Over the last two decades, documentation of the history of Jewish communities in the South has been growing at a steady pace. From the large port cities of the Atlantic coast to rural towns dotting the landscape from Virginia to Louisiana, Southern Jewish history has been written and illustrated in many voices and from many perspectives. This new research has illuminated the diversity of the Jewish experience in America. 1
The history of the Jewish community of Charlottesville shares much in common with the broad sweep of the Jewish experience in the South and throughout America. It is a story of colonial era Sephardic Jews and of nineteenth century immigrants first from Bavaria and Wurttemberg and then from Kovno and Minsk. It is a story of peddlers and merchants, and of involvement and leadership in local government, the arts and education. It is a story of the commitment of a few to the creation and maintenance of local civic and religious institutions. However familiar, it is a story worth remembering in every city in which it happened. 2
The history of Jewish life in Charlottesville is unique as well. Charlottesville is the home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the documents promoting the concepts of freedom and equality which are basic to the American heritage. Moreover, Jefferson was the architect of the precious foundation of the separation of church and state upon which the American Jewish experience was built and has flourished. And, Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia - founded by Jefferson as the first institution of higher education in America which did not impose or require a particular theology of its students or faculty. Jefferson and his ideals still loom large over the city and its university.
What has been the Jewish experience in Jefferson's city and university? In the text which follows we consider this question in the context of the ideals of religious freedom established here some two centuries ago.
Just two short blocks from the courthouse square where Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe regularly met, Congregation Beth Israel synagogue rises prominently on the downtown landscape. Beth Israel is, and always has been, the only synagogue in Charlottesville. It is one of the oldest continuously used synagogues in the South. Today, its membership exceeds its capacity; more than 280 families are members and the religious school population is nearly 200. At the University of Virginia nearby, the Hillel Jewish Center maintains an active religious and cultural program for Jewish students and the city, serving a campus Jewish population estimated at over 1,500
Even as Jewish communities in small towns throughout the South are shrinking and rapidly disappearing 3, the Charlottesville Jewish population has grown dramatically in recent years. In this way too the history of the Charlottesville Jewish community offers a distinct perspective on the Southern Jewish experience.
Finally, the history of Jewish life in Charlottesville is a story of persistence and flexibility. It is the story of the maintenance of a sense of community and shared purpose despite internal religious and social differences. In this one synagogue in this small city many of the strikingly diverse threads of the Southern Jewish experience were woven together. Collectively, the Jewish families of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia were, as with most communities, more diverse than they appear. The differences are important and we value them today; they reflect distinct histories and experiences. These differences sometimes caused divisions along the line of religion or country of birth, religious practice, social standing or economics. But those fissures were negotiated. In the stories told to us by those who lived the history of Charlottesville's Jewish community, we see and hear of differences within, but we also see and hear of a remarkably flexible and tolerant community.
At the University of Virginia, where the credo of religious freedom offered so much promise in the early 1800s, the story told is of opportunity denied and then later regained. With limitations on Jewish admittance, preference was given to Virginia's Jews, and so few were able to realize the benefits of the University more directly than the children and grandchildren of the Jewish merchants who had built their businesses in Charlottesville's downtown area. But this door of opportunity did not open very wide. While admission for Jewish students was closely monitored, Jewish faculty were virtually non-existent.
Few of the first immigrant families to settle in Charlottesville remained for more than two or three generations. Still, their scattered descendants remain proud and close to the city their grandparents and parents helped build and to the University which they or their parents were able to attend. The pride and sense of community those families fostered has been passed on to the current members of the Jewish community who have inherited the history.
The exhibit To Seek the Peace of the City was our attempt to illuminate the principal themes, people, and images of Jewish life in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This effort expanded upon an earlier exhibit, Jewish Life at Mr. Jefferson's University, which was presented at the University of Virginia in 1993 as part of the University's commemoration of the 250th birthday of Thomas Jefferson.
For the present exhibit, our research has included numerous interviews with descendants of the families who founded and maintained the Charlottesville Jewish community, as well as with current and former members of the community whose roots in Charlottesville extended into the first half of the twentieth century. We draw upon these oral histories in some of the text presented here. We have conducted original documentary research and wherever possible we have drawn from the previously published research of other scholars who have written on Jewish history in Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia and in the South.
Charlottesville, Virginia July 1994