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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