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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 50

Norfolk's Early Jewish History

Norfolk's Jewish history dates from 1787, the year Moses Myers (1753-1835), the builder of the elegant Myers House at the corner of Freemason and Bank streets and Norfolk's first known permanent Jewish citizen, arrived in the borough.

Myers, who according to Norfolk-born historian Hugh Blair Grigsby, was the last gentleman in the borough to wear his hair in the Eighteenth Century fashion with a ribbon-tied queue at the nape of his neck, was followed by other Jews, most of them merchants or small shopkeepers.

Although there was no regular synagogue in the Norfolk of that period, it is possible, according to Dr. Malcolm H. Stern, the Jewish historian and a former rabbi of Norfolk's Ohef Sholom Temple, that the Norfolk Jewish community had grown sufficiently by 1815 to provide the required ten adult males needed for Jewish worship. Dr. Stern's assumption is based on the recorded discovery in 1840 of several Torahs in a house known as "The Castle" on Cumberland street.

By 1820, Norfolk area Jews were sufficiently numerous to establish a cemetery of their own on a lot purchased for that purpose in what is now Berkley. By 1850, however, Norfolk's Jewish population, which had been greatly augmented by the wave of German Jewish immigration to the United States, had increased so rapidly that the present Hebrew Cemetery at Tidewater Drive and Princess Anne Road was established. At that time many of the bodies and tombstones of those who had been buried in the Berkley cemetery were moved to the new location.

The first actual records of Jewish worship in Norfolk date from 1844, when Jacob Umstadter, a newly arrived Orthodox German Jew, agreed to become the schochet (Kosher butcher) and hazan (Cantor) of the Norfolk Jewish community.

By 1848, the community had grown sufficiently to permit the organization of a regular congregation. Two rooms were rented in the home of Nathan American, one of the members, for the conducting of regular worship services, and Aaron L. Goldsmith, another member, was sent to Baltimore to purchase a Torah.

Norfolk's first Jewish congregation assumed the name Chevra B'nai Jacov, literally "Association of the Sons of Jacob," or, as they translated it, "House of Jacob."

Continued growth caused the congregation to move into the first floor of the former Norfolk Lyceum, then the Odd Fellows Hall on Wolfe (later Market) Street. It remained there until February of 1859, when the building was destroyed by fire. This caused a temporary removal to quarters at 137 South Church Street.

By that time, members of the House of Jacob had begun to think in terms of erecting a regular synagogue, and on March 3, 1859, they purchased a lot on the east side of Cumberland Street, opposite the Old Norfolk Academy, from Jacob and Fanny Umstadter. On that site, John M. Sale, a Norfolk builder, erected Norfolk's first Jewish synagogue, a Victorian Gothic structure.

When it was completed, according to Dr. Stern, "Mr. Umstadter, who apparently trusted no one but his Maker, took the trouble to record the purchase of his synagogue seats in the Deeds of the Norfolk Corporation Court."

Until the arrival of the first ordained rabbi, Bernard L. Fould, there was no regular rabbi, and capable members of the congregation, all of them foreign born and most of German origin, conducted the services in Orthodox chanting fashion.

The Civil War, according to Dr. Stern, brought with it a sweep of liberalism in American Jewish life which penetrated the Norfolk Jewish community.

In 1867, when the congregation was reorganized under the name of Ohef Sholom, "Lovers of Peace," ideological differences appeared within the synagogue.

In 1870, the more traditional faction withdrew from the congregation and formed what is today Beth El Temple. The Ohef Sholom, or more liberal group, was the progenitor of today's Ohef Sholom Temple at Raleigh Avenue and Stockley Gardens.

Chapter 51
The Old Bells of Norfolk

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

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