Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Wilmington, North Carolina
Located 180 miles north of Charleston on the Cape Fear River, Wilmington, North Carolina has been the home of a Jewish community for over two centuries. While its Jewish population has never been large or attracted much attention, the experience of Jews in this coastal city has in many ways encapsulated the larger narrative of southern Jewish history.
Wilmington first emerged during the colonial era, as it supplied pine tar, pitch, and turpentine for the British maritime industry. Though it was North Carolina’s largest port at the time of the American Revolution, Wilmington only had 1,000 residents and was overshadowed by nearby Charleston, South Carolina. Its growth was limited by the fact that Wilmington was not linked to the western part of the state as North Carolina lagged behind other colonies in transportation improvements. As a result, colonial North Carolina attracted few Jews due to its economic underdevelopment.
Some historians have suggested that Jews lived in Wilmington as early as 1738, though these claims are based on historical records of a few people with ambiguously Jewish names; there is no real evidence of their Jewishness. The Jewish presence in Wilmington most likely dates from the 1790s, as Jews from other, larger port cities in the United States moved to Wilmington as the town became increasingly linked into the national economy. By 1800, a handful of native-born Jewish merchants from cities like Newport, Rhode Island, New York, and Charleston lived in Wilmington. This small group included Aaron Lazarus, Abraham Isaacs, J.M. Levy, and Aaron Gomez, the scion of a prominent New York merchant family. Philip Benjamin lived in Wilmington from 1807 to 1815. His son Judah would go on to become a U.S. Senator and cabinet official during the Civil War.
Aaron Lazarus, the son of a wealthy Charleston merchant, moved to Wilmington in 1795, where he opened a commission and auction house. He eventually became a major landowner in town and opened a successful import/export firm. He was also a co-owner of Wilmington’s first steam operated lumber mill. Lazarus became one the city’s leading businessmen, serving as a director of both the Bank of Cape Fear and the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. By 1830, Lazarus owned thirteen slaves, though this number had decreased to seven by 1840. Lazarus and several other of Wilmington’s early Jewish residents were active in the local Masonic Lodge.
Lazarus was also a trustee of the local Episcopal Church, which highlights some of the challenges these Jews faced in maintaining their religious traditions. The closest Jewish congregation at the time was Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, eighty miles away. Several of Wilmington’s Jews were members of St. James Episcopal Church, even though they did not identify as Christians. Lazarus was quoted as saying “I can worship Jehovah in any of his temples.” Despite their involvement with the church, Wilmington Jews still evinced a strong attachment to their Jewishness. Lazarus observed the Jewish Sabbath at his home, and many of these Wilmington Jews undertook the difficult and expensive process of burying their dead in Jewish cemeteries in Charleston, Richmond, Norfolk, and New York. Lazarus, Judah Levy, and Abraham Isaac had been members of the Jewish congregation in Charleston prior to 1800.
Yet, the religious practices and beliefs of these early Jews were complicated. Aaron Lazarus’ son Gershon was baptized in the local Episcopal Church, yet when another son converted to Christianity, Aaron wrote a letter to the Episcopal minister expressing regret at his son’s decision and hope that he would one day return to the Jewish fold. Despite Gershon’s baptism, the boy remained attached to Judaism and even moved to Charleston to be a part an organized Jewish community. Aaron’s wife Rachel did not keep a kosher home, but tried to teach her children about Jewish traditions. Yet Rachel was active in the Episcopal Women’s Group, and in 1836, she confessed to her sister in a letter that she had secretly become a Christian. She continued to observe the Jewish traditions outwardly, but on her deathbed, she asked to be Baptized. Such flirtations with Christianity did not make it easy to pass down Judaism to the next generation. Not surprisingly, many of the children of these early Wilmington Jews intermarried and converted to Christianity. As a result, this early Jewish presence in Wilmington did not result in Jewish institutions or an established Jewish community. By 1840, the Wilmington Jewish population had largely disappeared.
Yet economic and infrastructural advancements in the 1830s and 40s soon attracted a growing number of Jewish immigrants from central Europe. Improvements to the port finally made it possible for larger ships to dock in Wilmington. The construction of plank roads throughout North Carolina and the building of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, which connected the city to the Roanoke River in Virginia set the stage for Wilmington’s rise as a regional economic center. Between 1840 and 1860, Wilmington’s population grew from 4,700 to over 11,000 people.
Jewish peddlers and merchants, most originally from Bavaria, were attracted to this burgeoning economic hub. By the 1840s, Herman Eilers, Mr. Leib, and D. Teller had opened dry goods stores in Wilmington. Jewish immigrants came and went during the mid 19th century, but during the decade or so before the Civil War, 26 different Jews owned stores in town. This Jewish population was overwhelmingly male; at the 1855 dedication of the Jewish cemetery in town, 20 Jewish men and only 2 Jewish women attended. By 1860, these Jewish merchants were well established in the city. Of 18 clothing stores in the 1860 city directory, 11 were owned by Jews; Jews also owned 6 of Wilmington’s 19 dry goods stores. One of these was Sol. Bear & Brothers, which sold clothing and groceries. Solomon Bear, who lived with his three brothers in 1860, had $18,000 in personal wealth at the eve of the Civil War. Most of these antebellum businessmen got their merchandise from wholesale houses in Philadelphia, with many selling goods on consignment. Some employed peddlers who sold the store’s goods in the surrounding countryside. After the war, Baltimore became the primary wholesale provider for Wilmington merchants.
Unlike the first Jewish settlers in Wilmington, these German Jews established a strong Jewish community. Most all of their stores were within a three-block radius and most lived close to one another. In 1852, they founded a Jewish burial society, which began to raise money for the purchase of land for a cemetery. In 1855, they held a dedication ceremony for the burial ground which drew two hundred people, most of whom were not Jewish. Rabbi Isaac Leeser of Philadelphia was the guest speaker. Wilmington Jews were gathering together in private homes to worship on the high holidays. In 1860, they placed an ad in a Jewish newspaper in New York for someone who could serve the Jewish community as a service leader, shochet (kosher butcher), and mohel (ritual circumciser), showing that Wilmington Jews tried to maintain the Jewish dietary laws. Approximately 74 Jews lived in Wilmington on the eve of the Civil War.
Although most were relatively recent immigrants, these Jews were not afraid to insist on their rights as Americans. North Carolina was one of the last states in the Union to prevent Jews from holding public office. After Isaac Leeser encouraged Wilmington Jews to challenge this prohibition, they took up the cause, circulating a petition and running an ad in the local newspaper calling on the state legislature to repeal it. In 1858, the Wilmington Journal also called for its repeal, arguing that “Jews pay taxes and are liable to perform all civil duties.” Despite this effort, the ban on Jewish officeholders was not removed until 1868.
According to historian David Goldfield, the Civil War was a turning point for the Wilmington Jewish community as many Jews were drawn to North Carolina’s port city after Union blockades closed other southern ports. Wilmington became a major base for Confederate blockade running against the Union embargo. Jewish merchants and agents converged on the city to help the Confederate effort and to take advantage of the economic opportunities. Between 1860 and 1865, the number of Jewish merchants in Wilmington grew by 50%. J.M. Seixas, a Charleston Jew, was sent to Wilmington by the Confederate War Department to find blockade runners keep the southern supply line moving. Solomon Haas and Simon Bear went to Europe to purchase needed goods for the Confederacy. Some Jewish merchants profited during the war; E. Solomon and Co. shipped a large amount of tobacco to Europe and imported manufacturing goods. Jonas Levy ran ships between Wilmington and Europe after petitioning Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate Cabinet Official, for the right. Though profitable, such activity was risky. David Kahnweiler lost a lot of money when one of his cargoes was captured by the Union.
These economic activities sometimes gave rise to charges of profiteering. One observer noted later that “Jews swarmed there from far and near, like flies around the bung of a sugar cask” and accused them of “ow[ing] no allegiance, except to Moses, and consequently they were exempt from military service.” Such charges were patently untrue as several Wilmington Jews, including Lewis Leon and William Goodman, and Solomon Bear, fought for the Confederacy. Yet these claims reflected an anti-Semitism that was not uncommon throughout 19th century America. Perhaps in the response to such charges, Wilmington Jews made a concerted effort to embrace the heritage of the Confederacy. When a chapter of the United Confederate Veterans was founded in 1889, Jews like Nathaniel Jacobi, Solomon Bear, Abraham Weill, and William Goodman were charter members. When the UCV chapter called on stores to close on Robert E. Lee’s birthday in 1900, most Jewish merchants complied.
After the Civil War, Jewish-owned stores lined Wilmington’s downtown streets as Jews came to dominate the city’s commercial economy. The number of Jewish merchants in town doubled during the ten years after the Civil War. By 1871, Jews owned over 60% of the dry goods stores in Wilmington; ten years later, they owned almost 75% of them. In 1894, all of the town’s wholesale firms were owned by Jews. Many of these merchants became quite successful, especially those who had lived in Wilmington before the war. Among newcomers, about 25% of their businesses failed within five years of being started, although others flourished. Nathaniel Jacobi moved to Wilmington from Charleston in 1868, and opened a hardware store on Water Street, which eventually grew into a successful retail and wholesale operation. Jacobi became part of Wilmington’s business establishment, serving as a director of the Murchison National Bank. Jewish wholesalers thrived as Wilmington became an important supply center for backcountry North and South Carolina. Sigmund and Bernhard Solomon came to Wilmington soon after the war and opened a wholesale shoe company that supplied stores across the South. Jews also built large department stores in Wilmington, including Einstein Brothers, I. Shrier & Co., and the Rheinstein Dry Goods Company. By 1884, Rheinstein’s store was doing over $500,000 a year in business, and employed 12 store clerks and 3 traveling salesmen.
In 1867, Wilmington’s Jews took another halting step toward firmly establishing a Jewish community when they founded a congregation with the encouragement of Issac Leeser of Philadelphia. This was the first Jewish congregation ever founded in North Carolina. The group rented a brick building on Front Street, which they used as both a synagogue and a school house. They hired Rev. E.M. Myers as their spiritual leader. When they consecrated the building, the first synagogue in the state of North Carolina, in September of 1867 in a public ceremony, the local newspaper celebrated the occasion, writing, “who among us, the founder of whose faith was a Jew, does not wish well to the people descended from the Father of the Faithful – Abraham?” Nathaniel Jacobi was the president of this newly founded Jewish congregation.
While this first congregation was Orthodox, many of its members did not seem interested in maintaining traditional Jewish practice. Most likely for this reason, the congregation disbanded after only one year. Rev. Myers left Wilmington and the group stopped renting the Front Street building. They held lay-led services at Jacobi’s home for the next few years. Another Philadelphia rabbi, Maurice Jastrow, played a crucial role in the reorganization of Wilmington Jews. In 1872, Jastrow came to Wilmington to officiate at a wedding, and encouraged Wilmington Jews to re-establish a congregation. Soon after, Wilmington Jews founded congregation Mishkan Israel, though it soon became known by its English name “Temple of Israel.” Jastrow was a progenitor of conservative Judaism who criticized the radical Reform of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, while seeking to modernize traditional practice. Temple of Israel’s attachment to Jastrow was a sign that they were not yet to ready to embrace Reform Judaism fully.
Temple of Israel.
Photo courtesy of Julian Preisler
Rabbi Jastrow convinced the Wilmington congregation to raise money for the construction of a synagogue. When they broke ground in 1875, Jastrow came back to Wilmington to speak at the ceremony. The congregation quickly raised the money for the building, even soliciting local non-Jews to support the cause. The local newspaper backed this effort and urged its readers to support the congregation’s fundraising campaign. In 1876, Temple of Israel, which numbered 48 members, dedicated its beautiful, Moorish-style synagogue at a large public event that drew the mayor and city aldermen. Temple of Israel’s building was the first permanent synagogue built in North Carolina.
The same year Temple of Israel was founded, Wilmington’s Jewish women created the Ladies’ Concordia Society, which helped to raise money for the congregation’s synagogue. Rosalie Jacobi, the wife of Nathaniel, was its first president. The society sponsored social functions, open to both Jews and non-Jews, with music, dancing, and food to raise money for the building fund. After the synagogue was completed, the society functioned as a temple sisterhood, continuing to raise money to maintain the temple. Over the years, the Ladies Concordia Society purchased a Torah for the congregation, oversaw the religious school, and donated money for expansions and renovations.
One of the first gifts the Ladies’ Concordia Society made to the new temple was an organ, which reflected the congregation’s embrace of Reform practice. In 1878, Temple of Israel joined the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations. While it initially used Rabbi Jastrow’s conservative prayer book, it quickly adopted the Reform Union Prayer Book when it was published in 1892.
Before their new temple was dedicated, Temple of Israel hired Samuel Mendelsohn as their rabbi. Born in Russia, Mendelsohn was ordained by Maimonides College in Philadelphia and studied with Maurice Jastrow, even marrying his mentor’s niece. During the temple’s dedication, Mendelsohn gave an address in English, though early in his tenure, most of his sermons were in German. Although he wasn’t a trained Reform rabbi, Mendelsohn adjusted to the congregation’s embrace of liberal Judaism, and served the congregation for 46 years. He was involved in interfaith and interracial groups, and gave a guest sermon at a black Baptist church in Wilmington. When the Front Street Methodist Church burned in 1886, Temple of Israel invited them to use their building. The church met at the synagogue for two years while the church was rebuilt.
Wilmington Jews also created other organizations, including a B’nai B’rith lodge in 1875. Even prior to the formation of Temple of Israel, Wilmington Jews founded the Harmony Circle, established in 1867, as a social outlet for themselves. The Harmony Circle did not have a permanent building, instead renting a series of rooms that were used for various community social events. In the 1890s, the Harmony Circle hosted debutante balls for Jewish girls across the region. While the Harmony Circle was exclusively Jewish, it catered primarily to the German Jewish members of Temple of Israel; when Russian Jewish immigrants later settled in Wilmington, few if any belonged to the Harmony Circle.
In addition to the Harmony Circle, Wilmington Jews took part in a regional social life, in which young Jews would visit family friends and relatives in other southern and even northeastern cities. The goal of this visiting was to introduce single Jews to other young Jews of the opposite sex. This informal social system was quite successful. According to historian David Goldfield, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, about 80% of young German Jews from Wilmington married Jews from other cities; 10% married other Wilmington Jews, while 10% married non-Jews. Gender shaped these patterns, as Jewish women were much more likely to leave Wilmington and settle in the hometown of their husband. By and large, it was the sons who remained in Wilmington, often taking over the family business. Marcus and Joseph Jacobi took over the family hardware business after their father Nathaniel died.
Members of Temple of Israel became an integral part of Wilmington’s civic leadership and played a supporting role in the most infamous episode in the city’s history. Sol Fishblate came to Wilmington in 1869 from Fayetteville, North Carolina, leaving a failed business in his wake. Born in New York to German Jewish immigrants in 1843, Fishblate quickly got involved in Wilmington’s city politics. In 1873, he was elected alderman, the first Jew to be elected to local office in North Carolina. In 1878, Fishblate was elected mayor of Wilmington, serving three years. After his term, he was elected once again as an alderman in the 1880s, along with another member of Temple of Israel, Solomon Bear. Fishblate was elected mayor once again in 1891.
Fishblate was an ardent Democrat, and even represented North Carolina at a national Democratic Party Committee meeting in New York in 1892. According to a New York Times account of the meeting, Fishblate promised his colleagues that North Carolina would support the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland for president in November. In North Carolina in the 1890s, politics was bitter and racially charged. The Populist Party had formed an alliance with the Republicans to try to overturn Democratic Party rule in the state. This so-called Fusion ticket, which brought together white populists and African American Republicans, was successful for a time. Angry North Carolina Democrats resorted to race baiting, fraud, and violence to defeat the Fusionists and reclaim power.
Most Wilmington Jews were Democrats who supported these attacks on the Fusionists. Several local Jews signed a petition calling for the removal of the Republican and Fusionist office holders in Wilmington in 1898. Nathaniel Jacobi was a leader of this effort, which organized business owners to threaten to fire their black employees if the Fusion ticket won. As a local Democratic party leader, Fishblate was also involved in this effort to reclaim power. At a public meeting, both Jacobi and Fishblate spoke to a growing mob and supported a declaration that whites should rule Wilmington and North Carolina. This meeting later resulted in the violent Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, in which white mobs terrorized the city’s black population and forcibly installed Democratic Party rule. While other Wilmington whites played a more influential role in the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, Jews like Fishblate and Jacobi supported this effort to overturn “black rule,” showing how much Jews had assimilated into the local culture of white supremacy.
By the turn of the 20th century, a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began to arrive in Wilmington. This wave, abut 50 families in all, was smaller than in other southern cities. Wilmington was growing only slightly, and was largely bypassed by the economic boom of the “New South,” which transformed cities like Atlanta. Thus, most of the Eastern European who settled in the South were drawn elsewhere. Most of those who did settle in Wilmington had lived in the North before moving to North Carolina. These immigrants tended to open small dry goods and grocery stores that often catered to working class white and African American customers. Several started as peddlers in the area. Louis Schwartz started peddling outside of Wilmington in 1903, and later opened a furniture store in town. Jacob and Abraham D’lugin came over from Russia in 1902, peddling the first few years. In 1906, with the help of Jacob Epstein of the Baltimore Bargain House, who fronted them their first merchandise on credit, the D’lugin brothers opened a clothing store in Wilmington in 1906. Many other Jewish peddlers and merchants in Wilmington got their merchandise and credit from the Baltimore Bargain House. These Eastern European Jews clustered together in town; Fourth Street had at least fifteen Jewish-owned stores in 1915.
Most of these Jewish newcomers were Orthodox in their religious practices, and chose not to affiliate with the Reform Temple of Israel congregation. Instead, they began meeting together to pray in 1898, forming the B’nai Israel Society. Nevertheless, there seemed to be friendly relations between this new Orthodox group and Wilmington’s existing Jewish community. Nathaniel Jacobi, a prominent member of Temple of Israel, was named the honorary chairman of B’nai Israel. In 1903, the society bought land from Jacobi for a cemetery. Temple of Israel’s rabbi, Samuel Mendelsohn, sometimes led services for the group, which initially met in members’ homes. Daily minyans usually took place in the back of members’ stores. In 1907, B’nai Israel hired its first spiritual leader, Rev. Karesh, and rented a room above a local grocery store to use as a sanctuary. In the congregation’s early years, most spiritual leaders, who also served as shochet and mohel, did not stay in Wilmington for very long, likely because B’nai Israel was small and often struggled to afford a full-time rabbi.
B'nai Israel cornerstone laying ceremony, 1914
By 1911, the members of B’nai Israel began to seriously discuss building a synagogue. Ben May was appointed chairman of the building committee. In 1914, B’nai Israel held a cornerstone laying ceremony for its new synagogue on Walnut Street. Wilmington Mayor P.Q. Moore addressed the large crows, as did Rabbi Mendelsohn of Temple of Israel and the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. A year later, B’nai Israel built a Jewish social center on North Front Street that served as a meeting place for members of the Orthodox congregation. The members of B’nai Israel were Orthodox; most kept kosher and did not ride on the Sabbath. Their new synagogue had separate seating for women in the balcony as well as mikvah. In 1920, the women of B’nai Israel founded the Women’s Benevolent Society, which eventually became the congregation’s sisterhood. That same year, the women founded a chapter of Hadassah after Henrietta Szold visited Wilmington.
At the time of the dedication of their new synagogue in 1914, B’nai Israel had 37 members; only men were allowed to join the congregation. Of the 25 who were able to be found in the 1910 U.S. Census, 24 were foreign-born, with 88% of them from Russia or Poland. Their average age was 34, while their average year of immigration was 1900, meaning most members had been in the United States for at least a decade by the time B’nai Israel built its synagogue. A large majority, 83%, of employed members owned retail businesses; dry goods stores and clothing stores were most common. Most of these businesses were small; 60% of the merchants did not employ other people. Only two members of B’nai Israel could be considered manual laborers: Samuel D’lugin, the father of Abe and Jacob, was a dairy farmer, while Sander Kosch was a foreman for a local guano processing company. Most members were still getting financially established in Wilmington; 68% of the group rented their home. The membership of B’nai Israel in 1914 offers a clear portrait of the Orthodox Jewish population in Wilmington. Overwhelmingly immigrants from the Russian Empire, these Jews had already spent several years in the U.S. and concentrated in petty retail trade.
During World War I and II, Wilmington Jews played an active role. Arthur Bluethenthal was the first Wilmingtonian to die fighting in the First World War. The city named its new airport, Bluethenthal Field, after him. 41 Wilmington Jews served in the military during World War II. Jews were also active on the homefront. The army opened Camp Davis 30 miles north of Wilmington. Both congregations entertained Jewish soldiers stationed at the camp. Temple of Israel turned its basement into a lounge, where soldiers could visit or attend special programs or dinners in their honor. World War II also had a significant impact on Wilmington. A shipyard was built in Wilmington’s harbor that employed 25,000 workers at its peak in 1943.
B'nai Israel's 1954 synagogue
Photo courtesy of Julian Preisler
World War II also marked a turning point for B’nai Israel. It was still very much the product of its immigrant founders. Sermons were usually delivered in Yiddish. But by the 1940s, members began to discuss the need to build a new synagogue, one that would better serve the largely American-born membership. They began a fundraising campaign that ultimately drew donations from 155 people. The new synagogue was completed in 1954. The new building reflected changes in the congregation’s religious practice. There was no separate balcony or section for women; men and women now sat together, although the first two rows were reserved for men only, for those who still wished to follow the Orthodox tradition. The new building did not have a mikvah, though it did have a kosher kitchen. The congregation was still nominally Orthodox, though members began to debate whether to institute changes. To satisfy those wanting more English in the Shabbat service, a special Friday night service was created. Rabbi Samuel Friedman presided over these changes, leading B’nai Israel from the 1940s to 1966. The congregation continued to debate whether to affiliate with the Conservative Movement, though in terms of religious practice, B’nai Israel had essentially become a Conservative congregation.
While B’nai Israel thrived and grew, Temple of Israel sometimes struggled. In 1935, the Reform congregation only had 27 contributing member families, at a time when 330 Jews lived in Wilmington. Despite these small numbers, the congregation was still able to employ a full-time rabbi. In 1936, Temple of Israel hired Rabbi Mordecai Thurman, who became very active in civic affairs. He helped to organize the Wilmington Round Table of Christians and Jews and moderated the group’s weekly radio show. He also served as chairman of the Associated Charities of New Hanover County. His commitment to interfaith dialogue even crossed the color line, as Rabbi Thurman led services at a local black church once a year during his tenure in Wilmington.
After the boom of the war years, Wilmington slid back to its pre-war economic torpor, which was exacerbated by the decision of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad to close its headquarters in Wilmington in 1960, which cost the city 13,000 jobs. This economic blow hit the Jewish community indirectly. By 1970, Temple of Israel had only 32 contributing family members. City leaders, including Jews like B.D. Schwartz, organized the “Committee of 100” that worked to attract new industry to Wilmington. Due to their efforts, major companies like DuPont, General Electric, and Corning built new factories in the city.
In addition to his work on economic development, B.D. Schwartz was also very involved in local politics, serving as mayor during a time when Wilmington was besieged by racial tension. Born in Poland in 1909, Benjamin David Schwartz came to Wilmington with his family in 1913. His father had been one of the early presidents of B’nai Israel. Schwartz owned the Home Furniture Store with his brother William for almost 40 years. In 1969, he was elected to Wilmington’s city council, from which he was selected as mayor in 1972; at the time, the city council chose Wilmington’s chief executive. Schwartz presided over a city beset by racial street violence. Black activists had called for boycotts of city schools and several white-owned businesses were firebombed. The Ku Klux Klan and other white racist organizations began a series of counterdemonstrations and armed patrols of downtown stores as racial tensions in Wilmington reached a boiling point. Schwartz tried to find a middle ground, as he declared a state of emergency and sought to create a dialogue between the factions, declaring “we must resolve our differences by being vocal, not violent.” For his efforts to calm the city, Schwartz was given the Outstanding Community Service Award from the North Carolina Human Relations Council in 1972. After his term as mayor, Schwartz went on to serve in the state legislature for several years. In 1983, his brother William Schwartz was elected mayor of Wilmington, serving for two years.
Despite the political success of the Schwartz brothers, Wilmington Jews have experienced a degree of anti-Semitism. For a long time, Jews were excluded from the Cape Fear Country Club; in 1923, four prominent local Jews were finally admitted to the club. In 1938, two large green swastikas were painted next to the front doors of Temple of Israel. During the racial tensions of the early 1970s, somebody bombed the entrance of B’nai Israel’s synagogue; no one was hurt. A man was charged with the crime, but was found not guilty on a technicality. Later, the same man was convicted of vandalizing a local black newspaper. After the bombing, local Christian ministers expressed sympathy and support for B’nai Israel. While the congregation was soothed by the Christian community’s reaction, they installed spotlights on the outside of the building to deter future attacks.
Despite these anti-Semitic incidents, in recent decades, the Jewish community has flourished along with Wilmington itself. As new industry moved to Wilmington in the 1960s and 70s, an increasing number of Jewish professionals moved to the city as well. The University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the New Hanover Regional Medical Center attracted many Jewish professionals as well. Jewish retirees have also discovered Wilmington in recent decades. By 1974, Temple of Israel had 72 members and 32 children in its religious school. In 1986, the congregation finally added air conditioning to their 1875 temple. In 1990, Wilmington was connected to the I-40 interstate, which brought a new economic surge to the city as New Hanover became one of the fastest growing counties in North Carolina. Temple of Israel bought two nearby buildings to use as religious school and office space. Temple of Israel’s membership has tripled in size since the 1980s. In 2001, an estimated 1,200 Jews lived in the southeastern portion of North Carolina, at which Wilmington was the center. Today, both B’nai Israel and Temple of Israel are as large as they have ever been, and both employ full-time rabbis.
Wilmington’s Jewish community has experienced both the post-war decline of small town Jewish communities as well as the urban sunbelt boom. Today, as more and more Jews live in North Carolina, Wilmington’s Jewish community faces a future brighter than its past.