Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
In 1752, August Gottlieb Spangenberg surveyed miles of central North Carolina land, eventually naming it “die Wachau,” or Wachovia, after the estate of German nobleman Nicholas Ludwig von Zizendorf. Spangenberg purchased 100,000 acres of this land for him and fellow members of the Moravian Church, the first Europeans to settle what would be Winston-Salem. Before even a handful of Jews arrived in North Carolina, these pioneer Christians established Bethabara, Hebrew for “house of passage,” and shortly after, the primary settlement Salem, from shalom meaning “peace.” The first Jewish symbols in Winston-Salem involved no Jews at all. In fact, there would be no noticeable Jewish presence until the last two decades of the 19th century.
The town of Winston developed alongside Salem and was incorporated in 1849. Shortly after, Winston became the county seat of Forsyth County and with the court house placed just north of Salem, the two towns gradually were grouped as one. With its origins as a closed religious society, Salem was said to be the city’s “conscience,” while Winston its “purse.” Unlike most of the antebellum South, Winston-Salem became an early industrial center, with tobacco, furniture and textile production. By the time of the Civil War, Winston may have been more economically advanced than other parts of the South, but had not yet come to prominence. In 1889, the mail offices of Winston and Salem were combined and in 1913, the two towns were officially incorporated as one. By this time, however, the city had become “the greatest industrial town south of Richmond and east of the Mississippi.”
During the industrialization of the South following the Civil War, Winston-Salem boomed. In the mid 1870s, Richard Joshua Reynolds purchased space from the Moravian Church to build a tobacco production plant. The steam-powered factory was soon processing millions of pounds of tobacco a year and the R.J. Reynolds Company became a major employer in Winston-Salem. Over the subsequent decades, several large factories sprouted over the burgeoning city, including J.A. & C.E. Bennett Marble and Granite Works, J. Wesley Hanes’s Shamrock Hosiery Mill, and the Bennett Bottling Co. In 1879, the Wachovia National Bank was incorporated, the predecessor to Wachovia Bank and Trust. Winston-Salem was very much an emblem of the New South.
Amidst all this commercial and industrial growth arrived the city’s first Jews. They came primarily from the Jewish enclaves of Northeastern cities, namely Baltimore. Unfortunately, tragedy befell several of the newcomers as they adjusted to life in the South. Joe Jacobs arrived in Winston-Salem from Baltimore in the early 1880s. He operated a men’s clothing store with his wife, daughter and son. Jacobs’s daughter, Essie, passed away due to the repercussions of a wounded finger. Later, his son Harry took his own life. It is believed that Joe Jacobs likely took his own life as well. Also from Baltimore were three Kobre brothers who arrived around the same time. One brother manufactured whiskey while the other two operated a clothing store. In 1913, it is reported that one Kobre brother murdered another. Despite these macabre events, Winston-Salem attracted an increasing number of Jewish families and began to establish a community by the turn of the century.
A host of new Jewish families arrived around this time, the overwhelming majority of whom were peddlers who would become storeowners. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the number of Jewish families almost doubled. Abe Shapiro, an immigrant from Russia, worked in New York’s Yiddish theatre before coming to Winston Salem. He began as a peddler before opening a retail business on Main Street. The Levy family owned a store just next to Shapiro’s. Other store-owning families included the Rosenbacher family and the brother of Mrs. Rosenbacher, Sam Rose. A later resident of Winston-Salem said “that the early Jewish men who came here did not come because they were hired to work for a company… they came looking for opportunity and the only economic gain they might hope to get would have to be working for themselves.”
While economic gain may have attracted these Jews to Winston-Salem, they worked to maintain their religious traditions in their new environment. Being predominantly Orthodox, the first Jews of Winston-Salem set about maintaining their traditions. The first religious services were held in 1880. In 1888, the nine Jewish families in the area hired Rev. M. Shapiro to lead services, slaughter kosher meat, and teach the children. Under Shapiro’s prompting, the group established the Beth Jacob congregation and managed to purchase a Torah and prayer books. This congregation was short-lived and never had a permanent house of worship. In 1912, Winston-Salem Jews established the Winston-Salem Hebrew Congregation, which initially met in an old storeroom on Cherry Street. They later converted a two-story frame house into a synagogue for the congregation. But as the Jewish presence in Winston-Salem increased, the demand for a proper synagogue hastened the purchase of a new space for worship. In 1916, a former church on 4th Street was converted into a synagogue, with the help of a $1000 donation from Frank Raiff. By 1919, the congregation had thirty members and its weekly Orthodox services were led by Rabbi P. Berlin. This period also saw the growth of Jewish civic organizations, such as the Jewish Ladies Aid Society. This group helped with congregation activities as well as securing the purchase of the Mt. Sinai Cemetery. A B’nai B’rith lodge was also organized, headed by Monte S. Cohen.
The beginning of the 20th century was a period of growth and maturation for Winston-Salem as well as its Jewish community. In 1913, Winston and Salem became officially one municipality, becoming the hyphenated Winston-Salem. The Reynolds Company continued to grow, importing so much cigarette paper and tobacco that the city was designated an official port despite being 200 miles in-land. In 1916, it was the eighth largest port in the US and a year later the Reynolds Company constructed “Reynoldstown,” a mill village for the company’s factory workers. Hanes also continued to grow and increase its textile production. This decade also saw the merger of two financial firms into Wachovia Bank and Trust, a major bank in the Southern Atlantic region. Simultaneously, Jewish business boomed on the city’s main streets. A survey of the business listings of the city reveals widespread Jewish ownership. Along Liberty Street were located fifteen Jewish establishments while on Main Street there were eight. A history of Jews in Winston-Salem states that there was “indeed a Jewish Ghetto” during this period, on Cherry Street between 8th and 9th and 8th Street and Buxton Street. While an enclave developed, Jewish relations with the greater Winston-Salem community must have been cordial, a 1932 newspaper article states, “due to the good standing of its members as individuals, the [Jewish] community enjoys a very desirable reputation as an integral part of city life.”
But the new Jewish families presented challenges to the still Orthodox congregation. Newer families, such as the Shapiros, the Cohens, Levins, Wainers and Cohns sought “a more liberal type of Judaism,” rather than the very traditional services offered by Winston-Salem’s congregation. This desire to practice a more modern form of Judaism may have resulted from the greater commercial and social integration of the Jewish community into Winston-Salem. The dissatisfied congregants at first looked for a Conservative Rabbi to lead a breakaway congregation, but found this branch too similar to Orthodoxy. They eventually settled on a reform Rabbi graduating from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Mr. Meyer H. Simon. Beginning in 1932, the new reform segment, what would become Temple Emanuel, began meeting at the temple on 4th Street, sharing a building with the Orthodox contingent. Friday night services commenced at 8pm following the Orthodox service. But in 1934, the schism within the Jewish community led to the departure of the reform congregation from the temple to a nearby store. This was the beginning of Temple Emanuel, which quickly became affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The small Orthodox congregation continued on, before closing in the 1980s.
Photo courtesy of Julian Preisler
Like Moses of old, the reform congregation wondered the barren desert of Winston-Salem for almost two decades, searching for their walls of Jericho, a temple they could claim as their own. After moving out of the 4th Street store, the congregation held services in various locations, including a bank, an Old Masonic Lodge, and later the Goody’s Headache Powders factory where the loud cranking of machines frequently interrupted services. The ability to purchase their own space was shelved with the coming of World War II, but events following the war brought new opportunities. In 1946, the congregation was officially incorporated. The following year saw a major increase in Jewish numbers in Winston-Salem as Temple Emanuel blossomed to 100 families with 52 children in its religious school. The mission of securing their own building was now at full throttle. Crucial to this campaign was the work of the Jewish Women’s Council who helped secure funds and would serve as the temple’s sisterhood in the future. In the fall of 1949, it was announced that land on the corner of Oakwood and Cloverdale had been bought for $6000, much of this raised by the Jewish Women’s Council. The following year, the construction of the temple was agreed to at a cost of $107,214 with the architectural firm of Sigmund Braverman and M.P. Halperin. On May 9th 1952, Temple Emanuel had at long last been completed.
The inauguration of Temple Emanuel coincided with what is often believed to be the golden age of American Jewry. The post-war experience of Winston-Salem’s Jews is an illustration of this era. Between 1948 and 1960, the city’s Jewish population rose from 300 to nearly 450. This can be attributed to the economic growth of Winston-Salem during the 1950s, including the arrival of Western Electric, which brought many Jews down from the Northeast. New social practices were also welcomed by the congregation, such as the granting of complete equality between male and female lay members in the early 1950s.
This modernization of Jewish life is exemplified by the Brenner family. Frank, his wife Jennie Cohen Brenner and their two sons, Morris and Abe arrived in Winston-Salem in 1921. That same year, the couple had their third child, Herbert. Frank Brenner started out in Winston-Salem with his Reliable Junk Company. Business was difficult, especially during the Great Depression. Morris and Abe dropped out of high school to assist their father. Herb was too young to work and as a result was able to attend high school and eventually go to college where he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Following college, Herb joined back up with his brothers in the scrap business; soon after, the Brenners moved into the steel industry. They founded the Amarr Company in 1951, which became a major operation with plants in five cities and distribution centers in seventeen locations across the country. Amarr is a major producer and distributor of garage doors and the Brenner brothers have invested in numerous other industries. In addition to the business world, the family has been a major source of philanthropy, including the Brenner Foundation and the Brenner Children’s Hospital. Their story exemplifies the coming of age of Jews in Winston-Salem in the middle decades of the 20th century. As of 2006, Herb Brenner remained the CEO of Amarr Garage Doors, still headquartered in Winston-Salem.
The continued growth of the city and the Jewish community spurred new developments within the congregation. Minutes from Temple Emanuel meetings reveal new purchases and projects, from building additional educational facilities to ridding the synagogue of termites. In August of 1960, Herb Brenner was put in charge of a committee to survey the costs of renovating the temple. Temple Emanuel had a surplus and money was spent on beautifying the building with stained glass windows and other amenities. But as temple membership expanded through the 1960s, the greatest need was for more space. Finally, in May of 1971, the congregation voted in favor of contracting for an addition to the rear of Temple Emanuel. One year later, an educational wing was constructed for the growing number of Jewish students in Winston-Salem.
Temple Emanuel and Winston-Salem’s Jewish community continued to flourish in the 1980s. The history of Temple Emanuel describes this period as “a time when multi-generational families came together” and exemplified Jewish life and Judaism to a region still overwhelmingly Protestant. Civic engagement was routine, the congregation had a continual full-time rabbi, and the children of former Hebrew school students in Winston-Salem were enrolling in the same classes as the generation before. According to congregant Sue Clein, “There was a strong sense of intergenerational connectedness through mutual participation in social, educational and fundraising events with an accompanying sense of individual responsibility for the viability of the temple.”
Temple Emanuel's new home.
Photo courtesy of Julian PreislerThe peak number of Jews in Winston Salem was in 1975 at 636. However, population data reveals a gradual diminution of the Jewish population throughout the 1980s. In reality, this wane reveals more of a transformation than a decline. The Winston-Salem economy began shifting from traditional manufacturing and retail base to professional and high tech operations. Many of the long-established Jewish storeowners terminated their businesses as their children often left for larger cities seeking greater opportunities. Meanwhile, the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center expanded, brining in new groups of young Jewish professionals and their families to replenish the Jewish population of the city. This transition created an equilibrium that eventually drifted towards a greater Jewish presence in the city. In 1998, Temple Emanuel launched a new campaign of fundraising for additions and expansions. But just a few years later, an auspicious, and anonymous, purchase of neighboring space near the temple led to the conclusion that an entirely new synagogue had to be completed. While construction of the new edifice was in the works, the congregation gained a new rabbi, Mark Strauss-Cohn, and held services in the High Presbyterian Church Fellowship Hall. On January 18th, 2002, across the street from the old Oakwood synagogue, the new home of Temple Emanuel hosted its first services. The old building has been converted into more offices, classrooms and an improved library.
The Jewish community in Winston-Salem today carries on its over-a-century old traditions. In 2007, Temple Emanuel celebrated its 75th anniversary with 250 member families and 160 students in its religious school. Temple Emanuel provides the city’s continued demand for Jewish spiritual guidance. But the history of the Jewish community in Winston-Salem is more defined by individual and collective efforts of the men and women who have made a home in the city. The sustainability of this community is a testament to the dedication of prior generations of Jewish-Americans who helped make Winston-Salem the city it is today.