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Where Coal Was King
Synagogues of
Southwestern West Virginia


photo by Sherry Zander

If migrating to more remote developing areas brought opportunity to American Jews of the last century, it is very curious that Jews were drawn to the Appalachian coalfields of southeastern West Virginia. This region was populated by the coal towns and coal camps, many of which were entirely owned by the coal companies. The typical company owned the mine, all the housing, and businesses. Even the preacher was on the company payroll. Jews, who traditionally were mainstay merchants of a town, were challenged here not only by the hardscrabble culture of the miners, but by the coal companies themselves. Miners were expected to shop the company store, which usually featured easy credit, a huge array of merchandise at inflated prices and the implied admonition that shopping elsewhere could risk a man his job. And yet, Jews opened independent stores that offered a competitive alternative where they could.

Some Jews worked for the mining companies as supervisors or in the company store, but it was almost unheard of for a Jew to work as a coal miner. One story told to me was of a Jewish merchant whose store burned down. Uninsured, he couldn’t afford to rebuild. When he applied for a job as a miner the man in charge of hiring said, “You’re not supposed to work in the mine. You’re a Jew.” The man arranged to loan the Jewish merchant the money to reopen his store and get him back on his feet.

By the 1920’s and 30’s enough Jews had settled in the area that synagogues sprang up in

Beckley, Bluefield, Keystone, Kimball, Logan, Welch, Williamson and neighboring Pocahontas, Virginia. Every one of these small synagogues was built of simple, serviceable designs and materials. Welch has the sole wooden structure; Beckley’s Temple Beth El was originally fashioned from concrete block. The others are all of stolid red brick. Some of these towns were a short distance apart as the crow flies, but were extremely hard to get to along the steep, twisting Appalachian roads. Some were Orthodox and the prospect of walking on snowy mountain roads to shul made small,

photo by Sherry Zander

localized congregations a must. In Homer Hickham’s book Rocket Boys, on which the film “October Sky” is based, he describes his daily eight-mile ride from Coalwood to school as taking 45 minutes if it wasn’t snowing. People of this remote region referred to anywhere beyond the mountains as the “outside world”.

Rabbi Stanley Funston, currently with Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Bluefield (pop.12,000), remarked that the travel difficulties created unusual burial processions early on. Though there were some Jewish cemeteries not very far in miles, navigating the mountains was easier by rail to the Jewish cemetery in Huntington about 75 miles north. Entire funeral processions of rabbi, family, and mourners all would board the train to attend Jewish burials.

Synagogues could be hard to reach too. Welch (pop.3000) is the steepest town I’ve ever been in. It makes walking in San Francisco a mere warm-up. Some of the sidewalks in Welch and Williamson (pop.4700) are steep concrete stairways where there is no flat surface to pave. Many structures, including the synagogues are cantilevered out of the mountains, bolstered with concrete walls to prevent collapse during spring flooding. Welch‘s defunct Congregation Emanuel has a three-story foundation underneath its bottom floor. Three upper floors sit above this, with the sanctuary peculiarly located on the top of the clapboard building, perhaps to safeguard the Torah from floods.

Williamson’s Congregation B’nai Israel is the most difficult place I have ever photographed because it is literally wedged into the mountain, it’s front facing away from the street. A cherry picker would be required to capture it completely. To approach, one must climb dozens of extremely steep concrete steps, an insurmountable task if it’s icy. The small parking lot, an absolute necessity here, is situated another level below the street, requiring careful crossing of the nearly hairpin turn in which the temple sits. If Rapunzel were Jewish, this would be her hard-to-reach tower. President of the nine-member congregation, Bill Rosen said that a few years ago an elderly member was found to be attending a Methodist church. When temple members asked why, he said it was too treacherous, that he could no longer make it up the steps, especially in winter. He said he had to go somewhere to pray and the church was accessible.

In a way, vestiges of company ownership still exist. Bill Rosen says that the land was donated by the mining company in the 1920’s for the synagogue. However, the deed specifies that should the land be sold, the Congregation must give the mining company $5,000! Another building of note in Williamson that reminds all visitors where they are is the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce. It’s exterior is built almost entirely of coal; its front entrance reminiscent of the arched entryway to a coal mine.

Today, Bluefield’s Ahavath Sholom is planning its 100th Anniversary celebration for 2002. It is the only town south of Charleston with a full-time leader, Rabbi Stanley Funston. He is a warm, jovial spiritual leader who conducts services at the forty-family temple 52 weeks a year. The size of the congregation is declining and Rabbi Funston will retire after the anniversary. It is unlikely they will have a full-time rabbi here, or anywhere in this beautiful, but remote region again.

Probably the most legendary rabbi of the area in Jewish and gentile circles was Rabbi Isadore Wein of Temple Beth El of Beckley. A professional pharmacist known affectionately as “Izzy”, he arrived in 1940 when he married local girl Jeanette Abrams. According to current member Norm Siegel, “For

photo by Sherry Zander

just over 60 years he served as our rabbi without pay. He was a light unto our congregation and our community”. Though he was not ordained, many years after he began as spiritual leader a beit din (in this case three rabbis) met with Izzy and conferred upon him the title of Rabbi. He was an active volunteer who was a member and/or officer of dozens of civic organizations and frequently spoke in churches of all faiths to promote better relations among religions. Upon Izzy’s death in February, 2000, Tom Sopher, a third generation Beth El member said, “ Izzy meant so much to me and my family. He taught us so much for this community and the temple”. The Beckley Register Herald said, “the passing of this revered religious leader saddens people of many faiths.” A Baptist leader said, “I think a part of the soul of Beckley has died.”

And yet Beckley (pop. 18,000 and growing) is the town with a small spark. The 15 dues- paying members of Temple Beth El carry forth with the motto “Preserving Jewish Traditions”. In May I attended a Shabbat service conducted by the congregants. There was a fine turnout of 28 people and members eagerly anticipated the June Bat Mitzvah of Chelsea Siegel. The temple, impeccably maintained by Tom Sopher, is a modest building, but it radiates a quiet beauty because of the loving care and respect it receives from its congregation. Beckley is a tiny Jewish magnet in this part of Appalachia. In May Temple Beth El received an inquiry from Yehudim Al Galgalim (Jews On Wheels), a group of Jewish RVers who would be attending their group’s eastern rally at an RV park in Lewisburg, WV. They would like to join the Beckley Jewish community for Yom Kippur Services. Will miracles never cease?

Sources for this article: Beckley Register Herald; in-person interviews with Bill Rosen, Edward Eiland, Tom Sopher, Norman Siegel, Deb Weiner, and Rabbi Stanley Funston; Rocket Boys by Homer Hickham, Jr.,

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