A Jewish presence in New Bern began not long after Swiss explorers settled New Bern in 1710. The Masonic Order’s St. John’s #3 Lodge at 516 Hancock Street is said to have been meeting by or before 1755; among the lodge’s earliest Jewish members were Abraham Cutten, Samuel Hart, Jacob Henry and Jacob Sabiston.
Historians speculate that the areas earliest Jews were involved in shipping. Some Jews owned cargo ships and others worked as shipping agents in the West Indies and the Colonial ports of North America. Jewish merchants of Newport RI, primarily Aaron Lopez, traded with New Bern and Edenton NC. Three Newport RI Jews (Naphtali Hart, Jr., Moses Levy, and Michael Judah) are listed on court rosters in New Bern for 1765. Abraham Nathan, a New Bern resident, owned (or co-owned) the cargo ship Betsey; one of Nathan’s officers and four of his crew mutinied and murdered Nathan with a sassafras root in 1787; all five were convicted and hanged.
In 1908 the trustees contracted with Rhodes and Underwood to build the brick structure. The synagogue was completed in just four months for the sum of $5,000. On August 31, 1908, the lights were turned on and the first service, a society wedding, was held. The following month, the first High Holy Day Services were held in the new Temple.
In 1911, the congregation became affiliated with the Reform movement as a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. In that same year, Rabbi Harry A. Merfeld became the spiritual leader of the Temple at an annual salary of $900.
From 1912 to 1953, the Temple had no ordained rabbi. Student rabbis from Hebrew Union College were sent to officiate during High Holy Days. From 1953 to the late 1980s, the Temple was served by rabbis from Kinston. The first was Dr. Jerome G. Tolochko, who served the Temple on Tuesdays. He taught children in the afternoon and led a worship service in the evenings. Eventually, the Temple elected to have services conducted by their own lay leaders. The first leaders were Louis Steinberg and Jacob Stern.
The women of the Temple formed a Sisterhood/Hadassah in 1950. In 1991 a Temple Constitution was ratified and the newsletter The Shofar was started. The Religious School was reopened in 1995 and a Men’s Club was started in 2003.
Today, our membership includes households representing six coastal counties of North Carolina including: Carteret, Craven, Jones, Onslow, Pamlico and Pitt. Our beautiful Temple is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Who was Chester?
After two decades of asking – “Who was Chester?” – I have learned of two answers in the past two weeks. The first answer was published in our May-June, 2005 issue of our newsletter The Shofar. Yesterday (April 25), I went to the Kellenberger Room at the public library in New Bern to speak with their Reference Librarian, Victor Jones . Mr. Jones was very helpful to me when I was researching the script for a skit about our Temple‘s history. I found Mr. Jones at this desk, and told him I was there because I wanted to share my discovery with him. He smiled and said he had also solved the mystery with an article from an 1893 publication New Bern Weekly Journal. He said he had thought of contacting me but did not know which town to look for my telephone listing. He then went to his files and brought back a folder, removed a photocopy of an article and made a copy for me. I have attempted to transmit the article as published, including the lower-case c in Christian. This is what the article said:
A Jewish Synagogue
Our Jewish fellow citizens have organized themselves into a religious congregation, elected Rabbi I. Kaiser, formerly of Petersburg, to be in charge, and intend when a suitable site is secured to erect a synagogue. It is to be known in Hebrew as “Chester, Bnay Scholom,” which being interpreted means “Chester, Child of Peace.” It is named in honor of Mr. Chas. Reizenstein’s little son Chester, whose innocent questionings of his mother as to why they did not have a church to go to led to this movement.
Twelve families are embraced in the synagogue and including the children there are about fifty members.
The synagogue officers elected are as follows: Rabbi I. Kaiser, President, M. Hahn: Vice President, H. H. Danenburg; Secretary and Treasurer, Chas. Reizenstein; Board of Directors, M. Schultz, M. H. Sultan, O. Marks, M . Hahn and Chas. Reizenstein.
Rabbi Kaiser is spoken of as a fine scholar, very proficient in German and skilled in music.
Until they can erect a place of worship the congregation desire to temporarily rent a suitable place for the purpose. They are now seeking for one. The meetings we are informed will be open for any who choose to attend just as christian churches are.
Marilyn Stern – April 2005
Recent Archive Discoveries
The New Bern Daily Journal, (June 21,1893, p.1, col. 2) reports how some funds were raised to build a synagogue for the congregation that had been formed:
A handsome banquet lamp belonging to Miss Susie Danenburg was raffled off Monday for the benefit of the Jewish synagogue. Mr. James Redmond was the winner and he very kindly donated the lamp back to the synagogue
The June 23, 1893 issue of New Bern’s local paper published the following story:
Rabbi Kaiser requests us to announce that to the many inquiries whether non-Israelites are admitted to their divine services, there is only one answer: at no time in the history of the Jewish people has an outsider been excluded from attending said services, therefore, anybody is welcome. The subject of Rabbi Kaiser’s sermon this evening will be “The Secret of Israel’s Life.” The services on Friday evenings commence at 8 o’clock and on Saturday mornings at 10 o’clock.
The September 12, 1893 issue of New Bern’s local paper published the following story:
Hebrew New Year services were held in the New Berne Fire Company’s Hall from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., yesterday morning. The number of Gentiles attending the service was in excess of the Jewish attendance. The rabbi’s sermon was suited to the occasion.
Ellis Goldstein was confirmed in the Jewish religion and acquitted himself very creditably. Rabbi Kaiser will have a confirmation class two weeks from now consisting of four girls. The age for confirmation is from thirteen upward.
The August 24, 1899 issue of the News and Observer (Raleigh NC) reported that Meyer Hahn, who was born in Germany in 1838, moved to New York when he was 14 and remained there until 1864. He then moved to New Bern and established a livery stable. He took an active interest in politics and in 1880 was elected Sheriff of Craven County–a position he held for three successive terms, ending in 1886. In 1898 Mr. Hahn was appointed collector of customs for the port of New Bern where he headed up a staff of six clerks. The article described Mr. Hahn as “a Mason, a member of the Chapter and a Knight of Honor. In both orders he takes a lively interest. He is President of the Jewish congregation in New Bern. Nothing in the way of enterprise or progress in Newbern or Craven County ever counts amiss on the support of Mr. Hahn. He is proud of his town and follows with the keenest zest the trend of events in the commercial and political life of North Carolina.”
This gem from the July 12, 1904 issue of the New Bern Daily Journal was recently noted by John Green III of the Kellenberger Room
Jewish Society Organized*
The Society of B’nai B’rith, a Hebrew secret and charitable order was organized here Sunday. The object is to assist in a systematic way the orphans, invalids and aged of that faith. The Jewish orphan asylum is in Atlanta.
Those interested in the order who were here from other cities to assist in perfecting the organization were: A. Weichselbaum Atlanta, Henry Weil Goldsboro, J. M Bear Wilmington, J. Joseph Goldsboro, Rabbi J L Meyerburg Goldsboro.
The officers of the local society were: President, J L Hahn; Vice-President, S. Coplon; Secretary, A. Danenburg; Treasurer, Philip Howard; Auditor, N. L. Jacobs; Assistant Auditor, H. Cohn; Trustees, M H Sultan, S Lippman.
*The 1904 New Bern Directory lists the organization as B’nai B’rith Chapter #577 at 81 Middle Street. Congregation Chester B’nai Sholem was founded in New Bern in 1893 and met at several locations including the Firehouse and the Masonic Lodge until Temple B’nai Sholem was built at its present location at 505 Middle Street in 1908.
Note: The above name spellings are as they appeared in the 1904 article, including the rabbi’s.
A March 3, 1971 Sun Journal article reported on New Bern’s Sisterhood-Hadassah donor dinner at the New Bern Golf and Country Club. Rabbi Max Selinger gave the invocation and Rabbi Steven Franklin of Camp Lejeune was guest speaker.
Our continued thanks to Victor Jones and John Green at the Kellenberger Room of New Bern’s public library on Johnson Street for sharing their discoveries about our history.