Our First Entrepreneurs
By Rebekah Karelis
Wheeling has the oldest organized Jewish community in West Virginia, due to the arrival of a wave of German Jews in the United States in the mid 19th century . At first, services were held in Jewish households, but a formal congregation formed in the spring of 1849 when an itinerant rabbi who had arrived in Wheeling, suddenly died. The congregation’s first act of business was to establish a Jewish cemetery at Mt. Woods Cemetery.
Jewish immigration increased drastically in the 1880s due to increased persecution and economic difficulties in Eastern Europe. In 1892, a Reform group built Leshem Shomayim, otherwise known as the Eoff Street Temple. Another orthodox congregation, B’nai Israel, was established in 1907 but was replaced by another, Ohav Sholem, which was established by eastern-European Jews around 1916. As the Jewish population declined in the 20th century,, the synagogues merged to form Temple Shalom in 1974.
Many of the Jewish families in Wheeling became involved in local retailing, entrepreneurship and cigar making, owning shops and businesses downtown. Bloch Brothers was famous for their Mail Pouch Tobacco. Augustus Pollack for his Crown Stogies and fair labor practices in his business. Other Jewish businesses were L.S. Good Department Store, Simon Baer and Sons, Bernhardt’s, S. Horkheimers, Kline Brothers, and Sonnenborn’s. Crone’s Clothier’s, a family-owned clothing shop started in the 1880s and closed not long ago in 2007. Also, Kaufman’s Bridal Superstore was established in 1900 and was one of the largest bridal fashion stores in the country.
The Mercantile Club was formed as an early Jewish businessman’s club. There were several social and service organizations in Wheeling associated with the congregations; a regional chapter of Hadassah, the National Jewish Woman’s Organization, a Workman’s Circle branch, and Federated Jewish Charities of Wheeling. A group called the Sewing Twig worked making items for the area hospitals. They sewed diapers, towels, hospital gowns and even raised money. The Temple Shalom sisterhood is a service group dedicated to programs for the synagogue, raising money for Sunday school, etc.
Temple Shalom also maintains a local archive for the Jewish community.
Bellaire, Ohio, also had a large Jewish community and synagogue, but has since joined with Temple Shalom due to a declining population.