|For in-depth interviews and accounts of the history of the Jewish community in Western North Carolina, go to “Jewish Life in Western North Carolina”, a special online collection of archival materials housed in the D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina – Asheville.|
Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers, Asheville boasts a mild climate and tremendous natural beauty. Both the wealthy and those of more modest means have been drawn by the charms of Asheville. George W. Vanderbilt constructed his magnificent Biltmore Estate just outside the city in the 1890s, while many suffering from tuberculosis flocked to Asheville’s mountain air and the town’s sanitariums.
Although the town was incorporated in 1797, Asheville did not flourish until it was linked by railroad to national markets in the 1880s. The town’s population quickly grew from 2,610 people in 1880 to almost 12,000 just ten years later. Not coincidentally, the first wave of Jews settled in Asheville around the same time the railroad came to town. By 1880, 25-year-old Polish immigrant Solomon Whitlock owned a store and lived in Asheville. That same year, Solomon Lipinsky, who had been born in Richmond, also lived in Asheville, working for Whitlock and marrying his daughter Eva. Later that decade, they were joined by Moses Swartzberg, Morris Meyers, and brothers Lewis and Aaron Blomberg.
These early Jewish settlers opened stores in town. The 1890 Asheville City Directory contained a detailed list of local businesses, which included several recent Jewish arrivals. Swartzberg owned a retail and wholesale dry goods operation, specializing in the latest fashions in clothing and gentlemen’s furnishings bought from New York suppliers. Morris Meyers opened the “Palais Royal” store on Main Street, which remained in business for 40 years. By 1887, Lipinksy had opened his own small dry goods store, which eventually grew into one of the finest and largest department stores in the state. Lipinsky’s Bon Marche store remained a fixture in downtown Asheville through 90 years and three generations of Lipinskys. Lewis Blomberg came to Asheville in 1887 for health reasons, and recognized the city’s burgeoning economic opportunity. He decided to stay, opening a small cigar and newsstand. Lewis later moved into a wide array of businesses, including a sporting goods store, a salvage and hide business, and even bought the local Strand Theater. His brother Aaron, who began as a peddler outfitted by the Baltimore Bargain House, soon joined him in Asheville and opened his own dry goods store.
In 1891, this small but growing Jewish community formally established Congregation Beth Ha-Tephila. With 27 founding members, Beth Ha-Tephila initially met at the Lyceum Hall. For their first high holiday services, they brought down Reverend A. Jacoby from Charleston, West Virginia to lead services. Adolph Schayer, one of the founding members, served as lay leader during the weekly services. Abraham Whitlock was the group’s first president. According to its founding charter, Beth Ha-Tephila “shall be conservative.” This was before a formal Conservative Movement in American Judaism, so this statement likely reflected a desire to maintain Jewish traditions while introducing some innovations. Indeed, by 1892, the congregation had organized a choir and purchased an organ, the use of which was forbidden in Orthodox worship. Although they were instituting Reform practices, the congregation did not join the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) until 1908. By 1900, they were meeting in the Knights of Pythias Hall on Friday nights and Saturday mornings with Solomon Lipinsky as the lay leader. In 1902, the congregation purchased a former church on Spruce Street for use as a synagogue.
This movement toward Reform would soon lead to a split within the small Asheville Jewish community. By 1899, a small group of new immigrants and members dissatisfied with Beth Ha-Tephila’s Reform practice formed their own separate congregation, Bikur Cholim. In its early years, the traditional congregation met at the local Odd Fellows Hall. Despite its small size, Bikur Cholim was able to employ various rabbis in its early years, although their tenures were often brief and turbulent. In 1904, Solomon Schecter, head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, came to Asheville to negotiate a merger of the two congregations arguing that the Asheville Jewish community was too small to support two such institutions. His efforts to broker a compromise failed.
By 1909, Bikur Cholim was able to hire a full-time rabbi, Louis Londow, who eventually had to open a grocery store to supplement his meager income. By 1913, the congregation had acquired a synagogue on Liberty Street and Londow had been replaced by Rabbi Ellis Fox, though Londow remained in Asheville operating his store. Londow would later return to lead Bikur Cholim in the 1920s. Rabbi Fox also ran the Talmud Torah school located on Central Avenue which had been founded in 1911. Fox likely had some kind of dispute with the members of Bikur Cholim since by 1917 he had been replaced by D. Hechtor and was serving as the rabbi of Beth Ha-Tephila.
Asheville Jews also founded other Jewish organizations. By 1907, they had established a local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and a Zionist society. In 1916, a group of fifty Asheville Jews founded a Young Men’s Hebrew Association, which rented the third floor of the Sondley Building as their headquarters. Jack Blomberg was its first president. According to a story in the local newspaper, the purpose of the organization was “to improve…the young men of the Jewish race in Asheville and to advance their spiritual, physical, and intellectual interests.”
Several Asheville Jews were attracted to the area for its healthy air and natural beauty, as well as its tuberculosis sanitariums. Harry Finklestein was living in Jacksonville, Florida when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He decided to move to Asheville for treatment, where he learned that he had been misdiagnosed. Finklestein liked Asheville so much that he decided to stay, opening a pawn shop in 1903. Rebecca Rosenfeld, a Russian-born widow, ran a Jewish boarding house that attracted vacationers and those seeking medical treatment.
Perhaps the most notable Jew to move to Asheville was Philip S. Henry, a native Australian who made a fortune in copper and coffee before moving to the United States in 1900. After a tragic fire took the life of his wife in 1903, Henry left New York City and purchased the Zealandia Estate on Beaucatcher Mountain in Asheville, where he resided until his death in 1933. Henry added a Tudor Mansion and doubled the size of the estate. Recognized as an international Jewish leader, the globe-trotting Henry spent many years as a board member of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Henry was an avid book collector, and after he found a rare 1616 manuscript of Hapsburg history, he was summoned for a special audience with Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, who awarded him a Commander of the Order of Franz Josef. Henry was also a major art collector, and founded the Asheville Art Association and Museum in 1930. Henry also supported the Asheville Jewish community, donating money to Beth Ha-Tephila so they could remove the steeple from the former church in which they worshipped.
In the early 20th century, Jewish-owned businesses lined Asheville’s downtown streets, especially Biltmore Avenue. According to local historians Jan Schochet and Sharon Fahrer, there were around 25 Jewish-owned retail stores in Asheville during the 1920s. The large Michalove family owned over 20 different businesses in Asheville between 1896 and 1974, including Solomon Michalove’s IXL store, which sold specialized glassware and china. In 1920, Lou Pollock opened a shoe store on Patton Avenue with his brother Ben. Over the years, Pollock’s Shoes became a local institution. Each Christmas, Lou Pollock would sponsor a large party during which he would give free shoes to local needy children. In 1922, Coleman Zageir opened the Man Store, which sold men’s clothing from their Patton Avenue location for 40 years. Zageir was very popular with his customers as generations of Asheville men bought their suits from The Man Store. Zageir was very civically minded, giving anonymous college scholarships to needy students. When he died, the local newspaper and TV station praised Zageir in editorials. The University of North Carolina at Asheville honored Zageir by naming a campus building after him.
In their early years, both of Asheville’s Jewish congregations struggled, especially Beth Ha-Tephila. In 1907, the Reform congregation had only 16 members and an annual dues income of $250, too paltry to support even a part-time rabbi. Yet the 45 children in the congregation’s religious school pointed to brighter days ahead. Nevertheless by 1909, Beth Ha-Tephila had ceased holding weekly services, meeting only on the high holidays. By the late 1910s, the congregation had become reenergized, as Asheville’s Jewish population grew from 100 in 1907 to 700 by 1927. Between 1910 and 1925, Beth Ha-Tephila’s membership tripled, and the congregation was finally able to hire a full-time rabbi.
As Beth Ha-Tephila grew, there was an effort by some members to move away from Reform Judaism. In 1919, one board member proposed that the congregation leave the UAHC and adopt Conservative Judaism. At a congregational meeting, Solomon Lipinsky, who had been a founding member of Beth Ha-Tephila, spoke for over an hour in favor of maintaining Reform, arguing that Judaism needed to be modernized in order to stay relevant for their American-born children. Swayed by Lipinsky’s speech, the members voted overwhelmingly to maintain their affiliation with the Reform movement. In 1920, Beth Ha-Tephila hired Reform Rabbi Harvey Wessel, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College. The congregation thrived during the 1920s, reaching a peak of 95 members. In 1922, members founded a sisterhood that quickly raised money for a new organ and a car for the rabbi. In 1928, the congregation bought a house on Montford Avenue as a Jewish center for social and cultural events. The congregation even bought land for a new synagogue, but the Great Depression soon changed these plans.
The national economic downturn hit Asheville especially hard, and the same was true for its Jewish community. The number of Jewish–owned stores in downtown Asheville dropped from 25 to 8 during the Depression. Beth Ha-Tephila reached a low of 54 members during the 1930s. The congregation had a hard time paying the mortgage on its new Jewish Center, and the house was foreclosed on. Rabbi Moses Jacobson agreed to cut his salary dramatically, but when he retired in 1934, members seriously discussed disbanding the congregation. Rabbi Louis Egelson of the UAHC visited Asheville during this crisis and convinced the congregation to soldier on. He even found them a young rabbi, Alexander Kline, who would work for a small salary. By the end of the decade, Beth Ha-Tephila was on the rebound, growing from 73 members in 1938 to 113 in 1941. In 1949, the congregation’s longtime dream of a new synagogue building finally came to fruition.
Bikur Cholim suffered its own hardships, including a fire in their building in 1916 and tremendous turnover in rabbinic leadership. Between 1940 and 1953, the congregation had seven different rabbis. Most were Orthodox rabbis who had a hard time adjusting to life in a small southern town. By mid-century, Bikur Cholim began to move away from traditional practice as a new American-born generation took on leadership roles in the congregation. In 1949, Bikur Cholim officially joined the Conservative Movement, affiliating with the United Synagogue of America. A year later, the congregation changed its name to Beth Israel. During the 1950s, the congregation voted to shorten the Saturday morning service and change the start time from 10 am to 8 am, so members would be able to open their stores on their busiest day of the week. This change reflected the compromises that Asheville Jews had to make in order to maintain both their Jewishness and their livelihood. In 1956, Beth Israel witnessed a bizarre incident in which a crazed religious fanatic entered the synagogue and smashed the pulpit furniture with a piece of wood. Taking the ark cover and wrapping it around his body, the man went out to the synagogue’s front steps and began preaching, before being arrested by local police.
This strange incident was not the first occurrence of anti-Semitism in Asheville. For a long time, Jews were excluded from the local country club. Most notably, William Dudley Pelley, the virulent anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer, moved his Silver Shirts League to Asheville in 1932. When local Jew William Rosenfeld carried the American flag during an Asheville parade, Pelley declared it an insult to America in his newsletter. Pelley never developed much of a following in Asheville and was largely ostracized by the larger community; he moved to Noblesville, Indiana in 1942, where he was arrested and convicted of securities fraud. Asheville Jews were not intimidated by Pelley, and even established a Jewish Community Center across the street from the Silver Shirts League headquarters in 1939.
After World War II, Asheville Jews continued to concentrate in retail trade, with many Jewish-owned stores still located downtown. In many cases, these stores were owned by the children of the founding members of the Jewish community. Five of Aaron Blomberg’s children owned business in Asheville. Harry Blomberg, the son of Lewis, owned a successful car dealership and garage. In 1941, Harry bought the boarding house that had been run by Thomas Wolfe’s mother in order to prevent the landmark from being torn down. Soon after, Blomberg sold the building to the Wolfe family so it could be preserved as a museum to the famous writer. The house still stands in Asheville today as an official state historic site. Louis Lipinsky joined his father Solomon in the family business, eventually running their Bon Marche store in Asheville. Like Harry Blomberg, Louis was very civically minded, serving as president of the local chamber of commerce and as vice-president of the Asheville City Council in the 1930s. Lipinsky was heavily involved in building up Asheville-Biltmore College, and led the effort to make the school part of the University of North Carolina system. An auditorium on the now UNC-Asheville campus was named in Lipinsky’s honor. Several other campus buildings were named after local Jewish families.
Not all Jews in Asheville had retail stores. The Slossman family started with rags and today makes disposable garments and cloths, the Dave family was in the steel fabricating business, the Sternbergs were in the junk business, while the Mills family manufactures parachutes. Sprinza Weizenblatt was a renowned eye doctor, while Gus Adler ran the Sky Club, a supper club on Beaucatcher Mountain where movie stars such as Grace Kelly andRobert Mitchum would come to socialize. Nearby Black Mountain College attracted Jewish artists like Joseph and Anni Albers, Ben Shahn, photographer Aaron Siskind, and poet Paul Goodman.
In recent decades, the Jewish community of Asheville has thrived as the city has undergone a renaissance. Tourism and a vibrant arts scene have attracted young people and retirees to the area. Downtown’s commercial district faded in the 1970s as suburban shopping centers and chain stores led to the closure of downtown retail businesses, including many owned by Jews such as Winner’s and Bon Marche. Recently, downtown Asheville has experienced a resurgence, with many locally owned boutiques and restaurants opening up, though the days of Jewish retail dominance have not returned. Nevertheless, the Asheville Jewish community has grown tremendously as Jews from other parts of the country have been drawn to the city’s lifestyle with its natural beauty and rustic cosmopolitanism. Asheville’s Jewish population grew from 600 people in 1947 to 1,300 in 1997. In the last decade or so, the Jewish community has almost doubled, reaching an estimated 2,500 people in 2011.
Asheville’s Jewish institutions have benefited greatly from this growth. Beth Israel built a new synagogue on Murdock Avenue in 1969 which still served the thriving congregation’s 200 members in 2009. Beth Ha-Tephila has seen its membership grow from 130 families in 1985 to almost 300 in 2009. The Jewish Community Center, which had been founded in 1939, tore down its old house and constructed a new building on the same site in 1994. Today, Asheville’s thriving Jewish community includes a Jewish Community Center, the center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Asheville, Jewish Family Services, the Asheville Jewish Business Forum, annual food, music, and film festivals, a Jewish archive, and a Chabad House. Asheville’s Jewish community has never been bigger and continues to grow, pointing toward an even brighter future.
One Jewish Asheville graciously acknowledges the contribution of The Institute of Southern Jewish Living and Sharon Fahrer of History@Hand for providing the content for this site.
Photos courtesy of UNC-Asheville Ramsey Library Special Collections.