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What is the oldest Jewish house of worship in North Carolina?

Ben Steelman

The Temple of Israel, 1 South Fourth St., Wilmington [Map this], was built between 1873 and 1876, from a “Moorish Revival” design, with James Walker as the local supervising architect.

Some of the Lower Cape Fear’s earliest settlers were probably Jewish. David David bought a lot and built a house in Wilmington in 1738, Aaron Lazarus and other Sephardic Jews were residing here by 1800. (Judah P. Benjamin, the future Confederate secretary of state, passed through town as a toddler in the early 1810s, when his parents arrived from the British West Indies.)

The Jewish community began to grow rapidly in the 1840s, as Ashkenazic Jews from Germany joined the great German migration that followed the revolutions of 1848. A Jewish charitable group and burial society, the True Brothers, formed in Wilmington in 1853. In 1855, Rabbi Isaac Lesser of Philadelphia dedicated the Hebrew Cemetery at Oakdale. In 1867, E.M. Myers, a cantor, arrived from Charleston, S.C., and consecrated a brick building between Dock and Orange streets, formerly used by Wilmington’s First Presbyterian Church, as an Orthodox synagogue. Within a year, however, the congregation had disbanded due to disputes over modes of worship, according to historian Walter H. Conser Jr.

Local residents Abram Weill and Solomon Bear soon led efforts to launch a Reform Jewish congregation in Wilmington. The Reform congregation, with about 40 families, formally organized on Dec. 8, 1872, with Solomon Bear as first president

The Ladies’ Concordia Society, a Jewish women’s group, also organized in 1872 and quickly began raising funds. Eventually the society would buy a Torah and a Pilcher Tracker organ for the future congregation, as well as a parsonage for the rabbi.

The cornerstone for the new Temple was laid on July 15, 1875, with Masonic participation. In February 1876, Samuel Mendelsohn, a Russian-born student of Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, was called from Norfolk, Va., to become the congregation’s first rabbi. He presided at the dedication of the Temple building on March 12, 1876. A nationally known Hebrew scholar who wrote a number of learned volumes on biblical studies, Mendelsohn remained rabbi of the Temple of Israel until 1922.

From the start, the Temple had warm relations with its Christian neighbors. When Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany died in 1888, Rabbi Mendelsohn delivered the eulogy at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. When Front Street Methodist Church was destroyed by fire in 1886, members of the Temple invited the Methodists to use their building until a new church could be built. (The Methodists accepted and met at the Temple for two years.)

Some confusion exists over which architect designed the Temple building, with its distinctive onion-domed spires. Architectural historian Tony Wrenn and many other sources cite Alexander Strausz, onetime owner of the Cape Fear Building Co. At the Temple’s 50th anniversary, however, congregation president Marcus Jacobi credited Samuel Sloan, the Philadelphia architect who drew plans for both Wilmington’s First Baptist Church and First Presbyterian Church. James Sprunt, in his Chronicles of the Cape Fear, noted that plans for the Temple building were “drawn in Philadelphia.”

Before the Temple was built, Jews frequently worshiped in private homes. Some met at St. James Episcopal Church, and a few even joined in Episcopal services there. Aaron Lazarus contributed to St. James and served as a trustee of the parish, saying “I can worship Jehovah in any of His temples.” Jacob Levi was also a trustee of St. James, and intermarriages were not uncommon.

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