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Jews of West Virginia

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This is an umbrella project for all projects related to Jews from West Virginia.

For an exhaustive description of Jewish genealogical resources for West Virginia, see:

'The Encyclopedia of West Virginia': Article on Jews in West Virginia -

West Virginia is a state in the Eastern Central section of the U.S. Coal mining has been the predominant industry, but with automation the number of coal miners has declined and there has been some migration out of the state. The Jewish population has also declined. From a reported high in 1956 of 6,000, the Jewish population fell to 4,755 in 1967, and to 2,335 in 2013.

Jewish life in the state has been largely a co-extension of the religious organization. The first congregation, L'shem Shomayim, was formed in Wheeling in 1849, 14 years before West Virginia became a state, and Charleston's B'nai Israel was formed in 1873. West Virginia's congregations, their numbers permitting, have always tried to maintain rabbinical leadership on a regular basis. The smaller congregations, unable to do so, have, especially in the southern part of the state, welcomed Reform student rabbis. Over a period of two or three decades more than 60 such rabbis served the smaller communities.

In addition to the congregations themselves, there are congregational women's organizations in most of the communities and congregational men's organizations in a few. Both the Zionist Organization and Hadassah are represented in five of the communities. The National Council of Jewish Women has a chapter only in Charleston. Fund-raising is conducted by a Federated Jewish Charities organization in Charleston, Huntington, and Bluefield-Princeton; in Wheeling it is conducted under the auspices of a Jewish community council. In the last few years there has been a considerable influx of Jewish students from the northern cities. Morris Harvey College in Charleston has roughly 300 Jewish students; Marshall University in Huntington, 65; and West Virginia University in Morgantown, 300. The state university has a Hillel Foundation which was directed by Rabbi Herbert J. Wilner, who also served as spiritual leader of Morgantown's Congregation Tree of Life.

Jews have always taken a vigorous part in public affairs. In 1957–58, Harold L. Frankel served as mayor of Huntington. Serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates (lower division of the state legislature) in the early 1970s were Ivor F. Boiarsky, Simon H. Galperin, Jr., and Leo G. Kopelman. Paul J. Kaufman was a member of the Senate. Fred H. Caplan was a member of the five-man Supreme Court of Appeals. Others serving in the previous decade in the House of Delegates were David A. Abrams, David M. Baker, Stanley E. Deutsch, and Fred H. Caplan. Rabbis, too, have been prominently involved in state affairs. Rabbi Martin Siegel of Wheeling was chairman of the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Council; Rabbi Samuel Cooper, from 1932 rabbi of Charleston's B'nai Jacob Congregation, was chairman of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission. Rabbi Samuel Volkman, rabbi of Charleston's B'nai Israel Congregation from 1952 and regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1957 to 1959, served as a member of the West Virginia Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Jewish resident Benjamin Rosenbloom represented West Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving from 1921-1925. Jewish Lithuanian immigrant Abraham Kaplon was one of the first people to settle in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, and he served on the town council for 25 years. The home that Kaplon built still stands to this day.

Every few years the descendants of Simon and Ida Meyer, some of the original Jewish residents of West Virginia, sponsor the West Virginia Jewish Reunion in Charlestown. Approximately 40 people attended the reunion in 2013.

The largest Jewish Community is in Charleston, the capital. There are two synagogues in the city, a traditional congregation with an Orthodox rabbi and a Reform Congregation. There is a joint Conservative/Reform Congregation in Huntington. There are Reform congregations in Beckley, Bluefield, Morgantown, Parkersburg and Wheeling. At one time there were multiple synagogues in Huntington and Wheeling. Unfortunately synagogues have closed recently in Martinsburg and Williamson. Congregation B'nai Shalom in Huntington is listed on the U.S. National Register of historic places. The states only Holocaust Monument is located on the grounds of the synagogue.

As of 2013, West Virginia's Jewish population was approximately 2,335 people.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. A.I. Shinedling, West Virginia Jewry: Origins and History, 1850 – 1958, 3 vols. (1963).

1) About 2,300 Jews live in West Virginia, which is 0.1 percent of the state’s population. 2) Every four years, the West Virginia Jewish Reunion is held in Charleston, reuniting hundreds of former and current residents from across the state. The event, which is sponsored by descendants of Simon and Ida Meyer of Huntington, includes educational and cultural programming, a banquet, and Shabbat services. 3) The Shoney’s restaurant chain was started by Alex Schoenbaum in his hometown, Charleston, in 1947. Today there are more than 200 locations in 16 states. 4) Benjamin Rosenbloom is the only Jew to have represented West Virginia in the U.S. Congress. The Wheeling Republican served in the House of Representatives from 1921 to 1925. 5) Jules Rivlin of Wheeling played three seasons in the National Basketball League (precursor to the NBA) in the 1940s. He later coached Marshall College (now Marshall University), in Huntington, to its first NCAA tournament appearance, in 1956. Among his players that year was future Hall of Famer Hal Greer, himself a Huntington native. 6) Daniel Mayer of Charleston was the first Jewish member of the West Virginia state legislature. The German immigrant was elected in 1889. President William McKinley appointed him U.S. consul to Argentina in 1897. 7) In Keystone, a tiny coal town in the southern tip of the state, Jews made up 10 percent of the population in 1900. That’s comparable to the Jewish population of New York City today. In the 1960s, when only a few Jews were left in Keystone, Julian Budnick was elected mayor. 8) The first synagogue in the state was Congregation L’Shem Shomayim in Wheeling. It was formed by Central European immigrants in 1849, some 14 years before West Virginia became a state. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, a prominent American Zionist, had his first pulpit job at this synagogue, from 1915 to 1917. 9) Lewis Strauss, born in Charleston, was chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1953 to 1958. Strauss had been an early proponent of the development of the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb. President Dwight Eisenhower appointed him Acting Secretary of Commerce in 1958, but Strauss’s nomination was voted down by the U.S. Senate the next year. 10) Fred Caplan of Clarksburg served on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals from 1962 to 1980. 11) Congregation B’nai Sholom (formerly Ohev Sholom) in Huntington has the only synagogue in West Virginia listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Byzantine-style building opened in 1926; the congregation dates to 1887. 12) David Shear, an immigrant from Poland, was the mayor of Romney in the 1950s and ’60s. For several decades his family owned a department store in the small city (population 2,000). Romney is West Virginia’s oldest town, but Shear was the only Jew living there at the time. 13) The Keith-Albee theater in Huntington, designed by noted architect Thomas Lamb, was owned by the Hyman family from 1928 to 2006. When it opened, it was the second-largest theater in America. The restored Spanish Baroque–style building is on the National Register of Historic Places. 14) Abraham Kaplon, a Lithuanian immigrant, was one of the few Jews to settle in Harpers Ferry. He arrived just a few decades after the abolitionist John Brown raided the federal armory there, which led to the Civil War. Kaplon owned a large department store, was the streets commissioner, and served on the town council for 25 years. The home he built in 1908 still stands.

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