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As North Carolina’s largest city in the mid-nineteenth century, Wilmington, a port town, was home to the state’s first sizable Jewish community. Primarily artisans, merchants, and storekeepers, the Jews of Wilmington were part of the second wave of immigrants who arrived in the United States from Germany. Yet, Jews by that time had been in the city for about a century, likely the first being David David who settled in Wilmington around 1738. In 1855 Jews set aside a Hebrew section of Oakdale Cemetery in the city. Only with the growth of the community did the Jews in the area require a house of worship. It would be the first synagogue in North Carolina.
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The initial plans were interrupted by the Civil War. An attempt was made to set up an Orthodox congregation in 1867 but failed. About forty families in 1872 came together to set plans for the Reform church. They soon after affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. A local chapter of B’nai B’rith was founded in 1874. Samuel Sloan of Philadelphia was retained as the architect and plans were developed for a distinctive building in the Moorish Revival style. Construction commenced in 1875 and was completed the next year.
Presiding over the dedication on May 12, 1876, was Rabbi Samuel Mendelsohn who would lead the Temple of Israel until 1922. In 1989 Eric Meyers, director of Duke University’s Center for Judaic Studies, said of the synagogue, “It represents one of the high points of Southern Jewish culture.” In time Wilmington’s Orthodox Jews formed a separate synagogue, B’nai Orthodox, leaving the Reform Jews at Temple of Israel.
Seventy-fifth Anniversary, Temple of Israel, Wilmington, North Carolina, May 12, 1951
James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River (1916)
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984)
Catherine Bishir and Michael Southern, The Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)
Charlotte Observer, September 24, 1989
Temple of Israel website: http://www.temple-of-israel.org/