By: Barbara C. Freedman
TBO President 1985-1987
The first Jew known to live and work in Raleigh was Moses Mordecai, son of Jacob and Judith Mordecai, who established a school for girls in Warrenton, North Carolina in 1809. Moses, their oldest son, came to Raleigh in 1814 to study and later practice law. He became a prominent citizen, and married two of the daughters of Henry Lane, first Margaret, and, after her death, her sister Ann. Henry Lane’s father, Joel, was the owner of the land that became North Carolina’s capital city, and he built a home for Henry, now known as Mordecai House. Mordecai died young, at age 40 in 1824, and is buried in Historic Oakwood Cemetery. Scholars believe that Moses Mordecai remained a Jew all his life, although he certainly supported the church his wives and their family attended, Christ Church (Episcopal), located on Capitol Square in downtown Raleigh.
The next Jewish settler in Raleigh we know of is Michael Grausman, a native of Bavaria, who with his wife Regina came to Raleigh from Warrenton. Grausman was too short to serve in the Confederate Army, and so accepted a commission to provide uniforms for the Army. According to a memoir written by their daughter Mattie Grausman Israel, the Grausmans became involved in the community through war services and charities, and raised their children as Jews, isolated from the rest of the Jewish community in North Carolina and the South.
After the end of the Civil War, other Jews began to arrive, including the families of Gustave Rosenthal, Isaac Oettinger, Lipman Rosenthal, Gershon Heller, Louis Brie, and others. Around 1874 the Grausmans offered a room in their home as a synagogue and classroom for the growing Jewish community. Grausman had studied to be a rabbi in Bavaria, and taught Hebrew and Jewish history in the new synagogue. The group obtained a Torah and an Ark, and held worship services at the Grausman home.
Sometime in the 1880s, the group outgrew the space at Grausmans’ and moved to a room over Rosenbaum’s Millinery Store on Fayetteville Street. Michael Grausman and George Sloman taught the congregation, and Regina Grausman and the ladies assumed responsibility for the maintenance of the synagogue, including making beeswax candles that burned in the synagogue from Friday night until Saturday night to provide light during the Sabbath. By this time, children of the original settlers became active, including Hannah Grausman Rosenthal, Helen Grausman Elias, Bertha Rosenthal, Rosalie Heller Hanft, and Jerome and Herbert Rosenthal.
Michael Grausman died in 1891. The congregation in Raleigh appears to have been less active in the years 1891 through 1910, whether because of his death or other economic factors. However, a number of families arrived in Raleigh during that time who became important in the life of the Jewish community and the founding of Temple Beth Or. The names Berwanger (Sam, Dave and Abe), Isaac Seligson, Julius Schwartz, David Levine, Louis Cohen, Charles Kohn and Bernard Harris appear in the United States Census for 1900 and 1910.
1912: A Critical Year
In 1912, the growing Raleigh Jewish community met to form the Hebrew Sunday School Association. The meeting took place over Maurice Rosenthal’s grocery store, at the corner of Wilmington and Hargett Streets. This building, originally a hotel, would later become the location of the Heilig-Levine Furniture Store; today it houses Sitti Restaurant. Dr. Rudy, who taught at North Carolina State College, was named the Sunday School Superintendent.
The group included those who wanted to continue to teach according to the Orthodox traditions, conduct religious services entirely in Hebrew, and hold classes several afternoons a week, as well as on Sunday mornings, with intensive training in Hebrew. Others who attended wanted more modern religious practices in services, and wanted to teach on Sunday mornings and just one afternoon a week.
The congregation formed by the Hebrew Sunday School Association was briefly known as the Raleigh Hebrew Congregation. After much time spent attempting to reconcile the differences between the groups today we would call Orthodox and Reform, an impasse was reached. The congregation retained Rabbi H.A. Merfeld of New Bern to become an occasional lecturer. By 1913, he had been hired as permanent rabbi. With the adoption of a new constitution and bylaws, Temple Beth Or (“House of Light”) was organized. Maurice Rosenthal was the first president of the congregation.
Those Jews who did not want to join the Reform movement organized a YMHA, and, shortly later, an Orthodox congregation, first known as the House of Jacob, and then, in 1949, as Beth Meyer Synagogue.
1912 also marked a milestone for Jewish burials in Raleigh. In 1871, the Jewish community had purchased land within Oakwood Cemetery for Jewish burials. (The deed transferring the property from Oakwood Cemetery to the Hebrew Cemetery Association was signed for Oakwood by Moses Mordecai’s half-brother, George Washington Mordecai.) In 1912, the leaders of the Jewish community decided it was time to establish a separate Jewish cemetery. The founders purchased property, again from Oakwood, and established the Raleigh Hebrew Cemetery on State Street. The cemetery was incorporated in 1929, and the founders included members of both congregations. The Raleigh Hebrew Cemetery Association remains independent of any congregation, governed by members of the Jewish community as a non-profit organization.
In 1913, following the formation of Temple Beth Or, the Hebrew Sunday School Association was reorganized as the Ladies’ Aid Society. In 1914, as the Sisterhood of Temple Beth Or, it became a charter member of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, and has existed continuously since that time. The first president of the Sisterhood was Helen Grausman Elias, wife of David and daughter of Michael and Regina Grausman.
Other members on the rolls of the young congregation were: Rudy, Aronson, Levine, Rosenthal (two different families), Seligson, Pakula, Lazarus, Kline, Jacobs, Kohn, Levin, Levi, and Berwanger. In 1913 the names Schwartz, Kaplan, Goodman, Samuels, Heller and Cohen were added. A new entity had been created, and the small community began to build it.
Most of these names appear on the lists of Temple and Sisterhood presidents for the first 20 years of the congregation’s existence. Nearly all the members of Temple Beth Or at its founding were merchants. Most were immigrants, or the children of immigrants, from Prussia, Bavaria and Austria. Most had arrived from Europe to the Port of Baltimore, and set out to the South looking for opportunities. Many sold clothing, hats or shoes and opened stores on the city’s principal streets, Fayetteville Street being a prime location. A.I. Kaplan operated a dairy; Julius Schwartz was a butcher.
1912 – 1923
The young congregation began to shape the second floor of the Rosenthal building into a synagogue. Members donated curtains for the Ark, an Eternal Light, chairs for the altar, and a large reader’s Bible. A fund was established for the purpose of building a permanent synagogue. It was known as the “Sandwich Fund”, since it began with the Sisterhood making sandwiches sold in a downtown drugstore at lunch time. Cake sales, rummage sales, card parties and raffles were held to help build the Sandwich Fund.
In 1914, Rabbi Merfeld officiated at the first Confirmation. Five young people were confirmed: Fannye, Isaac and Henry Schwartz, the children of Julius and Lena Schwartz; Sadie Kaplan; and Simeon Nathan. In the class picture, Rabbi Merfeld is wearing a clerical collar, standard attire for a Reform rabbi in that era. The congregation continued to grow, with the addition of the Ellisberg, J.L. Emanuel, William Perlstein, Sig Schafer, and I.S. Kahn families.
In 1919, the congregation was incorporated as Congregation Beth Or, Inc., which remains its corporate name. The trustees listed on the charter were B.S. Aronson, Sam Berwanger, Herman Heller, William Perlstein, Maurice Rosenthal and Herbert Rosenthal. At the same time, the Sisterhood had been raising money through the Sandwich Fund and other activities, and under the leadership of Helen Grausman Elias made the final payment on the Hillsborough Street property on June 17, 1920.
An even bigger fundraising effort was required to build a synagogue on the site. The Building Committee appealed not only to members, but also to Jewish friends in the city and around the country, along with Christian donors. Governor O. Max Gardner, Bishop Joseph Cheshire of the Episcopal Church, Bernard Baruch and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis contributed. In 1922 the cornerstone of the building was laid (it is now in front of the Creedmoor Road building), and in August 1923 the congregation left Wilmington Street for Hillsborough Street.
In 1912, when TBO began, Raleigh’s population was just under 20,000; in 1923 it was about 25,000. The Jewish population in 1912 may have been about 50 families; by 1923 it was probably about 100 families. Growth, with its problems and challenges, would become the focus of the capital city and the Jewish community for many years to come.
In June 1924, the first Confirmation was held in the new building; Davetta Levine (later Steed)) and Gertrude glass were the confirmands; Rabbi George Solomon officiated. Temple Beth Or took its place on Hisslborough Street along with other prominent houses of worship in the city.
From 1923-1945 the congregation dealth with all the problems, challenges, and joys of Temple life. As the roster of congregants changed and grew, money remained an issue. Temple and Sisterhood leaders worked hard to keep the budget balanced, but at the end of a fiscal year members who could afford to do so were often asked to make ends meet with extra personal contributions. Raleigh was a government, education, and market town. There was very little manufacturing or industry, and not many members were in a position to endow the congregation with a stable financial situation. In spite of this, the congregation continued to grow and offered the full range of educational, charitable, and social activities that attracted members.
As early as 1936 the congregation discussed the need for a Religious School and Assembly Annex. Julia Schwerin donated $100 to begin a fund for this expansion. It was not until 1947 that a Building Committee approved plans for the expansion, which was completed in 1948. The addition was designed by the prominent Raleigh architect Carter Williams. The Religious School, which had about 20 students in 1925, had about 40 students in 1948.
In May 1942, Dr. Nell Hirschberg, a scientist working in the war effort, moved to Raleigh from Chicago and attended services at Temple Beth Or. She saw that there was no choir at services and immediately recruited one. Nell became a driving force for excellent music and outstanding leadership at Temple Beth Or, and she became the first woman president of the congregation in 1974.
In 1949, Rabbi Harry Caplan urged the men of the congregation to form a Brotherhood. Robert Rothstein was the first president, and there were 23 charter members. Although the Brotherhood has been recreated several times, it has provided fellowship for its members and needed support for Temple projects when it has been active.
Boy Scout Troop 338 was organized at Temple Beth Or in 1955. Ben Sauber served as Scoutmaster, and boys from Beth Or and Beth Meyer were Scouts.
In 1956 the Saubers, Gilberts and Kams assumed responsibility for the operation of the Temple Beth Or booth at the North Carolina State Fair. Almost every member of the Temple participated by cooking or working at the booth, and for many years the substantial revenue from two weeks in the fall was a tremendous boost to the Temple’s budget.
In 1961, Rabbi Leo Stillpass, Rabbi Caplan’s successor, started the Temple Youth Group. It was affiliated with the National Federation of Temple Youth and had 12 founding members.
In 1969, with about 100 families and 40 children in Religious School, recognizing that the Hillsborough Street building was unable to handle the needs of the congregation (and especially the Religious School), the congregation purchased land for a new building on very rural Creedmoor Road, usually called Highway 50. An attempt to raise the full cost of a new facility failed in 1972. The congregation believed that it should not carry a mortgage and did not attempt to raise money again until 1975. Nell Hirschberg was president, and she urged the rest of the leadership to agree to a fundraising campaign which would raise some, but not all, of the money needed for a new building. With the concept of a mortgage now acceptable to the congregation, the Building Committee selected an architect and a design for the new building.
After working with another architect, the Committee retained Michael Landau, a Raleigh resident and recent graduate of the NCSU School of Design. As Landau developed his plan for a temple on Creedmoor Road, Dr. Abram Kanof, a founder of the Judaica Collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art, became aware that a beautiful antique Ark, originally in the sanctuary of Temple Beth El in Detroit, built in 1867, was available to any congregation which would transport it. Leah and Albert Levine and Michael Landau traveled to Mount Clemens, Michigan, where the Ark was being retired, and decided on the spot that it would work in the new building. Using the truck and staff from Heilig-Levine Furniture, the Ark was brought to Raleigh, and Landau designed the sanctuary with the Ark as the centerpiece.
The civil rights movement in Raleigh was already active when Rabbi Stillpass arrived in 1961. He quickly became involved with clergy and lay groups working for social justice and, as the war in Vietnam became a concern, working with peace groups. He became a leader in the group of clergy who spoke out at demonstrations, rallies, and from their pulpits for an end to segregation and war in Southeast Asia.
In one of the tragedies of TBO’s congregational history, Rabbi Stillpass died unexpectedly a few months before the completion of the Creedmoor Road facility. At Rabbi Stillpass’ funeral in 1978, Rev. W.W. Finlator, pastor of Pullen Baptist Church and the outspoken leader of many peace and justice groups gave a moving eulogy for Rabbi Stillpass.
The Creedmoor Road building was completed in August, 1978, and a gala dedication was held later that fall. Temple Beth Or had moved, along with many of its members, to the suburbs.
Temple Beth Or was no longer a congregation primarily made up of merchants and business owners. Starting in the early 60’s, people began to move from all over the country to the Research Triangle Park region of North Carolina. As the Park grew, and as local universities expanded enrollment and faculties, the Jewish population also expanded. IBM, Monsanto, Becton Dickinson and other early tenants at RTP brought scientific and technical staff to the area. Dr. Daniel Horvitz, Temple president from 1964-66 and a statistician at Research Triangle Institute, was the first Temple president who was not a Raleigh business person. At the time of the move to Creedmoor Road, newer RTP tenants like Burroughs Wellcome, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and many others increased the number of young families at the Temple tremendously. The Religious School was packed on opening day.
Jean Caplan, widow of Rabbi Harry Caplan, was principal of the Religious School, and Gizella Abramson was Education Director. It soon became obvious that the “open classroom” concept envisioned for the Religious School was not working; modifications were made to the building. In 1978 the congregation had 165 member families; by 1993 there were 290. The Religious School continued to attract families to Temple Beth Or, particularly because so many newcomers were young families.
In 1980, Rabbi Martin P. Beifield, Jr. and his wife Ina Ginsberg organized the founding of the Temple Beth Or Preschool. As a fully licensed and top-rated school, the Preschool has helped attract young families to the Temple, and has introduced our youngest children to Jewish holidays and traditions.
During his term as president (1983-1985), Arthur Sandman appointed a Long-Range Planning Committee to provide a plan for growth. The study resulted in a short-term solution to crowding in the Religious School. In 1985 a classroom addition to the 1978 building was dedicated. Today this building serves as the administrative wing of the Temple, with staff offices, library, and meeting rooms.
In 1997, planning work began for a larger addition to the Temple, which was completed in 1999. This addition, with a modern catering kitchen, large assembly hall for High Holidays and receptions, classrooms for Preschool during the week and Religious School on Sundays and week day afternoons, has completed TBO’s evolution into a congregation meeting the assembly, study, and prayer needs of its members. The leadership and gifts of Elaine Sandman and Arthur Sandman and their family made this newest addition possible.
In 2011, the estate of Alice Goodman Satisky and her husband Daniel Satisky provided more than $1,000,000 for Temple Beth Or (and an equal amount for Beth Meyer Synagogue). Through this bequest, Temple Beth Or has been able to pay off the indebtedness on its buildings, and also helped establish a substantial endowment fund to ensure the future financial health of the congregation. Alice Satisky’s father, Oscar Goodman, was a leader of our congregation in the early days, when money was always scarce and the needs were always great. Alice’s and Dan’s gift to us brings this chapter of our story to a very happy end, at the end of our first 100 years.
From its inception, Temple Beth Or has maintained close ties to the institutions of Reform Judaism. In 1914 the Sisterhood became a charter member of the National Association of Temple Sisterhoods. In 1920, Temple Beth Or became a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (which became the URJ in 2000). TBO’s youth group has been a part of the National Federation of Temple Youth, and our members have participated as leaders in youth group events throughout the United States. Temple Beth Or children have been campers at Camp Coleman, Camp Harlam, Camp Jacobs and other Union for Reform Judaism summer camps. Our young people have traveled to Israel as part of NFTY-in-Israel summer tours.
Members of Temple Beth Or have served as leaders in the Reform Jewish movement. Dr. Nell Hirschberg served on many boards and commissions within the URJ, and also in NFTS (National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods—now WRJ). Shirley Horvitz was a leader in Sisterhood on the regional and national level. Our rabbis have been members and active participants in the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform rabbinical professional association.
Long before the UAHC began its outreach program to persons not born Jewish, Temple Beth Or had a tradition of accepting and including those who were interested in Judaism. Our congregation welcomes those who seek information and understanding about Jewish tradition and learning, believing that this is in the central beliefs and traditions of Reform Judaism.
Temple Beth Or has been served by 16 rabbis, all but three of them graduates of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Reform seminary sponsored by the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations).
The first, Rabbi H.A. Merfeld, came to Raleigh from New Bern, North Carolina, which had an established congregation long before Temple Beth Or. In the early days of the congregation rabbis came and went every few years, but since 1948, only five persons have served as rabbi or senior rabbi, including the first woman to serve, Rabbi Lucy H.F. Dinner, who is our current and longest tenured rabbi, 18 years and counting.
Temple Beth Or has been led by 40 presidents. Until 1964, all were Raleigh business people, many of them born here. Several families have had two generations serve as President, like E.J. Ellisberg and his son Mortimer, and Arthur Sandman and his son Michael. Ernest Neiman was President, as were his brothers-in-law Isaac Schwartz and Arthur Aronson. Three men served as President more than once, Ben Sauber, Norman Pliner, and John Silverstein. Dr. Nell Hirschberg was the first woman to serve as President.
For most of its 100 years, Temple Beth Or has relied on its members and rabbis to do all the work of running the congregation, including the hundreds of people who have served on the Board of Trustees, Sisterhood and Brotherhood leadership, and committees. Today the Temple finds itself in the position of being able to retain an excellent group of Jewish professionals and support staff to make the hundreds of activities and events we hold every year possible.
Since the mid-60’s, most Temple presidents have been people who moved here from other places for business and professional opportunities, and have found a Jewish home at Temple Beth Or. Our founders would be astounded at the growth in Raleigh, the growth of the Jewish community, and the growth of Temple Beth Or. But their original work, in the second floor meeting room over Rosenthal’s Grocery, is what has made our congregation a reality today, and for their work and dedication to Judaism we are very grateful.