The Jews of Clarksburg:
Community Adaptation and Survival, 1900-60
By Deborah R. Weiner
David Davidson landed in New York City in 1852 as a penniless, fourteen-year-old immigrant from Prussia. After stops in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Pomeroy, Ohio, and Charleston, West Virginia, he finally settled in Clarksburg, where he opened the David Davidson Clothing Store in 1861. Business was good; in 1873, he erected the David Davidson Building at 324 West Main Street and expanded the brick structure to 328 West Main ten years later. Davidson retired "a wealthy man" in 1910 and died in 1921.1
Davidson was not the first Jew to arrive in Clarksburg, but he was the first to stay long enough to see the flourishing of a small but active and close-knit Jewish community that exists to this day. By 1882, at least three other Jews were plying the clothing trade in Clarksburg, and by 1905, more than one dozen families had established themselves as tailors, clothing merchants, shoemakers, booksellers, and cigar makers. At its height in the mid-1950s, the Jewish community may have contained as many as three hundred members, and while the Jewish population declined steadily after that, a core of about thirty families continues to maintain a synagogue and gather for various community activities.2
Historians of the American Jewish experience focus primarily on large Jewish communities in metropolises such as New York City and neglect people like David Davidson and Jewish communities in smaller towns such as Clarksburg.3 But Davidson and his fellow Clarksburg Jews are far from unique. They represent another facet of American Jewish life: the experience of thousands of Jews who left the big cities and settled in small towns across America, often after leading itinerant lives. While small in number compared to the Jewish populations of America's major urban centers, these Jewish "country cousins" are not insignificant. In fact, examining Jewish life in a small town setting can provide a valuable perspective on major American historical themes such as community, cultural identity, and economic mobility.
The Jewish community of Clarksburg has undergone many changes through the past century. Like other minority communities in Clarksburg and small towns throughout America, its existence has been threatened by assimilation, small town economic decline, and other pressures. The community, as it exists, has survived by adapting to changing conditions and overcoming both internal and external challenges.
Jewish immigration to Clarksburg mirrored larger American Jewish immigration patterns: first came the Germans, then the eastern Europeans, often referred to as Russians. Between 1840 and 1880, the Jewish population in the United States jumped from fifteen to two hundred and eighty thousand. Like millions of other Germans who immigrated to America during this period, most of the new Jewish arrivals were escaping the political, social, and economic turmoil which swept through central Europe at mid-century. Many of the German Jews had been "petty traders and dealers in the Old World" who fled "because of repressive legislation and the disintegration of the peasant economies they had served."4
The entry of German Jews into America coincided with the birth of the ready-to-wear clothing industry. The invention of the sewing machine in 1846 transformed clothing manufacturing "from a home to a factory industry" which expanded rapidly after the Civil War. Large cities quickly established retail clothing stores, but more remote areas often relied on peddlers to bring the fruits of this new industry to eager customers. Because Jews in Europe had been restricted from many other occupations, their presence i the clothing trade extended back to the Middle Ages. With experience in the trade but little capital, German Jews found a place for themselves in all facets of the new industry, which was "dominated by no business aristocracy and responsive to new ideas."5
In particular, newly arrived Jewish immigrants with few resources found opportunity "in the one profession universally open to them: peddling."6 They scattered throughout the country, first by foot, carrying backpacks full of clothes and other goods, then by horse and wagon. Once they built up some capital, they abandoned the hard life of the road and opened shops. One woman from rural Greenbrier County vividly remembered the peddlers of her youth in the 1880s:
"We . . . had Jewish peddlers that came occasionally and gave us something to look forward to. It was almost like having Santa Claus come, even if Mother couldn't afford to buy much. We loved to see the big bundle opened up, for we seldom saw new things. I remember the Jewish peddler by name of Cohen, who got caught in a storm at our place and had to stay several days. I understand he later was one of the founders of the Cohen Drug Stores. He certainly got his start the hard way."7
Growing towns like Clarksburg were natural places for pioneering itinerant peddlers to settle down to business. Isaac Nusbaum exemplified this trend. He and his wife Rachel were born in Germany in the 1840s and came to America in 1866. They quickly lit out for the territories, and their three sons were born in Missouri and Iowa during the 1870s. By 1880, Nusbaum had settled in Clarksburg, where he remained for the rest of his long life. He became a merchant, although not in the clothing trade. For some years he sold shoes and notions, and by 1900, he had found his niche as a stationer and bookseller. His relative Manny Nusbaum, who immigrated from Germany in 1871, entered the clothing business, joined Isaac in Clarksburg by 1898, and took Isaac's son William into the business with him.8
By 1900, Clarksburg hosted a small Jewish community of primarily German origin. Five of the town's seven clothing merchants were Jewish: William and Manny Nusbaum, David Davidson, and Philip Adler, all from Germany, and Isaac Winethrop, who was born in Poland. Other Jews included clothing store clerks Jacob Bloch, born in Germany, Charles Ernst, the West Virginian-born son of German-Jewish immigrants, and William Evnitz, of unknown origin.9
Clarksburg's German-Jewish population was soon joined by a much larger Russian contingent. The great wave of Russian-Jewish immigration to America brought some three million Jews to this country between 1880 and 1914. It was set off by a series of pogroms in Russia, where authorities had developed a solution to the "Jewish problem": "one-third would be permitted to die, one-third to convert to Christianity and one-third to emigrate."10 For many Jews, especially young men who feared conscription into the Russian Army where they were mistreated and forbidden to practice their religion, emigration seemed the most sensible alternative. Once in America, Russian Jews overwhelmingly concentrated in large cities. However, some turned to peddling and others, dissatisfied with conditions in sweat shops and factories, sought smaller towns in hopes of better opportunities.
In this rather haphazard way, Jews trickled into Clarksburg and the community slowly grew. The clothing business remained the chief source of employment in the early years, but Jews soon ventured into other retail trades as well. By 1905, Joseph Cohen and German-born Louis Goodfriend had joined Clarksburg's other Jewish clothing merchants, and Jacob and Emma Bloch ran their own tailor shop, employing Russian-born Joseph Kaplan. New Yorker Benjamin Levy sold cigars and opened a poolroom by 1907. That year, Russian-born Louis Fine sold shoes and Meyer Rosenshine, also born in Russia, established himself as a junk dealer after a fire destroyed his bakery in Pittsburgh.11
Jacob Berman arrived in Clarksburg in 1908. Born in Lithuania in 1887, Berman fled to Copenhagen at age thirteen after a pogrom. He had acquired the papers, and hence the name, of a man named Berman. At fourteen he joined the merchant marine and sailed for years, with a stint in Liverpool as a tailor. In 1906, he made his way to Montreal, where he was recruited to go to Baltimore by a clothing merchant agent. Amazingly, he found that the master tailor he worked under there was none other than his own father, who had also immigrated unbeknownst to Jake. But Berman did not want to spend his life as a tailor. A Baltimore acquaintance happened to be the brother of Clarksburg's Joseph Cohen, who offered Berman a job managing one of his stores. Berman seized the opportunity.12
George Rosen settled in town around 1910.13 A deeply religious man, he came to America around 1905 "because he did not want to become conscripted into the Russian Army," according to his son Albert. Rosen worked in New York until he earned enough money to send for his bride, whom he had known for three days before marrying. After the two were reunited at Ellis Island, he embarked upon a career as a peddler and his travels took him to Clarksburg. Albert Rosen recounted, "when he came to West Virginia he was a peddler. He carried a huge backpack filled with lingerie, Chinese porcelains, Chinese fabrics. . . . His best customers came from Glen Elk, which was the red light district of town. His best customers were the prostitutes, who as he used to say would offer to exchange their wares for his wares."14
The newcomers arrived at a propitious time. Clarksburg's population exploded from 4,050 in 1900 to 9,201 in 1910 to 27,869 in 1920. Although these figures reflect the annexation of some smaller towns in 1917, they also indicate the tremendous growth Clarksburg experienced in the early years of the century. Promotional materials of the day hailed Clarksburg as the "Fuel City," with a boom in coal, oil, and natural gas production. Jews were only one of the many immigrant groups who arrived to take part in the expanding economic scene. Russians, Hungarians, and especially Italians streamed into the coal mines; French and Belgians were brought in by the glass industry; Greeks came originally to work in the steel mills and went on to establish a strong presence in downtown Clarksburg.15
Downtown was booming along with local industry. The 1921 Polk directory touted Clarksburg as having "five modern office buildings . . . an efficient street railway system . . . three newspapers . . . [and] three large hotels." The railroad station located in Glen Elk, not far from downtown, caused that district to develop as a second retail center. Harry Berman says that his father Jake "did a booming business" by opening Cohen's Glen Elk store at 4 a.m. to catch people on their way to the 5 a.m. train to the oilfields. Recalls Albert Rosen, "Clarksburg was bustling. The streets were jam-packed with out-of-towners, people from the hills." Jewish stores would close on Saturday for the Sabbath and open on Saturday night to take advantage of all the street traffic. According to Dorothy Davis in her History of Harrison County, Clarksburg women were very fashion-conscious: "Anyone at that time sensitive to the tone of a town caught what Clarksburg was reported to have -- the `zip' and `spark' that was then characteristic of Pittsburgh. . . . Clarksburg developed into a city with excellent department stores and specialty shops."16
Nusbaum's clothig store expanded throughout the 1910s, and its advertisements boasted that "Every Leading City Has One Leading Store." After a stint as a tailor, George Rosen, by 1919, opened his own ladies' ready-to-wear clothing shop, and by 1932, he had six shops in Clarksburg and surrounding towns. Jake Berman helped Joseph Cohen prosper until the stock market crash of 1929. Cohen, who "had invested a lot on margin," was wiped out, but by 1932, Berman opened a men's wear store of his own, The Workingman's Store. The crash may have hurt other Jewish merchants as well, as Nusbaum's store disappeared from the Clarksburg city directory in 1929. However, others appeared to prosper throughout the Depression; George Rosen's business, for example, expanded from six to twelve shops in the 1930s.17
The Clarksburg merchants had connections with Jewish wholesalers in cities such as Baltimore and New York which facilitated their success. As a youngster in the 1920s, Albert Rosen accompanied his father to New York. "He'd go in to buy clothing for the business . . . we stayed in tenth rate hotels in the garment district." With his reputation among the wholesalers, George Rosen could buy on credit "using only his good name."18
The Jewish community grew as its merchants prospered and their families put down roots. Economic success was necessary for family and community stability, and family and community helped to create the very prosperity the businesses enjoyed. Individuals like Berman and Rosen could not have succeeded on their own. Wives, sons, daughters, and extended family members all helped. "All the Jewish businesses were family businesses," says Rosen, who with his brother and sisters worked alongside their father. "That's one reason we were able to expand." Many women, such as Rosen's sister and Manny Nusbaum's wife Molly, continued to work in family businesses after marriage. Sons were expected to return to the family business even after going away to college. Both Albert Rosen and Harry Berman attended New York University (NYU), which had a special retail business program. While Berman "had every intention of coming back," for Rosen the choice was not quite as easy: "I wanted to stay in New York, but I felt my obligations were with my family."19
Unlike the more isolated Jews who passed through Clarksburg during the nineteenth century, the later arrivals were able to build their community through economic ties. From 1900 through the 1930s, young Jewish men got their start working for more established Jewish merchants, often before opening businesses of their own. Isaac Nusbaum's son worked for Manny Nusbaum; Charles Ernst clerked for David Davidson. William Evnitz worked for the Nusbaums before opening his own clothing store, and he and Joseph Cohen were briefly partners. German-born Jacob Bloch clerked for Polish-born Isaac Winethrop before Bloch and his wife Emma opened their own tailor shop. The Blochs in turn employed Russian-born Joseph Kaplan before he went off on his own. Meyer Rosenshine's son Thomas and Jacob Berman worked for Joseph Cohen. Maxwell Samuel served as office manager for Russian-born jeweler H. A. Caplan, who set up shop in 1915. Edward Levey worked as a salesman for Louis Hiller, who opened a furniture store in 1919. Lenard Gotlieb worked for George Rosen. Joseph Levine, son of one of the first rabbis in town, clerked for jeweler Jacob Slaven. Before long, community, family, and economic links blurred with marriages among the families.20
Many of these men became involved in developing Jewish community institutions that transcended both economic and family ties. As an ethnic, cultural, and religious group, the Jews of Clarksburg needed more than family and economic links to maintain their distinct identity and character as a community. When European Jews came to America, "they moved from membership in a legally defined community . . . to membership in a voluntary community." No longer would the state define them as Jews or prohibit them from associating with, or even marrying, Gentiles. Moreover, Clarksburg Jews represented a very small minority and daily came in close contact with peopl from all walks of life. It has long been recognized that "small town Jews face serious problems in maintaining their identity in a pervasive Gentile (secular) -- if not Christian -- environment."21 Only by creating their own mechanisms for group solidarity could the Jews of Clarksburg keep from merging into the larger society around them.
At first, the community developed along two lines reflecting its members' two different points of origin, Germany and the Russian empire. Religious and cultural differences separated these two groups in Clarksburg and throughout America. The Germans were more acculturated to this country because they arrived earlier. German Jews in any case were more prone to acculturation because they had experienced it in Germany, a more open society than any in eastern Europe. Early nineteenth-century Germany saw the birth of the Reform movement, a flexible practice of Judaism which was concerned both with keeping modern Jews from leaving the faith and rectifying "the absence of Western standards of esthetics and decorum in the traditional Jewish service of worship." Meanwhile, most Russian Jews continued to practice traditional Judaism, which in America came to be known by the term "Orthodox." Although there is reason to believe that "relatively few of the most learned and the most observant [Russian Jews] came to America," immigrants from Russia identified with traditional religious practices and tried to follow them to varying degrees.22
The German Jews of Clarksburg were the first to establish a congregation, Temple Emanuel, which was in existence by 1914. The temple was affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the umbrella organization for the American Reform movement. Although it eventually contained some Russian-born as well as German-born members, Temple Emanuel never grew large enough to support a full-time rabbi. Instead, like other small town Jewish congregations, the temple brought in student rabbis for the high holidays and held services in the rented ballroom of a hotel. In 1919, the student rabbi was Abraham Shinedling, who later became the rabbi in Bluefield and authored West Virginia Jewry in 1963. In 1913, Reform men started a local chapter of B'nai B'rith, a national Jewish men's benevolent and social organization founded in 1843. It met for a time in rented rooms at 318 West Pike Street, above the jewelry store of Reform member H. A. Caplan. Reform women established a Temple Sisterhood in 1916 which affiliated with the national association of Reform Sisterhoods. Its first president was Isaac Nusbaum's daughter-in-law Mrs. Simon Nusbaum.23
The Orthodox community established a synagogue around 1917, possibly called the Clarksburg Hebrew Congregation. Its early history is unclear until 1922, when it acquired a building at 504 West Main, a constitution, and a new name: the Tree of Life Congregation. The constitution required the congregation to follow the established practices of Orthodoxy. It was signed by the president, Max Friedlander, and board members George Rosen, Jacob Berman, and Meyer Rosenshine, all Russian born. The building, recalls Albert Rosen, was "an old house with the walls torn out." As was customary in traditional Judaism, women and men were seated separately; in this case, the women sat in the back.24
But Orthodox practice required more than just a synagogue; it also required the services of a schochet or Kosher butcher, and a mohel to perform circumcisions. Only men with a certain type of religious training could perform these roles, so the synagogue always had either a rabbi or a Reverend, a person who had the requisit religious training but was not a fully ordained rabbi. The rabbi was needed more for these and other ritual functions than for leading the congregation, since many of the members had received a rigorous Jewish education in Europe and were capable of leading prayer services.25
One of those members was Robert Weiner (no relation to the author). Born in 1900 in Lithuania, Weiner had had some rabbinical training. During World War I, his family hid him from the czarist police so he would not have to serve in the army. After the war his sister helped him escape by acquiring false papers. The two made their way to the border, where she bribed a guard to let him through. According to Weiner's son Gary, "she was disguised to look younger than she was, he was disguised to look older than he was." Weiner came to New York and eventually joined a brother already established in Weston. After working as a fish peddler he made his way to Clarksburg around 1928, where he started a scrap business that eventually became Clarksburg Iron and Steel. Weiner became very involved in the synagogue and arranged for his brother-in-law, Reverend Benjamin Samuels, to come to Clarksburg from South Africa where he lived after leaving Lithuania. Samuels served as schochet and mohel for the congregation throughout the 1930s before moving on to Charleston, where he performed those functions for at least forty years.26
In Jewish-American life, "the rigors of Orthodoxy" have always worked to enhance community by creating a gulf between Jew and Gentile. Strict observance of the Sabbath, Jewish holidays, and dietary laws are just some of the means by which religious Jews establish a distinct lifestyle. In maintaining as much of their traditional practice as possible, members of the Tree of Life Congregation kept a strong Jewish identity despite their small number. Although few of Albert Rosen's schoolmates were Jewish, his own sense of Jewishness was maintained by his father "cracking the whip. . . . He'd keep us out of school on all the Jewish holidays, which we resented." Religious-oriented community events were frequent: "brises and bar mitzvahs were the big occasions." Orthodox boys also attended Hebrew school and cheder, a religious school held on weekdays. Clarksburg's Reform Jews had Sunday school for the children, an American Reform innovation developed to conform to general American religious practices. Organizations such as B'nai B'rith instilled and maintained a sense of Jewish identity, although these mechanisms were not as effective as the all-encompassing Orthodox way of life.27
When it came time for marriage, the urge to find a Jewish mate was strongest among the Orthodox, although Reform Jews felt it also. Since the number of potential Jewish mates in Clarksburg was limited, sometimes extraordinary measures were required. Robert Weiner's situation was typical. According to his son Gary, "there wasn't very much in the way of prospects for a Jewish bride." But a local married woman, Goldie Klapper, happened to have a second cousin in New York who was twenty-four years old and still unmarried, which was unusual for Jewish women in those times. Says Weiner, "my mother Belle worked in the garment district. . . . Goldie arranged for them to meet in 1929" and they married in 1930. Albert Rosen found his wife Miriam, also from New York, through his brother, who met her at a Jewish resort in the Poconos. Harry Berman met his wife while at NYU. All these New York women had to adjust to small town life, a process Harry Berman described as "a culture shock." Meanwhile, Clarksburg women who married out-of-towners generally moved to their husbands' hometowns.28
These family, community, and religious practices allowed the Jews of Clarksburg to sustain their group identity and most families kept up a Jewish way of life. But as time went on, it became clear the community was too small to support adequately two congregations. The Orthodox were outgrowing their synagogue building, but lacked the resources to build a bigger one. The smaller Reform congregation never managed to acquire its own building or a full-time rabbi. Perhaps most important, members of both groups realized that as their children grew, the pressure to assimilate into the larger Clarksburg population increased. In order to maintain a cohesive Jewish community, the two synagogues had to unify. Links between the two evolved through organizations such as the B'nai B'rith, which was founded by Reform Jews but also included Orthodox members. The Reform group had operated a Sunday school at Tree of Life throughout the 1920s which was attended by all the Jewish children, with Orthodox continuing daily cheder as well.29
In 1938, the two groups began meeting to discuss a merger. With their widely disparate views of Judaism, there were many hurdles to overcome. Would women continue to be segregated? Would English or Hebrew be used in the services? Would services be traditional or modern, in the informal Orthodox style or more decorous Reform style? What role would the rabbi play? Where would the synagogue be located and how would it be supported financially?
Divisions between Orthodox and Reform Jews run deep. In large cities, the two groups rarely mix socially and such a merger of congregations would be most improbable. But in small towns it is not that unusual. In Bluefield, for example, the Orthodox community joined a Reform temple after some years of resistance. At a 1973 conference of small town Jews, delegates discussed the ramifications of trying to sustain Jewish community life in an isolated environment. The group concluded that "when all is said and done, the future of small town Jews is dependent on their own will to survive." They often must take special steps to ensure survival, and combining a Reform and an Orthodox congregation can be considered such a step. While a city such as Charleston, with more than one thousand Jews, was able to maintain both a Reform temple and an Orthodox synagogue, Clarksburg could not.30
Therefore, community leaders determined to unite despite the dilemmas they faced. George Rosen played a particularly important role for which he was recognized some fifteen years later when the united congregation named him "honorary life president." According to his son Albert, the two groups merged "because of my father. He knew that the only way to hold the community together would be to unite them. He was Orthodox, but he was a very liberal thinker." Jeweler Henry Caplan took the lead on the Reform side. Says Rosen, "there was a strong Reform element in the town who were very vehement in their thinking."31 Some resistance was to be expected on both sides. But through the leadership of Caplan, Rosen, Jake Berman, and Robert Weiner, the merger came about in 1939.
According to sociologist Marshall Sklare, the institution of the synagogue is uniquely adapted to meet challenges such as those faced by the Clarksburg Jews. "Whether situated in a large or small community the synagogue is focused on Jewish survival," Sklare maintains. Rather than defining itself in narrow religious terms, it can address larger community issues, ultimately for religious reasons, because "in Judaism, the preservation of the Jewish people as a group is an act of religious significance." The synagogue can flexibly adapt to Jewish survival needs: "since the typical American Jewish congregation is formed by local initiative rather than by the authority of a central body, every synagogue is free to determine its own program and ritual."32
In Clarksburg, "local initiative" resulted in the creation of a Conservative synagogue as a compromise between Reform and Orthodox. This was a natural development since the American Conservative movement had been ounded in 1887 as a midway alternative to both when "it became apparent that a modernized form of traditional Judaism was required for the rising generation in the American society. . . . The institution provided an alternative to the growing assimilationist tendencies of Reform, and the over-identification of Orthodoxy with East European life and customs."33 The Clarksburg congregation soon affiliated with the United Synagogue of America, the Conservative umbrella organization.
A document known as the Basic Agreement served as a constitution for the new Clarksburg synagogue. It laid out a series of compromises between Reform and Orthodox on the operation of the synagogue. Unfortunately, a copy of the agreement could not be located, but through a perusal of the records of the United Tree of Life Congregation Board of Trustees and discussions with Harry and Don Berman, Albert Rosen, and Gary Weiner, its key points emerged.
Half of the members of the board of trustees would be Orthodox, the other half Reform. The Orthodox agreed to allow mixed seating in the synagogue. Services were to be conducted in both Hebrew and English. Services would continue to be traditional, and only rabbis trained in Orthodox or Conservative seminaries would be accepted. Musical instruments would not be allowed. According to Jewish tradition, musical instruments are forbidden at Sabbath and holiday services as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the second temple. Reform congregations long ago dropped this prohibition even to the extent of installing organs, which Orthodox Jews to this day consider to be "an abomination" because of the organ's close association with Christianity.34
On October 18, 1939, the United Tree of Life Congregation elected its first board of trustees. H. A. Caplan was elected president, a post he would hold until 1951. Jake Berman was elected vice-president. Other board members included Robert Weiner, drugstore owner Lenard Gotlieb, attorney Aaron Winer, retailer S. M. Markowitz, men's wear merchant Walter Adler, shoe store owner Isaac Aaron, jeweler Max Samuel, and junkyard owner Joe Levine. Aaron resigned soon after his election and was replaced by fellow Reformer Louis Hiller.35
The first item of business was to purchase a synagogue building. A downtown building formerly occupied by the Southern Presbyterian Church was available at relatively low cost because the man who bought it from the church, Robert Pettrey, had been unaware that the deed restricted use of the building to a religious institution. The board arranged to sell Pettrey the old Tree of Life building for sixteen thousand dollars and buy the church for an additional four thousand dollars. By December 1, 1939, the congregation had moved into its new home. George Rosen, who had decided not to become an official board member, helped oversee the conversion of church to synagogue.36
However, all did not go smoothly for the United Tree of Life Congregation, especially in its first few years. The congregation lacked a rabbi, since Rabbi Nelson had resigned, possibly as a result of "a sermon that was not well received by the congregation."37 As the board searched for a permanent rabbi, it haggled with Nelson over how much money was owed him. Meanwhile, conflicts arose between the Reform and Orthodox members.38
In February 1940, Louis Hiller submitted an amendment to the Basic Agreement to change the requirements for selecting a rabbi. Instead of a rabbi from "the Jewish Theological Seminary [Coservative] or . . . Yeshiva College of New York [Orthodox]," it was proposed that the rabbi "must be recommended and approved by the United Synagogue of America, and none other." The amendment added, "only Conservative services can be conducted, same as are generally conducted in most conservative congregations." Evidently the Reform side was concerned that the services were too Orthodox. But the matter did not come up before the congregation until February 1941 and it was rejected. However, the amendment was resubmitted one month later and finally approved.39
Correspondence between board secretary Aaron Winer and a Rabbi Jacobson from New York illuminates another probable source of friction. Winer was in the process of engaging the rabbi for the high holidays in 1941, since a permanent rabbi still had not been found. He had stipulated that the rabbi bring a cantor with him but apparently found out that Jacobson was planning to come alone. Winer dashed off a letter of frustration:
"In order to please both elements of our Congregation, it will be absolutely necessary to have both a rabbi and a cantor. The cantor to conduct the services in Hebrew and the rabbi to conduct responsive reading, etc. in English. For the rabbi alone to conduct the services will not be satisfactory to either the Orthodox or the Reformed. So we are trying to at least satisfy each element fifty per cent if not 100 per cent. I distinctly wrote . . . that we wanted both a rabbi and a cantor, the same kind of arrangement that we had last year, so I do not see how my meaning was either misunderstood or misinterpreted."40
With the holidays less than two weeks away, Winer had reason to be concerned. Unfortunately it could not be ascertained how this matter was resolved.
In 1941, Caplan resigned from the board of trustees, citing "extenuating circumstances," and it is possible that he was out of town for part of this time. Berman evidently found the task of acting president to be a thankless one, and in February 1942, he submitted his letter of resignation, stating, "the failure to receive the proper cooperation has caused me to conclude that my further efforts . . . would be futile." However, Berman continued as trustee and became vice-president one year later. According to Don Berman, his father Jake "was sort of the peacemaker between the [Orthodox and Reform] factions." Possibly this job got a little rough at times. Caplan later returned to his post, as the board refused to accept his resignation.41
Things settled down after Rabbi Elliott J. Einhorn was finally installed in 1942. However, the Tree of Life Congregation never kept a rabbi for more than a few years. The reason could have been Clarksburg's relative isolation, its inability to offer a high salary, or the congregation's contentious nature. Quite likely, all three played a role.42
Another potential point of conflict was the firm grip original community leaders had on board positions. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, the board composition changed little even though new people regularly ran in the annual elections. Jake Berman served as president from 1951 to 1954, when Robert Weiner replaced him. The Tree of Life Congregation developed a reputation for conservativism, in the broader sense of the term, that lasted into the 1970s. Its services remained traditional during a time when, partly due to the rise of second and third generations, other congregations were becoming less so. In "The Quest for Saliency," Frank Fear contends the Clarksburg synagogue lost potential members because of its perceived inflexibility.43
This phenomenon points to an inherent tension faced by all religious institutions: the need to adapt to changing times while maintaining a meaningful religious focus. Both are necessary. Without new members a congregation will die, but on the other hand, a congregation can liberalize itself out of existence by dropping the very customs that give people a sense of continuity and solidariy. This problem in American Judaism was recognized by Reform Rabbi Eugene Borowitz in the early 1970s:
"No one wishes to lose Jews for Judaism, but the time has come when the synagogue must be saved for the religious Jew, when it must be prepared to let some Jews opt out so that those who remain in, or come in, will not be diverted from their duty to God. As the religion of a perpetual minority, Judaism must always first be concerned with the saving remnant, and so long as the synagogue is overwhelmed by the indifferent and the apathetic . . . that remnant will continue to be deprived of its proper communal home."44
With its strong core of religious families, it is no wonder that the Clarksburg congregation held to its traditional services even as fewer families kept Kosher and more children married outside the religion. As the immigrant generation gave way to the American born, it became harder to maintain a distinctly Jewish way of life. By the 1950s, the town could no longer support a Kosher butcher, and families who kept Kosher had to travel first to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, then to Pittsburgh for Kosher products.
Meanwhile, economic success no longer depended upon the family or the Jewish community. Although many members of the second generation entered the family businesses, others moved into a wider array of professions, such as law and medicine.45 But the community remained strong throughout the 1950s. As economic and religious ties weakened, social and cultural factors became increasingly important in forging community identity.
Gloria Lees and her husband moved to Clarksburg from New Jersey in late 1945. They were transferred by their employer, Maidenform, which had recently opened a Clarksburg plant. Mrs. Lees recalls feeling immediately at home in Clarksburg: "I loved it. We had a great Jewish community then." Social activities played a big role in community life. "We all went to services on Friday night and a whole group went to the movies afterwards. . . . We used to play cards. The women played mah jongg, the men played poker." She became active in the Temple Sisterhood, which organized social functions such as parties and dances. Bar mitzvahs and Jewish holiday celebrations added to the busy social scene. Harry Berman concurs: "everything we did was together. It was a very active social and religious community."46 Returning World War II veterans and newcomers participating in the postwar Clarksburg economic upswing gave the community a lively cast.
Berman asserts that anti-Semitism helped the Jewish community forge its own social life. "We couldn't get into any of the service clubs or any of the country clubs . . . at one point we even had our own country club near Philippi." When anti-Semitism lessened in the 1960s, "people started intermingling" and the strictly Jewish social scene diminished, he believes. However, it is difficult to determine precisely the role played by anti-Semitism in forming and bonding the Jewish community. It is possible that one reason Jews established close economic links in the early days was that anti-Semitism limited their occupational choices. Berman, who has long been active in civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League, once had a brief, but harmless, experience with Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members.47 However, neither he nor the other interviewees saw anti-Semitism as a major factor in Clarksburg, although all acknowledged that it existed in some form.
World events contributed to Jewish solidarity in Clarksburg throughout the 1940s and 1950s. At the suggestion of Charleston Rabbi Samuel Cooper, a nationally active Zionist, the Tree f Life Congregation petitioned West Virginia's congressional delegation to oppose Britain's attempt to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1944. The congregation's letter noted that at a time when Jews faced peril in western Europe, they were being "threatened with an act that would block the gates of their deliverance." Like most American-Jewish congregations, Tree of Life was energized by the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. The men formed a Zionist group and the women formed a Hadassah chapter with the help of then-Rabbi Israel Goodman. Both groups raised funds for Israel and conducted other activities. Don Berman recalls those years as "one of the peak times of activity for the community."48
Increased activity led the congregation to construct a community center in back of the synagogue building. This major event involved all the resources of the community in planning and fundraising. The center had its own board, made up of representatives of the various Jewish organizations. This meant that for the first time, women and men served together on the same board. The center, which contained classrooms, a kitchen, and a gymnasium/dance hall, was dedicated with a special ceremony on October 16, 1955. The first event held in the hall was Gary Weiner's bar mitzvah.49
A major purpose of the new community center was to provide adequate space for the congregation's education program. As then-Rabbi Milton Kanter noted in his 1955 annual report to the congregation, the program featured Hebrew school, Sunday school, bar mitzvah preparation, and Confirmation classes for young people. For adults it offered Hebrew classes and a lecture series on "The Historical and Religious Foundations of Contemporary Judaism."50
Education was, and continues to be, a key motivation in synagogue participation throughout America. According to Marshall Sklare, "for the less-committed, the opportunity for Jewish education is a strong inducement to affiliate," especially in small towns where children grow up in a primarily non-Jewish environment. Southern West Virginians thought the threat of assimilation so great that "religious education of the young was seen as the only way to assure the continuation of Judaism." Clarksburg parents would agree, according to Gloria Lees. "If you have children, then you join. Because you want your kids to have an identity."51 Even those who thought the synagogue too traditional joined when their children reached the right age.
One special concern lurks behind the emphasis on Jewish education in America. "There is a widespread belief that Jewish education . . . helps to keep young men from marrying outside the Jewish faith." Intermarriage is particularly an issue for small town Jews, because the pool of potential Jewish spouses is so limited and interaction with non-Jews is prevalent. Like members of other small Jewish communities, Clarksburg Jews saw marriage outside the faith as a potential loss both to the local Jewish community and to Judaism itself. But intermarriage was a fact of life that almost all families increasingly had to deal with as the third generation came of age. Their responses varied. Many noted with disapproval that one son of a prominent family who married a Gentile woman had also stopped associating with other Jews and was "raising his children in the church." However, they also noted that some currently active synagogue members are actually "mixed" couples. By trying to instill Jewish identity through education and, alternatively, accepting intermarried families as members, the Clarksburg congregation was responding to the challenge posed by intermarriage.52
With its educational, religious, and social functions, the synagogue has proved to be the focal point of Clarksburg's Jewish communal life. Don Berman identifies the synagogue as "the unifying force for the community. . . . The maintenance of a synagogue is what keeps the communityalive." Says Albert Rosen, "without the synagogue, we would just have nothing." Again Clarksburg conforms to the larger American pattern. "A Quest for Saliency" asserts that "the core of ethnic resources available in the small town Jewish community emerges around the synagogue." Marshall Sklare notes that in their effort to maintain identity, small town Jews have much higher rates of synagogue affiliation than city Jews: "The smaller the community the clearer is the threat of assimilation and the clearer it is that the future of Jewish life rests upon the personal decision of each individual Jew. The decision to affiliate with a synagogue, then, means to vote yes to Jewish survival."53
Interestingly, despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges faced by small town Jews, many believe that Jewish community and identity are actually stronger in small towns. Delegates to the 1973 conference of small town Jews expressed the view that "contrary to large city opinion . . . the small community offers a richer Jewish life; there is a distinct desire to retain identity which in larger cities is too often lost because it is taken for granted." Harry Berman experienced this feeling during his college days at New York University. At his Jewish fraternity, "I was the only one who could lead a service on Friday night or Saturday. Most of them [who] lived in the city didn't have that ability. A lot of them never even went to a synagogue."54
Since the 1960s, the Jews of Clarksburg have faced challenges that no amount of communal adaptation can surmount -- the shift of opportunity away from small towns to larger metropolitan areas and the economic decline of their own town. Gradually the industries that created Clarksburg's growth died out, leaving little for young people to do. The third generation, the children of Albert Rosen, Harry and Don Berman, and Gloria Lees, has all but vanished. Like the rest of Clarksburg's population, the Jewish community is aging.
For now the community survives with about thirty families and an influx of Jews from the nearby towns of Fairmont and Elkins. After dropping Sunday school classes in the early 1980s, there was sufficient interest to revive them in 1993. Every week, at least ten people still gather to form a minyan, the number needed to conduct a traditional prayer service. Observes Harry Berman, "that's something you don't always get in big cities."55 The Jewish community has undergone many changes since David Davidson arrived in town. Given the community's tenacity in its first century of existence, there is good reason to believe that it will enter the next century intact.
1. Dorothy Davis, History of Harrison County, West Virginia (Clarksburg: American Association of University Women, 1970), 699; Abraham Shinedling, West Virginia Jewry: Origins and History, 1850-1958 (Philadelphia: Maurice Jacobs, 1963), 774.
2. Polk's West Virginia State Gazetteer and Business Directory (Pittsburgh: R. L. Polk & Co., 1882), 106, 108, 114; R. L. Polk & Company's Clarksburg Directory, 1905 (Pittsburgh: R. L. Polk & Co., 1905); Shinedling, West Virginia Jewry, 762.
3. For example, see Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).
4. Gerald Sorin, The Jewish People in America: A Time for Building (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992), 3.
5. Lee Friedman, Jewish Pioneers and Patriots (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1943), 19.
6. Priscilla Fishman, ed., The Jews of the United States (New York: The New York Times Book Co., 1973), 19.
7. Elizabeth Jane Dietz, "As We Lived A Long Time Ago," Goldenseal (Fall 1981): 16.
8. William A. Marsh, comp., 1880 Census of West Virginia, Vol. 3: Harrison, Doddridge, Gilmer, Calhoun (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1982), 219; Polk's West Virginia State Gazetteer, 1882, 112 and 1900, 198; Polk's Clarksburg Directory, 1905, 153.
9. Carksburg City Directory, 1900-01 (n.p.: Jno. B. Smith and W. E. Dawson, 1900), 31, 41, 65, 73, 83, 109; Census of the Population, Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T623), Harrison County, hereafter referred to as 1900 Census; Census of the Population, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920 (National Archives Microfilm Publications, T625), Harrison County, hereafter referred to as 1920 Census. Census records do not usually reveal religion or ethnicity. For most of the subjects cited in this paper, only nationality was listed (e.g., Russian, Prussian, or Polish), although on rare occasions the term "Yiddish" appeared. In the absence of conclusive census verification, several criteria were used to determine if people were indeed Jewish: origin of birth in Germany or eastern Europe; a typically Jewish last name combined with a Hebrew or typically Jewish first name; and employment in a traditionally Jewish occupation. At least two of the three criteria had to be met for inclusion in this paper. In most cases, all three criteria were met. Also, some subjects were mentioned in West Virginia Jewry or the records of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Clarksburg.
10. Abraham Karp, Haven and Home: A History of the Jews in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 112.
11. Polk's Clarksburg Directory, 1905 and 1907; Census of the Population, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910 (National Archives Microfilm Publication T624), Harrison County, hereafter referred to as 1910 Census; 1920 Census; interview with the author, Harry Berman, Shinnston, 18 November 1993.
12. Harry Berman interview.
13. Shinedling, West Virginia Jewry, 777.
14. Interview with the author, Albert Rosen, Clarksburg, 17 November 1993.
15. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, Compendium: West Virginia (Washington: GPO, 1925); Polk's Clarksburg Directory, 1921, 17; Davis, History of Harrison County, 72, 75, 76; Margo Stafford, "All Greek and All Hard Workers," Goldenseal (Fall 1982): 57.
16. Polk's Clarksburg Directory, 1921, 28; Harry Berman interview; Rosen interview; and Davis, History of Harrison County, 695.
17. Polk's Clarksburg Directory, 1919, 25 and 1929; Rosen interview; Harry Berman interview.
18. Rosen interview.
19. Ibid. and Harry Berman interview.
20. Clarksburg City Directory, 1900-1901, 41, 73; Polk's Clarksburg Directory, 1905, 50, 67, 123; 1907, 382; 1915, 103; 1925, 380, 523, 530, 553.
21. Karp, Haven and Home, preface; Abraham D. Lavender, ed., A Coat of Many Colors: Jewish Subcommunities in the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), 8.
22. Fishman, The Jews of the United States, 142; Marshall Sklare, America's Jews (New York: Random House, 1971), 16.
23. Shinedling, West Virginia Jewry, 762, 764, 766, 784.
24. Ibid., 763; 1920 Census; Constitution of the Tree of Life Synagogue, Clarksburg, 1922; Rosen interview.
25. Interview with the author, Gary Weiner, Clarksburg, 13 December 1993.
26. Ibid.; Simon Meyer, ed., One Hundred Years: An Anthology of Charleston Jewry (Charleston: Jones Printing Co., 1972), 106.
27. Frank Anthony Fear, "The Quest for Saliency: Patterns of Jewish Communal Organization in Three Appalachian Small Towns" (Masters thesis, West Virginia University, 1972), 10, 104. The towns studied are Clarksburg, Bluefield, and Williamson. Rosen interview. A bris is a ceremonial occasion marking an infant boy's circumcision; it occurs eight days after his birth. A bar mitzvah celebration is held when a young boy turns thirteen and, according to the Jewish religion, enters manhood. Both are traditionally very important religious and social events.
28. Weiner, Rosen, and Harry Berman interviews.
29. Interview with the author, Rabbi Yossi Zylberberg, Morganown, 14 December 1992; Weiner interview.
30. Fear, "The Quest for Saliency," 104; Lavender, A Coat of Many Colors, 34; Meyer, An Anthology of Charleston Jewry.
31. Records of the Board of Trustees, United Tree of Life Synagogue, Clarksburg, 1953; Rosen interview.
32. Sklare, America's Jews, 126.
33. Fishman, Jews of the United States, 50.
34. Interview with the author, Don Berman, Clarksburg, 22 November 1993; Harry Berman, Rosen, Weiner, and Zylberberg interviews; Records, Tree of Life Synagogue, 1940, 1941. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed twice, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans in 70 A.D. Religious Jews observe certain mourning practices to commemorate these events.
35. Church Trustees Book 1, 205, Harrison County Clerk's Office, Clarksburg.
36. Harry Berman interview; Records, Tree of Life Synagogue, 1939.
37. Weiner interview.
38. Records, Tree of Life Synagogue, 1940.
39. Ibid., 1940, 1941.
40. Ibid., 1941.
41. Records, Tree of Life Synagogue, 1942; Don Berman interview.
42. Weiner interview.
43. Records, Tree of Life Synagogue, 1939-55; Fear, "The Quest for Saliency," 105.
44. Sklare, America's Jews, 131.
45. H. A. Caplan's sons provide an exemplary case: William followed his father into the jewelry business, Irv became a doctor, and Howard and Fred became lawyers. Fred Caplan eventually served as Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court. Don Berman interview and West Virginia Blue Book, 1979 (Charleston: Jarrett Printing, 1979), 382.
46. Interview with the author, Gloria Lees, Clarksburg, 9 December 1993. The Sisterhood, which was originally affiliated with the national association of Reform Sisterhoods, eventually changed its affiliation to Conservative. Harry Berman interview.
47. Harry Berman interview. The Anti-Defamation League is a national organization affiliated with B'Nai B'rith that fights anti-Semitism on the local and national levels.
48. Records, Tree of Life Congregation, 1944; Don Berman interview.
49. Clarksburg News, 13 October 1955; Lees interview.
50. Records, Tree of Life Synagogue, 1955.
51. Sklare, America's Jews, 127; Michael Meador, "Faith, Knowledge and Practice: The Jews of Southern West Virginia," Goldenseal (Summer 1985): 17; Lees interview.
52. Fishman, Jews of the United States, 123; Don Berman, Harry Berman, Lees, Rosen, and Weiner interviews.
53. Don Berman and Rosen interviews; Fear, "The Quest for Saliency," 27; Sklare, America's Jews, 124.
54. Lavender, A Coat of Many Colors, 31; Harry Berman interview.
55. Harry Berman interview.
West Virginia History Journal
West Virginia History Center