Temple B’nai Israel, a Brief History:
In the town of Anatevka in “Fiddler on the Roof,” the Rabbi served as judge and arbitrator. Once, when there was a dispute, he said to one side “You’re right, and to the other side, he said “And you’re right.” And that’s how it is with the question of the date on which our Temple started. Was it 1905 or 1912?. . . Those who say 1905 are right because that year held the possibility of a minyon, the required quorum of 10, for traditional prayers. Previously, it was not always possible, because Jews had to come from outlying areas and traveling was difficult. . . . Those who say it was 1912 are also right, because that is the year in which our first President, Abraham Levin, was appointed.
In 1912, our founders were determined to create a house of worship to serve all our religious needs. And now, more than 100 years after the beginning of our Jewish community, four of our founders, Samuel Hecklin, Harry Price, Joseph Spigel and David Spigel have descendants who today, are members of Temple B’nai Israel. They are Connie Spigel Ferguson, Harry Price, Susan Price and 3 generations of the Hecklin Family including Gary Smiley, his son Steven Jay Smiley and Steven’s 2 children, David Michael Smiley and Caroline Leigh Smiley, all of whom remain steadfast as members of our Temple.
The Prices and Spigels and the majority of the founders were Reform Jews of German and Prussian descent. They had resources and leadership to make this a Reform Temple. They wanted the community to be a center of Jewish life, but were not as religious as the Orthodox Jews from Russia. The Jews, who had emigrated from Russia, clung to Orthodoxy, because they felt more secure in the religion of their parents.
The Orthodox Jews gathered in the backs of stores to meet for morning prayers, which sustained their tradition and gave them a feeling of stability. Each person had made major moves in his lifetime, first, from Eastern Europe and later, from another city or state. Spartanburg had attracted them because business in the area seemed promising. The stores might have been Abraham Levin’s Tailor and Apparel Shop or David Spigel’s Jewelry, Real Estate and Optometry shop, although the owners were Reform.
Connie Spigel Ferguson found in her attic a framed, but unsigned, document that appears to have been written by her great uncle, Joseph Spigel. In it, he says, “I think it proper that the congregation of today should know the origin and subsequent history of this fine Temple. This handful of people saw the need of a gathering place where they might worship God.” The founders had gathered in Abraham Levin’s shop to organize. They needed to place someone in authority to call meetings and collect dues; they appointed their first President, Abraham Levin.
Mr. Spigel stated that “After 2 years of excellent service, Abraham Levin was followed by Harry Price, who also gave untiring service, as President. In 1915, Harry Price was followed by Max Cohen.” During Cohen’s term, they solicited the aid of Mrs. Futchler, who taught the children and allowed them to use her living room as a classroom. Soon, the number of children became too great for the space. The founders then, decided to go forward with the building of a synagogue.
Mr. Spigel wrote: “Therefore, in 1916, we met again for the purpose of reorganizing with a view to establishing a permanent place of worship.” That year, 1916, Joseph Spigel applied for a charter for the Congregation of B’nai Israel. A building committee was formed and the Executive Board of Directors was elected. Their names are on a marble plaque on the wall, outside the Temple.
Rabbi Jacob Raisin of Charleston, in 1916, came to Spartanburg to promote a fundraising drive for establishing a Temple. A large turnout of Spartanburg’s Jewish population came to hear him at a vacant building on Church Street. They responded with amounts ranging from 50 cents to $1,000.
Joseph Spigel, continued that “In 1917, we broke dirt for the building with the following officers: J, Spigel, President, Joe Miller, Vice-President; Harry Price, Treasurer; and J. Schwartz, Secretary.” In that year, the cornerstone was laid and services and religious training for children began in Temple B’nai Israel, Spartanburg’s first synagogue. Their first spiritual leader was Rabbi Craft, a traveling Rabbi, who came for the holidays.
Sisterhood, then known as The Women’s Auxiliary of Temple B’nai Israel, raised funds for pews and stained glass windows. The women finished the basement floors, painting and patching with their own hands, to create an area where children could study.
At that time, one of our most notable members was Dr. L. Rosa Gantt (1876-1935). She was the first woman to graduate from the Medical University of South Carolina and was the first President of The Women’s Auxiliary. She was greatly active in providing for Jewish servicemen during World War I. In 1924, she negotiated with Oakwood Cemetery to create Spartanburg’s first Jewish cemetery section. She was also instrumental in establishing what is currently known as The Spartanburg Regional Health Center.
During the hard times of the depression, the community maintained a Rabbi. According to a Sisterhood Minutes Book, the group had lost all its money in a bank failure. The women held several bridge parties, replaced the deficit and continued in support of the Temple. The minutes book belonged to the late Daisy Spigel, and was donated by her granddaughter, Connie Spigel Ferguson. In 1936, there were 36 families and a substantial mortgage. In 1937, Joseph Spigel paid off the Temple’s debt . . . and burned the mortgage.
During both World Wars, Jewish soldiers stationed in the area worshipped at Temple B’nai Israel and were entertained there. In World War I, some Jewish soldiers held services in an old church near Camp Wadsworth on the west side of town and some came east to the Temple. In World War II, Camp Croft, one of the army’s most important training camps, was located in the Spartanburg area. Among the many famous Jewish servicemen who trained there were Zero Mostel and Henry Kissinger and Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York.
Following the war, several soldiers who had been stationed at Camp Croft came back to settle in Spartanburg and establish businesses. They were Seymour Feinstein, Max Massey and Joseph Wachter, Sr. Ben Abelkop, a World War II veteran, had lived in Spartanburg before the war and returned after having served his country. He and his wife Emma were dedicated Temple members for the remaining years of their lives. Seymour Feinstein was involved in Temple work for many years and was *Gabbai until his death in 1999.
Two of our returned World War II veterans, trained at Camp Croft, became Temple Presidents. They were Joseph Wachter, Sr., 1962 to 1963, until his sudden death in 1963. He was succeeded by Max Massey, 1963 to 1965. Massey, now retired and living in Florida, remains a member of Temple B’nai Israel after more than 64 years.
Susan Abelkop served as our first and only woman President, 1998-2000. She held office twice, when she completed Barry Nickelsberg’s term in 2006.
For many years, services were conducted by lay people or by Rabbis who came to conduct High Holiday services. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Rabbi Wrubel held the pulpit and in 1954, he was followed by Rabbi Schneider, who remained approximately 6 months.
In 1955, Rabbi Max Stauber joined the congregation and for the next 28 years, he served as Rabbi and cantor. In that time frame, our Temple was Conservative, but Rabbi Stauber, although trained in Orthodoxy, was able to accommodate all factions, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. Rabbi Stauber retired in 1983, but filled in, when needed, to conduct services. He continued on as a congregation member until he passed away in 1986. He was followed by Rabbis Krause, Aloof, Unger, Siegel, Cohon and Rommer. Converse College Professor Jeffrey Poelvoorde served twice, as Interim Religious Leader.
In the 1950’s, Abe Smith selected a 7-acre tract of land on which he intended to build a home. It was a prime piece of land near the heart of town. Some friends admired his acquisition and suggested that it would be perfect for a Temple. Abe realized that the land did, indeed, have that potential and he allowed the congregation to purchase the acreage for a new Temple. A Victorian house was situated on this land and it was later used for services, educational and social activities.
In 1961, the original Temple was sold, and in a historic procession led by Rabbi Max Stauber and President Joseph Wachter, followed by the Congregation, they moved the Torahs and holy relics to the Victorian house on the Temple grounds. Our Temple was built and completed in 1963, and President, Joseph Wachter, who had been very active in the planning, died shortly before the Dedication. The Ceremony continued, as scheduled, with the new President, Max Massey, and was attended by many dignitaries, including Governor Donald Russell.
In the early 1960s, Andrew Teszler, a textile industrialist, had moved from New York and opened Butte Knit, which was among the first racially integrated textile plants in the South. He brought his “team,” including many Jews, who gave a huge boost to Spartanburg’s Jewish Community. Andrew, in his short life (1931-1971), was a substantial benefactor, not only to the Temple, but also to Spartanburg. In 1971, Teszler contributed funds for an Education Building and chapel, and with matching funds from the Congregation, these additions were built. He donated the Library at Wofford College, naming it in honor of his father, Sandor Teszler, a Holocaust survivor, who remained a gracious and gentle man until his death at age 96, in 1999. Sandor Teszler had operated the first racially integrated plant in the area, a textile plant at Kings Mountain,
In 1994, our congregation elected to affiliate with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, to return after half a century, to being Reform. Rabbi and Cantor Samuel Cohon led us through the process, incorporating some of our existent prayer books to make the change gradual.
Spartanburg’s Jewish community continues to have significant growth and has attracted many business and professional people over the past decade. Recently, “Extended Stay of America” moved its headquarters to downtown Spartanburg bringing a number of Jewish families to the area. Over 50 percent of the Jewish community arrived in the last decade and many children of previous generations have returned to Spartanburg.
The Temple extended its facilities in 2003 with the expansion of the social hall, meeting room and Rabbi’s offices.
Rabbi Dr. Yossi Leibowitz joined us in 2003. He recently earned his doctorate in religious studies and continues to impress the Greater Spartanburg area with his knowledge, songs, humor, leadership and compassionate caring for those in need. Rabbi Liebowitz, in the enlarged Temple B’nai Israel, is leading this Jewish community into our 2nd Century. Rabbi Liebowitz is an active participate in the Interfaith Alliance.
Acknowledgements to Harry Price and Connie Spigel Ferguson