business. Other Jewish merchants living in Raleigh in 1883 included: Gerson Heller, who owned a shoe store; J.M. Rosenbaum, who owned a clothing store; Morris Rosenbaum, who had a linens and notions store; and Louis Brie, another nephew of Leopold Rosenthal, who co-owned a confections business. Most all of these stores were located on the 100 and 200 block of Fayetteville Street, which was the commercial center of downtown Raleigh.
By 1874, there were enough Jews in Raleigh to form a minyan, and they began to gather together to pray in a room at the Grausman’s house. Michael Grausman, who had once studied to be a rabbi in Europe, led services for the group and taught Hebrew to their children. His house became the unofficial synagogue for Raleigh’s Jewish community, and even included a Torah and Ark. By 1883, the group had outgrown Grausman’s house, and began to meet in a room above Rosenbaum’s Millinery Store on Fayetteville Street. Regina Grausman and the other Jewish women in town assumed responsibility for outfitting and maintaining the worship space. In the 1883 Raleigh city directory, there is a listing for a “Jewish synagogue” located upstairs at 203 Fayetteville Street. Michael Grausman is listed as the group’s rabbi. The group continued to meet for several years, even after Grausman died in 1891. Sometime between 1896 and 1899, the group became inactive and the congregation disbanded. By the time the American Jewish Year Book’s “Directory of Local Jewish Organizations” was published in 1907, Raleigh had fifty Jews, but no Jewish congregation.
During the early 20th century, the Raleigh Jewish community began to grow as an increasing number of Jews from Eastern Europe settled in the city. Most, following the pattern set by the earlier settlers, opened retail stores. According to the U.S. Census, there were eight Russian-born household heads living in Raleigh in 1910. By 1920, there were 26 Russian-born household heads; most all of these were likely Jewish. Samuel Glass came to the United States from Russia in 1905, eventually settling in Raleigh and opening a ladies garment store. In 1908, he brought over his wife Sadie and son Benjamin. Brothers Harry and David Kaplan left Russia in the early 20th century. They ended up in Raleigh, opening Kaplan Brothers Company, a ladies and children’s clothing store.
This growth in Raleigh’s Jewish population led to the reorganization of a congregation, though it also led to conflict and eventual disunion. In 1912, Raleigh Jews founded the Hebrew Sunday School Association, which soon became the Raleigh Hebrew Congregation. The new congregation met in a room above Maurice Rosenthal and David Elias’s store. The group included both Reform and Orthodox Jews, which resulted in disputes over religious practice and rituals. In May, 1912, there was a disagreement over the method of instruction for children in the religious school. The group decided that regular Sunday school instruction would be in English, with separate classes for the teaching of Hebrew. This compromise did not end the larger conflict, and in 1913, the fledgling group split in two, with Reform members creating Congregation Beth Or, and Orthodox members establishing House of Jacob. The name “House of Jacob” was bestowed by Sadie Glass, who had won the right to name the new congregation after winning a Hannukah auction with an $80 bid.
Beth Or enlisted Rabbi Harry Merfeld of Congregation Chester B’nai Sholem in New Bern, North Carolina to visit Raleigh and lead services twice a month. In 1913, Beth Or hired Rabbi Merfeld as their full-time spiritual leader, paying him $1500 a year. Rabbi Merfeld, who was clean-shaven and wore a clerical collar, was a Reform rabbi and led the congregation’s first confirmation ceremony in 1914. By 1919, the congregation, now led by Rabbi William Loewenberg, had 30 members and 35 children in its Sunday school. The new congregation initially met in the Rosenthal Building, but soon began to raise money for a permanent synagogue. The Temple Beth Or sisterhood worked hard to raise money for the building fund, selling chicken salad sandwiches to downtown workers, sponsoring various raffles and rummage sales, and even running a booth at the state fair. The congregation solicited wealthy Jews around the country for support of their building fund, and received donations from such leading Jews as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and financier Bernard Baruch. North Carolina’s governor, O. Max Gardner, also made a donation to the cause. In 1923, Beth Or dedicated its first permanent synagogue. During its early years, Beth Or endured a high degree of rabbinic turnover; between 1924 and 1938, six different rabbis led the congregation.
The members of Beth Or and House of Jacob were quite different. Of eleven individuals listed as Beth Or’s charter members, eight, or 73%, were born in the United States. The three who were foreign born had emigrated from Germany several decades earlier. In contrast, all five of the early founders of House of Jacob were immigrants from Russia; some, like Sam Glass and David Kaplan, had been in the U.S. for less than ten years. Beth Or members also tended to be somewhat older than the Orthodox Jews of House of Jacob. Yet members of both congregations were concentrated heavily in retail business ownership, and were already economically established. About 60% of Beth Or’s founding members owned their home outright (without a mortgage) by 1920. Surprisingly, the same was true of House of Jacob members; of the five early founders, all owned their home in 1920, while three owned it outright.
The members of House of Jacob were committed to maintaining the traditional Jewish dietary laws. By December, 1913, they had hired Jacob Aronson to serve as their shochet (kosher butcher) and chazzan (service leader), paying him $38 a month. Aronson would kill chickens for members of the congregation twice a week. House of Jacob initially met above Sam Glass’s store in the W.T. Grant Building on Fayetteville Street. They had an afternoon Hebrew School that met three days a week. In 1919, the congregation had 25 members and an annual income of $1500. The congregation bought a house on East Street in 1923 that was used as a combined synagogue and parsonage. Members prayed upstairs while the congregation’s rabbi lived downstairs. A series of rabbis/shochets served House of Jacob. One, Rabbi Isaiah Printz, who came to Raleigh around 1922, ran a small delicatessen out of the downstairs, selling homemade pickles and sauerkraut to help supplement his meager salary. House of Jacob remained small and close-knit during this early period, ranging between 30 to 40 members.
Although Jews were barred from holding elective office in North Carolina until 1868, Raleigh Jews were very active in civic affairs. Gustav Rosenthal served on the local Board of Aldermen in 1883. Gustav and Morris Rosenthal also served on the Raleigh School Board. Helen Elias was active in numerous charitable endeavors. Elias was a charter member of the Women’s Club of Raleigh and organized the first Parent-Teacher Association in the city. She helped found the local Red Cross chapter and organized a visiting nurse service that helped both whites and blacks. During World War I, Elias led the effort to care for soldiers and local residents stricken during the flu epidemic, which took the life of her husband David. During the war, Elias organized local farmers to bring their extra fruits and vegetables to town so they could be canned, preserved, and given to the needy rather than going to waste.
Raleigh Jews also served their community during the Second World War. While 39 young Jewish men served in the military during the conflict, local women founded the Jewish Women’s Service Organization, which sold war bonds, made bandages, and ran a recreation center for Jewish soldiers stationed in the area. Nell Hirschberg received a Red Cross award for her homefront work during the war. The Jewish Women’s Service Organization disbanded after the war was over, with the members voting to donate the remaining $291 in its bank account to the United Jewish Appeal.
World War II did not have a significant effect on the size of Raleigh’s Jewish community. 334 Jews lived in the city in 1937, while 350 did ten years later. Nevertheless, both congregations initiated building campaigns soon after the war. Beth Or, especially its religious school, had outgrown its building in the 1930s, but the Depression and the war had postponed any new construction projects. After the war, the congregation, led by Mortimer Ellisberg, raised money for a new religious school annex, which was completed in 1948. In 1956, Beth Or bought a parsonage for its rabbi, Harry Caplan, who served the congregation from 1940 until his death in 1960. After the war, House of Jacob began raising money for a new synagogue. In 1949, they broke ground at a site on West Johnson Street. Dedicated in 1951, the new synagogue cost $90,000. The congregation decided to change its name to Beth Meyer in honor of longtime congregant Meyer Dworsky, who had died in 1943. With its new building, Beth Meyer decided to move away from Orthodox Judaism and join the Conservative movement.
Raleigh underwent a transformation in the 1960s and 70s, which had a profound effect on its Jewish community. In 1959, local universities, governments, and business established Research Triangle Park in the area, which has grown to become the largest research park in the country. As of 2007, over 39,000 employees worked for the 157 corporations and institutions located in the park, which has made central North Carolina a center for hi-tech research and development. This economic infusion led to a population boom in Raleigh, which grew from 93,931 residents in 1960 to 276,093 in 2000. By 2009, an estimated 389,000 people lived in North Carolina’s capital. Its Jewish population has grown even faster, from 490 Jews in 1960 to 6,000 by 1997.
Both Beth Or and Beth Meyer have benefited from this extraordinary growth, though they have sometimes struggled to keep up with their expanding membership rolls. In 1978, Beth Or, which had 168 member families at the time, moved to a new temple on Creedmoor Road. Six years later, now numbering 235 families, they added a new religious school wing. By 1999, with over 440 families, they had outgrown the new wing and had to construct a new education building and social hall. In 2009, Beth Or had 515 dues paying members. Beth Meyer outgrew its synagogue by the 1970s, and built a new one in the northern suburbs in 1983; it had 200 member families at the time. Over the next 25 years, Beth Meyer’s membership doubled, reaching 400 families in 2009.
The Raleigh Jewish community has developed institutionally as well. In 1979, the Chabad-based Shaari Israel opened to cater to Raleigh’s Orthodox Jews. In 1983, Reform Jews living in the suburb of Cary founded Congregation Beth Shalom. Today, Beth Shalom has its own synagogue, 164 member families, and a full-time rabbi. Raleigh Jews established the Jewish Family Service in the 1980s and a Jewish Community Center in the 1990s. In 2004, they founded the Jewish Academy of Wake County, a community day school that offers instruction for elementary school-age children. Today, the Raleigh-Cary Jewish Federation oversees and helps fund many of these growing institutions.
What had once been a small, close-knit Jewish community made up of retail merchants has been replaced by a growing population of Jewish professionals drawn by the flourishing Research Triangle. Few Jewish families residing in Raleigh have lived in the area for more than one generation. In this sense, Raleigh perfectly represents the demographic changes that have transformed the Jewish South over the last several decades.