Rosh Hashana evolves over generations in North Carolina

With the start of Rosh Hashana at sundown this evening, we welcome a guest post from Leonard Rogoff, author of Down Home: Jewish Life in North Carolina. Published in association with the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina, Down Home is part of a larger documentary project of the same name that includes a film (view the trailer) and a traveling museum exhibition. In this post, Rogoff explains how Jews in North Carolina have maintained–and reshaped–Jewish New Year traditions.–ellen

As North Carolina’s Jews observe the High Holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashana (New Year) on the evening of September 8, they will re-enact centuries-old traditions.  Yet, the holidays as now observed evoke discontinuities as well as continuities.  Certainly the gathering of family, the lengthy liturgy culminating in the shofar blowing, the fasting and call for repentance trace to ancient days.   But the argument can be made that Judaism owes its survival less to a faithful obedience to an unchanging tradition–what Toynbee called a “fossil religion”–than to its flexibility, its willingness to renegotiate its terms according to its circumstances.  North Carolina attests to Jewish mobility.

For native Jews with multigenerational roots, holidays are often a southern homecoming.  If they’re from Weldon or Lumberton, small towns where congregations have closed, the holidays are especially poignant as they attend services in Raleigh or Charlotte, places where they have retired or where their children now live.  Most North Carolina Jews are more recently arrived and lack local roots, living distant from extended families.  The new congregations arising in unexpected places like Brevard or Kitty Hawk attest to that Jewish desire to be among their own, especially on holidays that evoke personal, historic, and collective memory.  In a mobile, detached society, as Rabbi Fred Guttman of Greensboro put it, the synagogue “creates family.”

Often the first stirrings of congregational organization in a community begin with the approach of High Holidays when isolated Jews feel spiritually aroused and pulled to each other.   In September, 1867, as the holidays approached, 33 Wilmington Jews and “one widow lady” brought Rabbi Myers from Charleston to town.  In Raleigh, Michael Grausman, a Confederate tailor, held services in his home.  In 1874, nine years before Goldsboro Jews organized a congregation, they met at the Weil home to observe Yom Kippur.  In 1878, according to a newspaper, Durham’s Jews closed their stores and “all faithfully observed the festival of ‘Rosh Hashana’” although a congregation did not form for several years.  Greensboro Jews held services in 1900, inviting students from Women’s College.

Diversity is described today as a defining feature of contemporary American Judaism, yet it was present in most congregations from their earliest days.  Synagogue minutes more than a century old read as if they could have been written but days ago.  Congregational boards then and now argued about the length of services, the amount of Hebrew or English, the use of musical instruments, the awarding of ritual honors.  When Wilmington Jews organized in 1867, they declared, “EVERYTHING HAS BEEN ORGANIZED ON ORTHODOX PRINCIPLES.”  That lasted but one year.  Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati later announced that Wilmington would organize a new congregation using his Reform prayer book, Minhag Amerika.  Instead, Wilmington adopted Abodat Yisroel, best described as Conservative.

As East European immigrants arrived, communities broke into two.  Rabbis Samuel Mendelsohn of Wilmington and Julius Mayerberg of Goldsboro were both Lithuanian-born Jews raised in Orthodoxy who had gravitated toward Reform Judaism in their university studies.  After conducting Reform holiday services at their temples, each headed toward a rented hall where they led Orthodox services for the immigrants.  The early congregations of Asheville and Raleigh held both Reform and Orthodox groups.  At Greensboro’s Temple Emanuel the Orthodox met in the downstairs vestry room while the Reform worshiped in the upstairs sanctuary.

Today’s diversity of worship at New Year is of another order entirely.  North Carolina now embraces the pluralism of global Judaism.  Worship at Kol Hahaskalah, A Humanistic Jewish Congregation based in the Research Triangle, will include a liturgy devoid of god language, while ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher Hasidim will remain obedient to divine commandments in seven cities.  Counterculture Jews, many of whom are artists associated with the Penland School of Crafts, blow homemade shofars from atop Mount Mitchell in a New Age service.  The Jewish handfuls who gather in the once thriving communities of Kinston, Salisbury, or Rocky Mount contrast with the thousand-member Temple Beth El in Charlotte.

Today, North Carolina is home to more than forty congregational communities, half of which claim Reform affiliation.  Yet a movement label does not define precisely the worship found in a congregation.  As Dennis Barker once observed of Wilson, “We did our own services.”  Increasing percentages of Jews define themselves as “Just Jewish” rather than in movement terms, and “independent” is the fastest growing trend in congregations.  Like North Carolina society itself, its Jews are growing diverse, global, and multicultural.

Leonard Rogoff is historian for the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina and president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society.