Jews have lived in West Virginia since long before the creation of the state. From the state’s largest cities to some of its most rural hamlets, Jewish West Virginians have worked, raised families, and participated in local civic and social life, while forming their own religious congregations and adapting their cultural traditions to the West Virginia milieu.
Jewish migration to Western Virginia mirrored the broader migration of Jews to the United States: first came the Germans, then the East Europeans. From 1840 to 1880, adverse economic conditions and governmental repression in Germany caused Jews to move to the United States in the hundreds of thousands. Many gravitated to small cities and towns in the nation’s interior, where they could resume their traditional ‘‘old country’’ occupations as peddlers and merchants.
Jewish immigrants settled on the (West) Virginia side of the Ohio River as early as the 1770s. The first Jewish community in Western Virginia formed in Wheeling by the mid-1840s, establishing a religious congregation in 1849. German Jews came to Charleston in the 1850s and formed a congregation in 1873. Some family names descending from these German Jews are familiar to Charlestonians today and include May, Loewenstein, Frankenberger, Hess, Peyser, Jelenko, Loeb, Baer, Kleeman, Mayer, and Schwabe. By 1880, Jews lived in most of the developed areas of the state, including Clarksburg, Huntington, and Parkersburg. Others traveled the mountains with packs on their backs, bringing the goods of the town into the countryside, much as Jews had done in Europe.
After 1880, the state’s German Jews were joined by a much larger East European contingent. Between 1880 and 1920, social and economic upheaval in Russia, Poland, and Austria-Hungary caused two million Jews to emigrate to America. The vast majority settled in major cities. However, their arrival coincided with the explosive growth of West Virginia’s coal industry, and some Jewish immigrants in Baltimore and New York, hearing of the potential the state’s growing economy offered to small business people, found their way to the coalfields. By the 1920s, they had significantly increased the Jewish populations of older settled areas such as Charleston and had also established Jewish communities in developing coal and steel towns such as Beckley, Logan, Welch, Weirton, and Williamson. Meanwhile, smaller towns from Monongah in the north to Anawalt in the south to Sutton in the agricultural heartland became home to tiny clusters of Jews.
In all these places, Jews settled into the occupation they knew best: retailing. They were often the developers and mainstays of downtown business districts. Some became involved in local politics, many others in civic organizations and social clubs. Notable Jewish political figures have included Congressman Benjamin L. Rosenbloom of Wheeling, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Fred Caplan, and mayors of Huntington, Glen Jean, Keystone, Northfork, and Romney.
Anxious to preserve their religion and heritage, Jews have formed their own organizations and participated in local, national, and international Jewish causes. Their religious life has centered around local synagogues, where they attend services, celebrate Jewish holidays, and provide a religious education for their children. All three branches of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—have been represented in the state.
Jews have always been a tiny minority in West Virginia. At its height in the early 1950s, the Jewish population of the state probably reached no more than about 7,000. The decline of the state’s economy caused the out-migration of West Virginians of all backgrounds, including Jews. The number of Jews in smaller towns dwindled, in many cases, to none. Congregations that once existed in towns such as Fairmont, Keystone, Kimball, Logan, Weirton, and Welch are gone. Today, West Virginia’s Jews, numbering about 2,500, are concentrated in the largest cities: Charleston, Huntington, and Wheeling. Small congregations also exist in Beckley, Bluefield, Clarksburg, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Parkersburg, and Williamson.
This Article was written by Deborah R. Weiner
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Shinedling, Abraham. West Virginia Jewry: Origins and History, 1850-1958. Philadelphia: Maurice Jacobs, 1963.
Alexander, Irving. Jewish Merchants in the Coalfields. Goldenseal, (Spring 1990).