by Sherry Zander
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.
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,
by Sherry Zander
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
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.
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.
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
by Sherry Zander
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
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
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.,