WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (AP) — The last service to be held in the B’nai Israel Temple on Sunday signifies more than the closing of a congregations’ place of worship. It is proof a group which once thrived in Williamson is disappearing from the place they called home.
“We wanted to keep it in Williamson,” said South Williamson, Ky., resident Bill Rosen, who shed tears during the last service at the temple in which he served as president over the last 15 to 20 years. “We’ve been a major part of Williamson since the early 1900s.”
The handful left of a once thriving congregation from B’nai Israel, located on College Hill, were afforded a moment to speak at the last service Sunday. Rabbi Dr. David Wucher came with other members of the Huntington-based B’nai Sholom congregation, including the choir, to help B’nai Israel celebrate the 82 years Williamson’s Jewish population utilized the temple, as well as close the facility for which the group can no longer care.
Rabbi Wucher introduced Rosen as, “The man who has been the heart and soul of this temple for many, many years.”
Remembering the social gatherings, dinners, weddings, etc., the 82-year-old Rosen, who recently had a hip replacement, broke into tears, saying, “Forgive me, please. We tried to hang on to this. We just can’t.”
“We are a dwindling population,” local businessman Yossi Hayon said, giving the reasons behind the congregation’s decision to relinquish the temple.
The B’nai Israel congregation consisted of about nine families as of Sunday, Rosen said, adding most will become members of the Huntington congregation. The families are Bill Rosen, who is the longest resident in Williamson of the Jewish community; Ivan and Vicky Albert of South Williamson; Heddy Hess of Williamson; Debbie Hess, Heddy Hess’ daughter and mother of Evan Hayon, who is the youngest member of the congregation at 14; Yossi Hayon of Forest Hills, Ky., who is Evan Hayon’s father; Tony Zappan of Williamson; Jean and John Rosenburg of Prestonsburg; Miriam Silman of Salyersville, Ky.; and Edward Eiland and son Peter Eiland of Logan.
Arriving in Williamson about 20 years ago, Israel-born Hayon came to the United States in 1988, and says he has “just tasted” the rich history of Judaism in Appalachia.
“There used to be 80-some families in the area,” said Rosen. “We had well over a hundred members.”
The B’nai Israel Temple, built on College Hill in 1927, was remodeled in 1956 to accommodate the growing congregation of Jewish attendees. Another half — the lower entrance — was added to the original structure for Sunday school (six classes).
“We had a lot of kids,” said Rosen, who came to the area in November 1947.
Jewish people first came to the area in the early 1900s, selling wares off of their wagons, Rosen said, adding, “They saw how prosperous the community was and they came and opened stores.”
The contributions to the community were many, he said, pointing out that Goodman Manor is named after Sidney Goodman, an early insurance salesman, who was instrumental in getting Goodman Manor built for the elderly and less fortunate.
Taylor’s Jewelry owner Heddy Hess, whose daughter Debbie Hess now runs the store with the 69-year-old’s help, came to America from Israel when she was 16, and moved from New York to Williamson at 19 when she married Theodore Hess. Her in-laws bought Taylor’s Jewelry, one of numerous downtown shops owned by Jewish residents. Some of the businesses were Cinderella Boot Shop, B&L Furniture, Kaplan Furniture, Freeds Gift Shop, United Clothing, Browns Dress Shop, Schwachter Dress Shop, Nabes Dress Shop, Alberts Army Store, Alberts Pawn Shop, and Cinderella Theater, where the Jewish community members started meeting for services — in the basement — in 1916, Hess said.
Some of the shops went out of business and some were sold, like B&L Furniture, Kaplan’s Furniture, and Brown’s Dress Shop, while other business owners retired and moved to warmer climates. Their children went to college and didn’t come back, causing some of them to move away as well, Hess said.
“There is nothing here for them,” Rosen said. “They found other opportunities and they left town.”
Print media sources have reported over several years that the Jewish community has dwindled across the rural south as younger generations move to urban areas
“It’s just the way of life,” Hess said, “things change.”
Rabbi Wutcher reminded the congregation Sunday, “Wherever we go, we need to remember God’s laws.”
Hess read from Judaism’s book of law, the Torah, in Hebrew, as did several other members of the congregation. The Torah or Torah Scroll consists of the first five books of the Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
The B’nai Israel Temple has three Torah scrolls in its possession, one of which is about 200 years old. Another one of the scrolls was removed from Germany in the 1930s.
“My mother (Bella Weingartner) brought it from Germany,” Hess said. “She immigrated from Germany to Israel and then to the U.S.”
One of the scrolls was donated to the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C. The four-year high school will also get the stained glass windows from the B’Nai Israel Temple to go in their student temple, Hess said, asserting she hopes the building can be used for a good purpose.
Rabbi Wutcher and others will take the other two scrolls and more items back to the Huntington B’nai Sholom.
“I assure you on behalf of the Huntington congregation, we will honor it and take it as our own.
We will honor their memories and other important objects you place into our care,” Wutcher told the B’nai Israel congregation Sunday, while inviting them to become part of the Huntington group.
“I remember like yesterday when Evan (Hayon) was born. You (members of the congregation) carried the scroll in the hospital,” Wutcher said, laughing about other people’s reaction. “And there were many happy memories like these.
“One phase of our journey will end, but another will begin.”