The first act in the establishment of a Jewish community is the founding of a cemetery. Jews can worship anywhere, in a private house if need be, until a separate building can be constructed; but for burial a proper Jewish cemetery is necessary. Thus the cemetery in many communities predates the synagogue, in Charlottesville as in Richmond and other towns.

Before there was a synagogue, there was a Charlottesville Hebrew Benevolent Society. Its concern was providing for proper religious burial of the community. In 1870, B. Oberdorfer and Isaac Leterman purchased property off Cherry Street, adjacent to the City's Oakwood cemetery, to serve as a Jewish cemetery. The deed for the property read:

To be held and possessed however by the said Isaac Leterman and B. Oberdorfer as trustees, for the use and occupation and benefit of the Hebrew congregation in Charlottesville...and each and every member of said Hebrew congregation who are now members ... or who shall at any future time become members of said Hebrew congregation. 16



In death, as in life, the names of Leterman, Oberdorfer, and Kaufman, were adjacent and prominent in the cemetery plots.

The account books for the synagogue reveal that the one consistent financial commitment of the congregation was for the cemetery. When extra funds became available in the early 1900s, an impressive stone wall with an iron gate was built around the cemetery property. Regularly throughout the year, every year, a check was issued for maintenance. But in the 1940s, as the population of the Jewish community dwindled and there was concern that there would not be a future generation to care for the cemetery, the leaders of the Jewish community turned the cemetery over to the City of Charlottesville for permanent care. In the 1980s as it became clear that the population trend had reversed itself, the Temple reclaimed the cemetery.



On January 5, 1882, the oldest and possibly last preserved record book of the Hebrew Benevolent Society opened by stating that "The Society met this day at Oberdorfer Hall this being the regular quarterly meeting...." That day they voted funds for a burial, a donation for aid to Russian refugees, and recorded an initiation fee. By the next meeting, the Society had become the Beth Israel Congregation. On October 5, 1882, the Jewish families of Charlottesville laid the cornerstone for Temple Beth Israel, the first synagogue in the region. It was built at the corner of Second and Market Streets in Charlottesville. Isaac Leterman and B. Oberdorfer were again both trustees. They engaged a locally respected architect, George W. Spooner. His design was Gothic Revival, a popular style for religious buildings for all faiths in American in the late nineteenth century, and typical for synagogues built at that time (with the Moorish style used as an alternative). Because Jews have lived all over the globe over thousands of years, there has never been a single style that defines a synagogue. As they did in so many of their religious practices in America, the leaders of the new Jewish congregation adopted the style of their region.l7

A rabbi, William Weinstein of Alabama, was hired to lead the congegation. After a few years, however, the congregation adopted a pattern of lay leadership which remained in effect until the 1940s when a rabbi for the community was jointly hired by the Temple and the new Hillel Foundation at the University. Moses Kaufman served as lay reader until his death in 1898, replaced by his oldest son, Mortimer Kaufman, who was the reader for much of the next forty years.

Beth Israel Congregation in the early 20th century Legend states that the building was moved "brick by brick" from Second and Market to Third and Jefferson in 1904; however, it was probably modified and improved. No one knows why the building was oriented with the entrance to the south and the ark, containing the Torah scrolls, on the north, contrary to the near universal Jewish practice of locating the ark on the eastern wall. Built by a local architect in a common style of religious architecture of the time, it resembles a church building of the era, right up to the fleurs-de-lis, often mistaken for crosses, that decorate the roofline. Congregants recall that the service was read in English with a few symbolic Hebrew prayers included. On special occasions, those who could read Hebrew, such as Ellis Mopsik, would read from the Torah. A choir would sing from the balcony where an organ was also played. On most Friday nights, the choir consisted of Florence Shapero, Walters and Tillie Rubin. On the High Holidays, they would be joined by Christian neighbors and friends. The renowned reform rabbi and orator from Richmond, Rabbi Nathan Calisch, would often officiate at special ritual occasions in Charlottesville.

In 1902, the congregation was offered $10,000 by the Federal government for the property at Second and Market Streets. The government intended to build a post office at that location (now used by the Charlottesville Public Library). The congregation apparently split over the decision as to whether to accept the offer. In a law suit recorded in the Charlottesville City Court, Moses Leterman on behalf of the congregation's members sued the trustees over their decision to accept the government's offer. The trustees were his uncle Isaac Leterman and his father-in-law B. Oberdorfer! The court decided on behalf of the trustees. Symbolic of the kind of compromise which marked the synagogue's history, Moses Leterman became head of the new building committee.

In 1904, Temple Beth Israel was moved "brick by brick" to a new location at Third and Jefferson. A story in the Daily Progress on the occasion of the dedication of the new structure suggests that while the old building materials had been salvaged and reused, the new structure was slightly mod)fied on the interior, noting that it was "more modern and better adapted for worship." 18

These founding families all practiced in the German Reform tradition, now part of an American Reform tradition as well. Judaism was important to the founders, but so was integration into their larger surroundings.

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Text copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey Hantman and Phyllis Leffler
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