The dedication plaque at the entrance to Beth Israel Synagogue records 1902 as the official beginning of the congregation. However, some of the families that formed Beth Israel had been involved in the Jewish community since the late 19th century.
Morris Rosenberg was typical of the two-and-a-half million Jews who left Russia between 1880 and 1920 to escape the Czars’ pogroms. When he arrived in Roanoke, after a short stay in Lynchburg, Morris joined a small Jewish community. In 1889, 18 families organized the first congregation. The adopted the name Beth Jacob and held services in an old building near the corner of Kirk Avenue and Henry Street.
With the growth of the railroad, the city’s population mushroomed from 5,000 in 1894 to 38,000 in 1910. At the turn of the century, this tremendous growth earned Roanoke the name Magic City. By 1900, more than 40 Jewish families lived in the area.
In 1902, a split occurred within the congregation. The more traditional families retained the name Beth Jacob and the more reformed families adopted the name Temple Emanuel for their congregation. By 1910, the name Beth Israel was officially adopted for the traditional congregation. During that same year, the congregation purhased the old Primitive Baptist Church on the corner of Roanoke Street and Franklin Road for $3,100.
Many of today’s Roanoke families, including the Rosenbergs, Masinters, Diamonds, Schlossbergs, Weinsteins and Davidsons trace their roots to those early Beth Israel members.
The pogroms in Eastern Europe along with the fear of the mandatory 25 years of military service in the Russian army helped swell the tid of Jewish immigrants to America. Such new names as Brenner, Katz, Fox, Shapiro and Halpern were added to the members of Beth Israel. Those families still have strong ties to Roanoke. In 1917, Rabbi David Stern became Beth Israel’s first full-time rabbi.
In 1921, the synagogue board voted to construct a larger and more beautiful synagogue. The old building was sold to Standard Oil of New Jersey for $17,000. These funds were used as a down payment to purchase land and construct the new building. The facility, built at a cost of $70,000, has been in continuous use since 1925.
In 1958, the congregation listed a membership of 140 families. Fifteen of those families were from other areas of southwest Virginia.
In December, 1963, a resolution to proceed with remodeling and expansion of the synagogue passed. In 1967, the sanctuary was renovated, air conditioning installed, a new kitchen built, the social hall modernized, an extension constructed for minyan, storage and conference rooms and an education building erected. By the fall of 1968, the school wing was completed on the site of the old No. 4 Fire Station grounds — land donated by the Trompeter family.
From 2006 to 2007, the building was renovated for the first time in 40 years. The social hall, kitchen, office space, education area and storage were all modernized.
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Meet the Team
Dr. Jama Purser
Rabbi Jama Purser is a 2018 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City (JTS). In 2013 Rabbi Purser was admitted to the JTS as an “Academic Crown Scholar” (one of two such scholarships awarded each year). In 2015 and 2016, she studied at the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem, along with other Rabbinical and Cantorial students from JTS (NY) and Ziegler (LA), and with Rabbinical students from Israel and Argentina. In 2018 she graduated with a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies and Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a Certificate in Clinical Pastoral Care from the Center for Clinical Pastoral Care and Counseling, also at JTS.
Between semesters of academic training, Rabbi Purser completed two 400-hour units of Clinical Pastoral Care training under the supervision of Rabbi Mychal Springer at JTS, and Rabbi Sandy Bogin at The Jewish Home Lifecare/Sarah Neuman Center of New York. She was awarded a Fellowship in the Clinical Pastoral Care Training Program at JTS, co-funded by the NY Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women. Rabbi Purser completed her Rabbinic Internship with Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman at Westchester Jewish Center, a conservative synagogue in Larchmont, NY. During her Seminary training she also provided Pastoral and Rabbinic leadership to Jewish senior citizens at The Ambassador, an assisted living facility in Scarsdale, NY.
Prior to her rabbinic studies, Rabbi Purser was a Physical Therapist and Epidemiologist whose research and professional career focused on the healthy aging, engagement and independence of older adults. The Rabbi grew up in Charlotte, NC, attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and lived in the Chapel, NC area for over 20 years. Prior to moving to NY for Rabbinical School, she was a professor at Duke University Medical Center in the Division of Geriatrics, Department of Medicine, and a Senior Fellow in Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.
Director of Education
Jaymes Inman was born in San Diego, California, but moved to Roanoke, VA in 2009. He attended Roanoke College where he graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts in History. He is a member of the Phi Alpha Theta Historical Honors Society and 2 x winner of the Zeno Philosophy Award for outstanding essay in the field of philosophy. He wrote his Senior Thesis on the History of the Roanoke Jewish Community and has always had a passion for local community history. He received his Virginia Department of Education Teaching License in 2021 after working for two years in Roanoke County's REAP (Roanoke Elementary Autism Program). He is also a member of the Roanoke Jewish Federation Events Committee. He has a strong passion and interest in education especially with regards to different ways of learning. In his spare time he enjoys reading, spending time with his family, and participating in activities with the Jewish community.
Jade Reneau was hired as the Beth Israel office administrator in December of 2022. Although she has only been with us for a short time she has already become a valuable staff resource and team member. Jade brings leadership skills, intellect, and innovation to our office work, as well as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity and kindness. Jade has an interesting and unique bio, having worked previously in the banking industry, and also as a food service professional at a boy scout camp serving 500+ campers. In her spare time, Jade enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, playing with her pets, and participating in amateur womens' wrestling as a form of empowerment and exercise. We have already benefitted from Jade's friendship and teamwork. Her cooking skills have also come in handy! Please stop by and say Hello!