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From 7th Street to Shalom Park - Charlotte's Rich Jewish History
Walter Klein

Slip on your most comfortable shoes and walk now through Charlotte and through time. You'll travel many miles, meet some delightful people and behold striking places.

   Two cousins born in Surinam, South America, came here after their cotton plantation went belly up. They arrived just in time to serve in the patriot army and militia to do their patriotic part to win the Revolutionary War.

   Abraham Moses was one of them. He was listed as an army private in 1783. His cousin Solomon Simons was listed in the 1799 Mecklenburg County tax listing as having served in Captain Liggett's militia company. Both cousins are listed in the first United States census in 1790.

   These were the first true Jewish settlers in Mecklenburg County. They operated The Jews Store between Waxhaw and Monroe, close to the site of the first Belk store called New York Cash. Moses died in 1821, leaving a wife, two daughters and three slaves, John, Betty and Violet. He left $50 to his brother Isaac in Germany, $25 to the synagogue in Charleston, SC (it was the closest), $5 to the Baptist church and $5 to the Methodist church.

   Solomon's full name was Solomon Simons van Grol and he started a vast family in Charlotte. As a result, many well-known Charlotte people of today can count this Jewish merchant among their ancestors. Their family names?  McCall. Rogers. Jones. Cuthbertson. Robinson. Springer. McCauley. Dillon. Bennett and—most important of all—Belk.

   Aaron Cohen fought with George Washington. His daughter Elizabeth is buried in Charlotte's Hebrew Cemetery. Several early Jews are buried in Presbyterian church cemeteries because the Jewish cemetery didn't begin burials until 1872. You can spot the twin tablets among the crosses. Their inscriptions contain such remarks as, "A daughter in Israel."

   When Charlotte was little more than a mid-19th century crossroads (Washington had called it "trifling" in 1791), Jews were operating dry goods stores, tanneries, grocery, furniture and clothing stores. The largest dry goods store was owned by Jacob Rintels and Samuel Wittkowsky. To staff their three-story business on Trade and Tryon, Wittkowsky attracted a number of teenage Jewish boys from New York. When the Civil War began, Wittkowsky, too old to fight, gave his clerks his blessing to become heroes. They all enlisted without hesitation. With only nine Jewish families living in Charlotte at the time, eleven boys put on Confederate uniforms. None returned north.

    Louis Leon was one of them. He was perhaps the worst qualified soldier and least talented writer in the Confederate army. When that Charlotte store clerk was told to chop down a tree, he could not dent it. He was given other duties that gave him time to write a diary. That turned out to become one of the most priceless Civil War documents because it takes the reader right into the mud, freezing water, hundred-mile walks--and mind--of one Jewish footsoldier.

   In that diary Leon wrote of General Robert E. Lee offering all Jewish soldiers passes to attend High Holy Day services in Richmond, regardless of the urgency of battle. Leon wrote of boys, faced with months without meat, paying 50 cents per rat. Leon lived to become Charlotte's first B'nai B'rith president and to lead the huge 1929 Confederate reunion that erected the courthouse monument to the 27 Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence signers.

   Leon and 12 other Jewish Confederate veterans—from Captain Julius Roessler to Private Henry Wertheim--are honored today by the Sons of Confederate Veterans whose massive monument stands next to the chapel in Charlotte's Hebrew Cemetery. 

   Wittkowsky gained fame just after Lee surrendered. He heard that Governor Zebulon Vance, the most beloved person in North Carolina history, was to be arrested at his Statesville home and taken to prison in disgrace. Wittkowsky drove his buggy from Charlotte to Statesville in time to witness Vance, his wife and children crying their farewell. Wittkowsky told 200 Union troops he was driving Vance in dignity to his prison destination and that was that. After his release, Vance moved to Charlotte to begin a 10-year law practice near Wittkowsky. Vance wrote and delivered nationally his famous lecture, The Scattered Nation, telling of the remarkable qualities of the Jewish people.

   Both men, one Presbyterian and one Jewish, were Masons. Together they founded Excelsior Masonic Lodge 261 in Charlotte with most of its first members Jewish, and which in time became North Carolina's largest Masonic lodge. Wittkowsky was its first Master. He was also the first elected president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, co-founder of the Charlotte Country Club, founder of the first building and loan firm in the South and member of the Charlotte Board of Aldermen. He helped shape the Charlotte city charter. Clearly he was the leading Charlotte Jew of the 19th century.

   After the Civil War Jay Hirschinger served on the Charlotte school board. He secured a grant from Andrew Carnegie to establish this city's first public library in 1891. Former Captain Julius Roessler ran a dry goods store on the Square like Wittkowsky and Rintels. Roessler was also a leading Mason and was responsible for constructing the famed Masonic lodge building on South Tryon Street that remained for generations. He also helped found Charlotte' first Jewish congregation in 1895 at 15 East Trade Street, upstairs over the Vogue shop owned by the Silverstein family. Later Charlotte Jews worshipped above a drugstore at Tryon and Fifth streets and at the corner of Church and Fourth streets. Remarkably, two Roessler grandchildren survived into the 21st century: Alice London Dukoff and Bill Grimes.

   Michael Kirschbaum began as a hatmaker at 26 West Trade Street, later switching to furs. He and daughters Rebecca and Alma, for half a century, never changed their window display consisting of one stuffed fox.

   World War I saw a substantial army base spring to life north of Wilkinson Boulevard at Dowd road called Camp Greene. Many Jewish soldiers served there and stayed to live out their lives in Charlotte. Out South Mint street near Park Avenue was Wearn Field, Charlotte's earliest baseball team and park, owned by Felix Hayman in the 1920s. By day Hayman ran a meat market at 33 North Tryon.

   Two 1890s families, the Millers and Silversteins, have descendants in Charlotte today. The Miller home stood at 429 North Pine Street and the Silversteins' at 518 North Graham Street. Dannie and Alfred Heineman were born in a house on the Square in 1877. Dannie became a renowned financier in New York City and later established the Heineman Medical Research facility, today part of Carolinas Medical Center. Both Heinemans are buried in Charlotte Hebrew Cemetery.  St. Peter's Episcopal Church at Seventh and North Tryon streets was built in 1895 featuring two large stars of David above its entrance. Its warden said they were placed there to affirm the debt of all Christians to their Jewish roots.

   Jacob Rintels, one of nine Jewish families in Charlotte in 1850, built a splendid Italianate home on West Trade Street in 1874. It stands today as the earliest Jewish home in Charlotte at 1700 Queens Road. Its most recent selling price was $800 thousand.

   Max Kahn and one of his brothers arrived early in the 20th century. His brother was approached one night by a white stranger who asked if he were a Jew. The brother said yes and was murdered on the spot. Because of that tragedy, Max moved away. But he returned, luckily for Charlotte. He was appointed to the state Democratic convention, managed Claude Albea's campaign for City Council, chaired the Charlotte Park and Recreation department in the early 1930s, was elected to the City Council in the mid 1930s, and headed the Mecklenburg County Welfare Board until his 1943 death.

   The most respected and best known Charlotte Jew in the 20th century was Dick Blumenthal. He arrived from Savannah in 1924 and opened Radiator Specialty Company on South College Street after buying rights to a stop-leak chemical. He became the guiding light for both Temple Israel, orthodox-conservative, and Temple Beth El, reform. He developed Wildacres retreat in Little Switzerland, NC, as a center for interfaith activities, opened Charlotte's first Hebrew day school, originated the Circuit Riding Rabbi program to serve outlying families, created the Blumenthal Jewish Home and established the Blumenthal Foundation to support countless community and humanitarian causes. His brother Herman and grandsons continued his tradition of giving with such institutions as the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center and Blumenthal Cancer Center.

   The Levine family moved to Charlotte from Rockingham, NC, to make historic differences in the Jewish scene. Sherry Levine's husband Bernard Richter started Leon and Alvin Levine on their remarkable rise to become two of America's merchant princes. Leon Levine's 3,000-plus Family Dollar Stores, Alvin's Pic N Pay shoe chain, retailer Sherman Levine, real estate tycoon Louis Levine and peach marketers Lloyd and Benjy Richter are all part of the same family.

   Charlotte and North Carolina are beneficiaries of an astounding array of charitable contributions by Leon and Sandra Levine, including the CPCC campus in Matthews, the Levine Museum of the New South, the new Children's Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center, the administration building at Charlotte Country Day School, Temple Israel, Shalom Park and the Leon Levine Science Research Center at Duke University.

  If it weren't for Harry Golden, Charlotte would not be mentioned at all in Encyclopedia Judaica. His first solo work, Only in America, went off like a rocket. Most of his 20-some books were bestsellers, all written in his Charlotte homes. He was the one Charlotte Jew who took a brave leadership position in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. His syndicated column appeared in 200 daily newspapers. He received $25 a word from Reader's Digest and $1,000 for lectures. Subscriptions to his Carolina Israelite periodical exploded after network TV personality Jack Parr plugged it.  He served as secretary of Temple Beth El for many years, writing its first constitution and religious school curricula. His archives and documents were catalogued by UNC Charlotte and are open to the public and researchers at the J. Murrey Atkins Library.

   World War II saw many Jewish soldiers pouring into Charlotte from Morris Field and other nearby camps. That influx put the city's population over 100 thousand to begin a growth cycle that has never receded. Today Charlotte is the largest city in the two Carolinas, Charlotte' Jewish population the largest and Temple Beth El the largest Jewish congregation in both states.

   After World War II, lawyer Arthur Goodman was practicing his Sunday afternoon hobby of tearing out tiny real estate ads. One tract intrigued him: acreage on unpaved Sharon-Amity Road. He thought that would make a fine site for a much-needed Jewish social and sports club. So he recruited 12 young men who had formed the Baker-Usilowitz chapter of the Jewish War Veterans. They agreed to cough up $100 each for a down payment. With Goodman they raised the rest of $6000 to buy the tract to organize the Amity Club. When that burned down years later, the stage was set for today's nationally famous Shalom Park.

   Unique in all America, Shalom Park—Charlotte's Jewish Community Center--is a 54-acre expanding Jewish campus within the limits of a city of 600 thousand people. The original $6000 put together to begin the Amity Club is now a $50 million campus with thousands of members enjoying religious, educational, entertainment, arts, sports and social activities. It contains Temple Beth El and Temple Israel and is the focus of just about everything Jewish.

   The name of Arthur Goodman also lives on in the suburb of Matthews. His widow and son donated family acreage to start up a Little League ballfield for their grandson, Robert Klein. Today Arthur Goodman Memorial Park and MARA have an annual budget of $650,000 to sustain an immense sports complex for thousands of children playing many sports on many venues.

   Sis and Stan Kaplan came to Charlotte a generation ago to buy a quiescent WAYS radio station they quickly turned into the largest broadcast bonanza in the Charlotte region. Later they settled down to publishing the Leader newspaper—and retirement.

   Morris Speizman came from Philadelphia to buy and sell textile machinery. He was eminent leading the Mint Museum, Charlotte Textile Club, Mercy Hospital and Hebrew Cemetery. He wrote the only book about the Jews of Charlotte. With fellow leaders like Harry Swimmer and Mark Bernstein, Speizman planned Shalom Park from imagination to documents to concrete.

   Yossie Groner's father was secretary to the Rebbe, the world head of the Lubavitch movement. Rabbi Groner's arrival in Charlotte changed the face of Judaism throughout the Carolinas. His personal and religious family grew mightily. The Chabad campus on Sardis Road is a must-see for all Jews.

   They say the nearby Catawba River is the best-dammed river in America, thanks to David Nabow. The chief engineer of Duke Power Company, he was responsible for the many dams that produce power for the two Carolinas. He was an early and long-time member of Temple Beth El. His engineering documents and artifacts, still in use, lie in the 6,000-foot Nabow Museum in the Energy Building uptown.

   Jewish life is growing dramatically in Charlotte. It has The Charlotte Jewish News and congregational bulletins to keep twenty-some thousand Jews informed, concerned and committed. Its depth of professional and volunteer leaders and workers is an American model. New congregations and chavurot serve in refreshing ways. Interfaith activity is healthy and has been across the years from the first seven Presbyterian churches to 700 congregations today.  There is sensitive care for those in need, every kind of need, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

   As the past bumps into the future, one measure tells early Charlotte Jews that things are going well in the 2lst century.

Our young people remain here to make Charlotte their lifelong home.