This article is part of a special series highlighting the Jewish experience in West Virginia. It's a companion to the television series The Story of the Jews, airing March 25 and April 1 at 8 pm on West Virginia PBS.
Tom Sopher was once a teenager helping the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Beckley with maintenance and yard work.
Decades later he’s President of Temple Beth El, and still doing that maintenance and yard work.
The small, cinder block building, updated years later with a stucco exterior, was built in 1935 on land donated by the city.
“We’ve gotten members from out of town or even people who have come here from a bigger community to visit the Temple and they’ve said ‘You know, I feel as close to God here as I’ve ever felt in my life,’” said Sopher.
In the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a significant group of Jewish merchants in Beckley who had arrived during the boom years for coal.
But throughout the 20th century and into the new millennium, Judaism has clearly been a minority religion in the southern coalfields, and those numbers continue to decline.
At its peak in the 1960’s, there were 60 Jewish families in Beckley who were active congregants. Sopher estimates the temple now has about 30 families and those are drawn from throughout the region.
He said the downturn in the economy has forced merchants to close shops, families have moved away, children have grown up, and parents today aren’t bringing their children to temple.
“It’s concerning, but there’s a core group of Jewish people in the community and the group that’s here really, really wants it to work.”
Scott Gellman is a second year student at Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He drives from Ohio once a month to lead this congregation in Sabbath services, education classes, and special events.
Because membership has declined, Temple Beth El hasn’t been able to afford a fulltime rabbi since its last and beloved Rabbi Izzadore Wein died in 2000.
“So this program really enables Judaism to continue thriving in small communities.” said Gellman.
“I’ve had experience leading services in other realms but to be the spiritual leader of this congregation, of this incredible community, is such an honor.”
On a recent cold Friday evening, with the snow steadily falling, about 15 members of Temple Beth El gathered for Sabbath services to hear Rabbi Gellman warn members they needed to be vigilant about sustaining and even growing temple membership.
“This building and this community are the lifeline of the Jewish community in Beckley,” he said. “We must remember that this building stands and this community thrives because of those who never took it for granted.”
Temple Beth El celebrated this evening the birthday of 90-year-old Irene Fink - a member of one of the founding families of Temple Beth El. She and her husband, Sydney Fink, owned and operated the Hub and Vogue woman’s specialty shop in Beckley for many years.
“To me, Temple Beth El represents all that is good, progressive, honest, which is very difficult to come by,” said Fink after services. “It represents what we learned very, very young, what the good Lord taught us - health, nature, beauty, honesty.”
Irene’s son, Kenneth Fink of Huntington, said he joined his family at the Temple for his mother’s birthday and to honor the traditions of the Temple as well.
“Even though I’m from Huntington, I was born and raised here and was bar mitzvahed here, and I’ve kept in touch here,” he said.
“Many synagogues in West Virginia in recent years have closed and consolidated but I think people here have a sense of hope that somehow they’ll find a will and a way, hopefully people will return or will gravitate here.”
So this small congregation moves forward, with the doors of the Temple wide open.
Temple Beth El is now readying for its yearly Holocaust Remembrance Day event, begun years ago by member Max Lewin of Beckley, who lost several members of his family in the Holocaust. Upon his death. Lewin bequeathed funds to carry on the annual public event.
“This year we’ll be talking about the Righteous among the nations, those who were not Jewish, those who were not the target of the Nazis of Germany, but helped Jews get out of Germany and other lands the Nazis had taken over,” explained Rabbi Gellman.
“The Righteous among the nations is a category that holds great importance in the Jewish community when we speak about the Holocaust.”
The Holocaust Remembrance Day event will be held April 27 at 1 PM at the University of Charleston Beckley campus.