Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

The Promising Land Despite Its Size, Carolina City Boasts Active Jewish Community

January 24, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A list of North America’s 10 most vibrant, innovative and generous Jewish communities might well include this mellow, mid-size city in central North Carolina.

If Greensboro, N.C., is known for anything among the Jewish public, it’s for the year-old American Hebrew Academy, North America’s only co-ed Jewish boarding high school.

But even without AHA attracting international attention and adding buildings exponentially, this Jewish community of 2,500 would be one of America’s most engaged.

Some 500 families belong to Temple Emanuel, which opened an $8 million synagogue this fall across from AHA.

The Reform congregation uses Emanuel’s former home, a Greek Revival synagogue downtown, for special occasions.

Approximately 450 families belong to the Conservative Beth David Synagogue, which houses B’nai Shalom Day School, a 30-year-old pluralistic Jewish school with 160 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

The Greensboro Jewish Federation, which operates with Jewish Family Services in a sleek, five-year-old headquarters, raises $1.5 million annually. That averaged to $645 per capita in 2001, the highest among all federated communities, according to the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella.

The 80 percent synagogue affiliation rate of local Jews ranks high, too.

But Greensboro’s Jews aren’t only joiners and donors. They’ve rolled up their sleeves to:

Create an active sister community program with the Jews of Beltsy, Moldova.

Through the Greensboro-Beltsy Collaboration, the federation has provided funds and visiting labor to restore the Beltsy Jewish cemetery; created a computer lab for vocational training and Jewish education in the Beltsy Jewish Community Center; helped Beltsy found a Jewish family summer camp and sent educators and others to help run the camp; and sent Jewish dentists to work in Beltsy clinics.

The federation collected writings and artwork from some 200 members of both communities to create the book “One People One Heart.” Proceeds from the sale go to Beltsy’s Jewish community.

Help non-federated Jewish communities in North Carolina develop their endowment funds.

The Jewish Foundation of Greensboro, a department of the federation, has $12 million in assets, including endowment money from the Jewish communities of Asheville, Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Cary. Foundation Director Susan Gutterman has helped the other communities begin their endowments through the Shared Endowment Professionals program, or SHEP.

“I used to call it the ‘Shlep Program,’ ” she says, “because I was traveling so much.”

The Greensboro Jewish foundation distributes about $1 million per year, mostly for Jewish causes.

Co-found Jewish Healthcare International, an organization that provides medical services to Jews in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Led by neurologist Jim Adelman, the Greensboro federation collaborated with larger federations in Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Tidewater, Va., Israel’s Foreign and Health Ministries, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and Project Vision to establish Jewish Healthcare International.

The organization marshals Israeli and North American health care professionals and resources to provide medical and dental care and training of practitioners to Jewish communities at risk.

Spearhead educational and social action efforts with local Christian and Muslim communities.

The federation and the local office of the National Conference for Community & Justice have sponsored three interfaith missions to Israel. Several years ago, the federation organized Greensboro Cares, enlisting the Christian and Muslim communities to help provide emergency aid to hurricane-ravaged Princeville, N.C., as well as to refugees in Kosovo.

The federation also sponsors a community enrichment fund that provides small grants to non-Jewish organizations.

Ensure that newcomers are welcomed and included in Jewish activities.

Marilyn Chandler, the federation’s executive director, estimates that 100 Jewish newcomers arrive here each year, either as transplanted professionals from the United States and Israel or as refugees from the former Soviet Union. Most find a niche in one of the congregations or as a federation volunteer.

Rabbi Eliezer Havivi of Beth David says the two congregations between them have 30 families of Russian newcomers, and countless Israeli members.

“Because we’re so small here and so intimate, they’re completely sucked in,” he says.

Active, inventive, philanthropic, neighborly: How does Greensboro Jewry do it?

Ask anybody in the know, and you get a flashback to the 1890s, when brothers Moses and Caesar Cone arrived here from Baltimore. They and another Jewish family, the Sternbergers, opened thriving textile mills that helped transform Greensboro from a sleepy town to an area financial center.

The Cones were more than successful businessmen; they were community leaders.

“With the Cone Mills, one of the top textile companies in the country at that point, the Cone family’s influence in the general community was very strong, and everybody knew that the Cones were involved in the Jewish community,” says retired businessman Arthur Bluethenthal, who has lived in Greensboro since 1950. “It made it that much easier for those of us who came along.”

Ben Cone, a member of the mercantile family, was Greensboro’s mayor from 1949-51. Bluethenthal was president of the Greensboro United Way.

The Cones might have reached the height of community responsibility during the Great Depression. At the Greensboro Historical Museum, a display on influential early Jewish families includes a letter to Herman Cone, acknowledging that he had paid all of the depositors who lost money when the North Carolina Bank and Trust Co. closed in 1929.

That bank had bought the assets of the Cone family’s Textile Bank, eliminating the Cones’ ownership interest — yet Herman Cone made good on millions of dollars.

Chandler credits the Cones and other early families for having “set a standard for the Jewish community: You’re going to be philanthropic. They set a standard for the general community as well.”

Bluethenthal also lauds Fred Rypins, the former rabbi of Temple Emanuel.

“Rabbi Rypins was extremely well thought of in the community,” Bluethenthal says. “He was involved in every part of the community.”

Havivi, who grew up in New York, believes Greensboro’s Jews civic involvement is a product of southern culture.

“It’s the Bible Belt here. Everybody goes to church here. It’s a religious community. If your church is Jewish, that’s OK,” he says. “So here people join shuls, send kids to religious school and come to shul.”

Greensboro Jews also have a tradition of getting along. The city’s first synagogue, Greensboro Hebrew Congregation, formed in 1908 with a Reform rabbi and a kosher butcher for the Orthodox community. Beth David formed in 1944.

The congregations jointly sponsor a supplementary Hebrew High School and generally cooperate. In December, when an ice storm knocked out the electricity at Beth David, Emanuel hosted a bar mitzvah that was supposed to have been held at the Conservative synagogue.

The Jewish community retains a small-town feel that invites, even compels, involvement in order to sustain Jewish life. Hannah Gutterman, Susan Gutterman’s daughter and a leader in the United Synagogue Youth and B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, notices the contrast with her former community.

“In suburban Chicago, I always thought of myself as Jewish, But I didn’t appreciate the fact or identify with it the way I do here,” she says.

And then there’s Greensboro Jewry’s willingness to hire energetic Jewish professionals and give them a mandate and resources to lead. Rabbi Fred Guttman brought an agenda of community-building, life-long education, spiritual and musical worship and social action to Emanuel. Havivi has instituted daily worship and bolstered adult education, particularly of ritual skills that congregants can use at home.

Chandler has provided her leaders with the support they need to succeed, says Joan Bluethenthal, a former federation president. Steve Bogad came to run B’nai Shalom from Jewish day schools in Columbus, Ohio, and Los Angeles. He ordered the new computer system and instituted video-conferencing classes with the Siegal College of Jewish Studies in Cleveland.

The rabbis and Chandler note that they would not have been attracted to Greensboro were it not for B’nai Shalom. Now the new American Hebrew Academy is bringing a fresh crop of Jewish professionals, particularly educators, to town.

The future looks bright, leaders agree. As long as the economy — fueled by hospitals, colleges, high-tech and manufacturing — continues to attract 100 Jews to Greensboro each year, the Jewish community likely will keep them here.

Recommended from JTA