Congregation Beth Israel (Asheville, North Carolina)

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Beth Israel
Basic information
Location 229 Murdock Avenue,
Asheville, North Carolina,
 United States
Geographic coordinates 35°36′50″N 82°33′06″W / 35.613793°N 82.551731°W / 35.613793; -82.551731Coordinates: 35°36′50″N 82°33′06″W / 35.613793°N 82.551731°W / 35.613793; -82.551731
Affiliation Conservative Judaism
Country United States of America
Status Active
Leadership Rabbi: Justin Goldstein[1]
Co-Presidents: Bruce Brown and Della Simon[2]
Completed 1969[3]

Congregation Beth Israel (Hebrew: בית ישראל‎‎) is an independent, traditional egaliterian synagogue located at 229 Murdock Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina. Founded in 1899 as Bikur Cholim, it was an Orthodox breakaway from Asheville's existing synagogue. It hired its first full-time rabbi in 1909, opened a religious school in 1911, and acquired its first synagogue building, which burnt down in 1916, in 1913.

The congregation completed its second building in 1924, affiliated with Conservative Judaism in 1949, and changed its name to Beth Israel in 1950. It completed construction of its current building in 1969.

Robert Cabelli joined as rabbi in 2006. As of 2012 he was the rabbi, and the president was Marc Penansky.

Early history[edit]

Significant Jewish immigration to Asheville, North Carolina began in 1880, when the railroad link to Asheville was completed. The community founded Asheville's oldest synagogue, Beth HaTephila, as a "conservative" congregation in 1891, before the Conservative movement was formally founded.[3] By 1899, however, some members of the Jewish community felt Beth HaTephila was not traditional enough, and eight of them founded Bikur Cholim as an Orthodox alternative.[3][4][5] Bikur cholim is Hebrew for "visitation of the sick";[6] the name was used in recognition of the many people who came to Asheville to recuperate from tuberculosis.[7]

The congregation initially worshiped in the Masonic Temple and the Church Street Odd Fellows Hall. Membership grew very slowly, and the congregation went through a series of rabbis whose terms were generally short. The congregation frequently had no rabbi at all, and High Holiday services were often led by lay members.[3][6] Solomon Schechter came to Asheville in 1904 to assist in executing a merger of Beth HaTephila and Bikur Cholim, but the negotiations fell through.[4]

First full-time rabbi, first building[edit]

In 1909, Louis Londow was hired as the congregation's first full-time rabbi, though he had to open a grocery store to make ends meet.[3][8] Described as "a model of civility", he "was known to remove his hat whenever he got a phone call from a woman".[8] The congregation opened a Talmud Torah school in 1911, and in 1913 purchased a building on South Liberty Street. By this time, Londow had been succeeded as rabbi by Ellis Fox, though Londow stayed in Asheville to run his store.[3]

A group broke away from Bikur Cholim in 1916, forming the Anshei Yeshurun congregation. That year, just before Rosh Hashanah, Bikur Cholim's building burned down. A replacement building (in the same location) was not completed until 1924.[4][6] Fox left to become the rabbi of Beth HaTephila in 1917, and was succeeded by D. Hechtor.[3] A Ladies' Auxiliary (now a Sisterhood) was formed, and one of its duties was to bring chicken soup to Jewish patients in Asheville's tuberculosis sanatoria.[6]

Events since 1940[edit]

The synagogue continued to experience difficulty keeping Orthodox rabbis in a small Southern city, and had seven different spiritual leaders from 1940 to 1953.[3] The congregation moved away from its previous traditionalism, affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1949, and changed its name to Beth Israel in 1950.[9] In the 1950s, the congregation also voted to shorten its Shabbat morning service and start it two hours earlier at 8:00am, so that worshipers could open their stores after services.[3]

The Asheville Development Commission purchased the synagogue property on Liberty Street in the 1960s.[6] After a major fundraising campaign, Beth Israel constructed its current synagogue building at 229 Murdock Avenue in 1969, dedicated by then-rabbi Samuel Friedman.[3][6][10] The old property eventually became a parking lot of a Best Western hotel.[7] Membership grew steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s, from 70 families in 1980, to 100 in 1990, to almost 200 in 1999.[6]

Robert Cabelli joined as rabbi in August 2006.[11] Cabelli had worked as a neurobiologist, research scientist, and professor before being ordained at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and joining Beth Israel.[1] By 2009, membership remained at 200 families.[3][5]

As of 2012, the rabbi was Cabelli,[1] and the president was Marc Penansky.[2]