Working on a project of this sort creates a strong sense of connectedness to the past. We now feel as if we "know" some of our ancestors -even while much remains to be discovered. Through this project, we have found new meaning for the phrase "I'd'or v'd'or" ("from generation to generation") - for the generations have become part of us, and these ancestors who built this community have a life beyond their names and their immediate kin. It has enriched our lives, because we have come to understand our Jewish history in this particular space. Each of us brings to Charlotttesville a history from another community; we are mostly a community of newcomers. But our personal histories are different from our Charlottesville history; working on this project has allowed us to appreciate our Charlottesville roots.
At the same time, it is not just the past that inspires us. Through this study of the past, we have come to see what it is that drives this community into the present and the future. Perhaps the biggest part of that past that inspires us is the religious tolerance that existed throughout Charlottesville's history. Maybe it's Jefferson standing in the wings, articulating his enlightenened philosophy of acceptance of all religions that has cast its values on this city.
Whatever the basis, we have been impressed by the history of religious tolerance both outside and inside the Jewish community. Our ancestors here were well respected families, for whom entry to the city was not barred. They, in fact, helped to create the city. They worked next to their Christian neighbors to make Charlottesville an attractive place, and they were appreciated for it. In turn, they smoothed over whatever differences emerged with other Jews in the city, differences based on place of origin, and ritual practice, which was often so divisive in other places. Officially affiliating with the Reform movement during the 1920s, they allowed for more traditional forms of worship either in the sanctuary or above their nearby stores. They knew how important it was to offer all Jews a home, and they made the necessary accommodations.
We find it ironic, however, that the University founded on a basis of tolerance for all religions was so slow in putting that tolerance into practice, instead maintaining informal and formal restrictions on full Jewish participation in academic and student life well into the twentieth century. Fortunately, much has now changed.
As our community expands, its leadership changes. For most of the first half-century of the synagogue's history, lay leaders predominated. For very special occasions, rabbis might come from Richmond or other nearby communities. Marriges might occur in Richmond or Baltimore. By the late 30s, B'nai B'rith Hillel and the synagogue jointly supported a rabbi to serve both the University and the Charlottesville community. Finally by the 1980s, the community could sustain a fulltime rabbi. Now in the 1990s, Rabbi Dan Alexander has a real presence in our city, serving on the Council of Interfaith Ministries, and through his wise counsel, steering us into the twenty-first century. His quiet leadership, his acceptance of and tolerence for diversity, would have made our founders proud. The Hillel Jewish Student Center continues to combine the energies of a professional Director with the support of graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, and University staff and administrators. The current Director, David Chack, brings his commitment to Jewish culture and the arts to center stage at the university, enriching life for both Jewish and non-Jewish students.
This project now enters a new phase. We have explored what we can about the earliest history, and have brought the story through the middle of the twentieth century. It was about that point that the very small community that was here began to expand. It expanded not so much through increasing business opportunities, but through the opening of doors for faculty at the University of Virginia. That part of the story has yet to be told. How did the new people who came experience Jewish life? How did they contribute to the synagogue? How did they interact with the business people in town? At the same time, we are interested in what happened to the families that left. What networks were created to other cities? Where did people go and why did they leave Charlottesville? We will continue this project, hoping to launch further exhibits, and more opportunies for oral history that will create an ongoing archive for those with future interests.
It is very fitting to pay tribute to our past as we plan for our future. Congregation Beth Israel is now bursting at the seams. With approximately 280 families, and over 200 children in the Religious School, we can no longer fit ourselves into the beautiful building that ties us to our past. Faced with this dilemma, many communities have chosen to build anew someplace else. We, however, have decided to preserve our history by remaining at our present site, even with the difficulties that involves. As we launch into a major building project, we will protect the historic sanctuary, expanding as we can on adjacent land, with a multi-story addition. It is our way of staying connected to our past and of honoring it. Our forebears in Charlottesville built too interesting and vital a structure for us to move to another location.
All of us who worked on this project had come to Charlottesville within the past ten years. When we arrived, we found the small brick synagogue on the corner of Third and Jefferson Streets, and wondered how it came to be there, and still, used after a hundred years. The building, its sanctuary and the names and dates inscribed upon; compelled us to want to know more about the families and events associated with those names. And there was Hillel, housed for the past fifty years in a handsome mansion on the edge of the University of Virginia Grounds, a religious organizatio' serving a secular University. How had Jewish life come to seem so well established at UVA? So we started to ask questions.
The guestions turned into a form exercise in oral history, and then a search in documentary records and photographic archives, and finally into two exhibits, the first focusing on the University and the second on the City.