Celebrating Hanukah at the Religious School, 1993
Though it suffered a period of decline in numbers almost to extinction in the mid-20th century, Charlottesville's Jewish community now flourishes in part due to the influx of Jewish faculty and staff and their families from the University along with the general growth of the city. The Hillel Jewish Center at the University provides a link between the students, the academic community and local Jewish life. Temple Beth Israel, now more than 110 years old, and home to a growing and diverse Jewish community, is among the oldest continuously utilized synagogues in the South.
Jewish students and Hillel went through tumultuous times during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s. B'nai B'rith spoke out in support of racial integration of the nation's universities, and Hillel House on University Circle was used by civil rights groups for meetings. Local segregationists responded by painting swastikas on UVa's Old Cabell Hall with the slogan, "Jews-Back To Your Homeland!"
As the University reaffirmed its founding Jeffersonian principles of freedom of religion, increasing numbers of Jews were admitted to the University beginning in the 1960s. This was part of the tremendous changes at UVa that finally opened the University to minorities, especially African-Americans, and to women. An important step for the University's Jewish life was taken in the 1980s when the Religious Studies Department established the Bronfman Chair in Jewish Studies. Study of Jewish history, thought, and literature had now been given academic acceptance.
By the 1960s, another population of Jews had arrived in town, representing contingents from the University faculty and staff, and retirees from northern climates. The Jewish population became yet more diverse, both in terms of religious practices, professional background, and lifestyle. For a time, more traditional Jews met separately in a small Saturday morning minyan (prayer group) in homes or at Hillel. Later this group moved services back to the synagogue, which now accommodated two distinct styles of worship, Reform on Friday nights, and Conservative/traditional on Saturday mornings. By the 1960s the congregation hired a part-time rabbi, and by the 1980s a full-time rabbi.
Around the same time, a chapter of Hadassah, an international Jewish women's charitable organization, was founded. Charlottesville now reflected the full diversity of Jewish life: a business community which could trace its roots back to the early nineteenth century, and an intellectual and professional community associated with the University. And by the 1960's the Charlottesville-Albemarle area was also home to many Jews not affiliated with the organized community. These ranged from well-connected Jews who were now accepted in social organizations that would have excluded them a generation before (notably Farmington Country Club) to Jews living on the land in rural communes and experimenting with varieties of religious practices.
Today, the Jewish community in Charlottesville grows -- with institutions including Congregation Beth Israel and its Religious School, the Hillel Jewish Center at the University of Virginia, Hadassah, United Jewish Appeal, B'nai B'rith, and other Jewish groups -- working together to furfill their meaningful causes and expressing the vibrant life of a strong community. Jewish individuals in civic life and the arts add diversity to the culture of this small Southern city.