West Virginia has numerous thriving Jewish communities, some of which are as old as the towns in which they are located. The members of these communities are primarily of Eastern European and German descent, and are now predominantly American-born. The first major wave of Jewish immigration occurred in the nineteenth century from approximately 1840 to 1880, mostly from Germany and Germanic states. Small but vibrant Jewish communities associated with this first period of immigration existed in Wheeling, Charleston, Huntington, and Parkersburg as early as the mid-1800’s. Synagogues and Hebrew schools were soon established in the larger communities, creating a strong community focus which has helped to preserve both religious and ethnic identities up to the present. The first synagogue in West Virginia was founded in 1849 in Wheeling, the home of West Virginia’s oldest Jewish community.
Events in Russia in the 1880s began the second major wave of Jewish immigrants to America, and had a profound effect on the size of the Jewish population in West Virginia. Jewish settlers from Eastern Europe came from countries such as Russia, Poland, Hungary, Latvia, and Lithuania. During the period from approximately 1888 to 1930, almost 3,000,000 Jews immigrated to America. The period also coincided with the coal boom, and many Jewish immigrant families moved into these new rural Appalachian communities in the vicinity of such towns as Beckley and Welch.
The arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe had a major impact on Jewish life in America, bringing a diversity of ethnic traditions as well as variations in religious practices. Small Jewish communities were present in most of the growing cities in West Virginia, and the new immigrants became a vital part of these existing Jewish communities. Shortly after the turn of the century some communities had two or more congregations, reflecting variations in religious practice from Orthodox to Conservative. Over the past 150 years, for example, the Northern Panhandle has had at least six congregations. Most of the larger communities in the cities have survived to the present, although Charleston is the only community which still has two congregations. There were also numerous smaller communities throughout the state, particularly in association with the mining towns. Most of these smaller Jewish communities have since folded along with the industries. The West Virginia Jewish population in general is much smaller now than it has been in the past.
Today there are numerous activities which promote heritage and strengthen bonds within the Jewish community. Religious life plays a primary role in preserving Jewish traditions and culture. A wealth of heritage is to be found in traditional Jewish services, and in community and family celebrations honoring religious holidays. These activities serve the dual role of maintaining tradition and bringing the local community together. The schedule of religious services varies from community to community, depending mostly on the size of the congregation. Larger communities hold a weekly cycle of religious services, while smaller communities might meet bi-weekly or monthly. Many of the smaller communities have services with visiting rabbis.
In addition to religious services, the celebration of Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Purim, and other holidays and festivals are important aspects of Jewish traditional life which bring family and community together. Judaism is a family-oriented religion, and many of the traditional activities involve home-based celebrations. Significant life events, such as passage of youth into adulthood (bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah) are also opportunities for the community to come together.
Year-round cultural programs such as classes, discussions, and music programs are a common element of West Virginia’s larger Jewish communities. Several congregations host activities such as educational series and musical programs, providing cultural events for the Jewish community and the general public. For example, the Jewish Cultural Series in Charleston is a regular program highlighting speakers, musicians, and artists in the national Jewish community. Most of the West Virginia communities have regular classes in Hebrew for adults and children, and the larger communities have religious schools and Hebrew language schools for youth. Many of the congregations have youth groups which provide religious and cultural education including the study of the Hebrew language.
Numerous social and service organizations are associated with the congregations. Temple sisterhoods are women’s service organizations dedicated to programs for the synagogue, such as raising money for religious education. Hadassah, the Jewish Women's Zionist Organization, is a service organization primarily dedicated to helping local hospitals and the state of Israel. The Independent Order of B’nai B’rith is the Jewish men's lodge which has social and educational activities, including fund-raising and speakers on cultural and social topics. Local organizations in some communities are designed to welcome new Jewish families to the area and introduce them to the community. Other organizations having a long tradition in West Virginia include the Jewish Welfare Federation and the National Council of Jewish Women.
Today, the largest Jewish communities in West Virginia are in Beckley, Bluefield, Charleston, Clarksburg, Huntington, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Princeton, Weirton, and Wheeling. Smaller communities are still found in Logan, Martinsburg, and Williamson. Descriptions of most of these communities and contact persons can be found under their respective regional headings.
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Native American Communities