An unassuming, one-room brick building lies on Third Street in Pocomoke City, adjacent to a home, a cemetery and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. A weathered blue-and-white wooden Jewish star hangs over the entranceway. It’s easy to pass by without knowing that it served four generations of Maryland’s Eastern Shore Jews before closing in the late 2000s.
Inside the former Congregation of Israel, it could be 2015 or 1947, the year the building became the first synagogue structure on the Delmarva Peninsula. Thirteen of the original benches, repurposed curved church pews, fill out most of the 2,000-square-foot building; the original ark, a simple wooden kind with the words “Knesset Yisrael” sits at the front of the room; and old prayer books sit on a shelf in the back of the sanctuary.
“This was our bench here,” Marc Scher, Pocomoke’s last Jewish business owner, said as he stood next to a bench in the fourth row. “My dad, he sat on the end here; that was his seat. The Spinaks sat in the front.”
Pocomoke City was once home to a small, but active and tight-knit Jewish community. The Eastern Shore was a safe haven for Jews fleeing Lithuania in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and many found their way to Pocomoke. The city’s downtown was home to at least a dozen Jewish-owned business, including clothing stores, a confectionary, a slaughterhouse, a car dealership and a grocery store.
Fast forward to 2015: The Jewish businesses are gone, with the exception of Scher’s Bridal Shop, the business Marc’s grandfather started as a clothing store that he and his wife, Judy, now run, and the town’s Jewish residents have either died or moved away.
But all is not lost. Congregation of Israel’s memorial plaques found a new home at Temple Bat Yam, a Reform Congregation in Berlin, and an Orthodox rabbi is forming a new congregation out of the Pocomoke City building. There are also congregations in Salisbury, Easton (which is set to break ground on a new building this fall) and Rehoboth Beach and Dover, Del., and a Chabad center in Ocean City. While the communities are small, combinations of vacationers, retirees and some young families, these congregations prove that Jewish life is alive and thriving on the Eastern Shore.
Lithuanians Find a New Home
In 1897, the small city of Užventis, Lithuania was home to 330 Jews, according to JewishGen.org, a genealogy affiliate of the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The city, about 650 miles west of Moscow and 330 miles north of Warsaw, was home to the ancestors of those who would live Jewish lives in Pocomoke City — ancestors of the Scher and Spinak families, among others.
Congregation of Israel can trace its religious leader, Faivel Heilig, back to Užventis, where he was a shochet and chazzan like his father. Family stories suggest that he “was instrumental in helping to aid young Jewish boys in the town to avoid conscription in the Russian army,” according to JewishGen, and he had to flee when was the Russians found out.
He immigrated to the United States in 1899 and initially settled in Durham, N.C., with his younger brother. But his niece was living in Pocomoke City, which was becoming the center of Eastern Shore Jewish life, as Europeans fled pogroms and anti-Semitism for the shores of Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. The nearest places to get kosher meats were Baltimore and Philadelphia.
“Jewish people were coming into the country and looking for somewhere where they were accepted and felt safe, and those areas really were,” said Hal Glick, 73, whose grandparents were involved in early Pocomoke Jewish life.
Heilig, at the urging of his niece, moved to Pocomoke City, where his skills as a shochet and chazzan were invaluable to the community. His wife, Ida Dora, would join him there in 1902. The couple had 16 children, 14 of them born in Užventis; three of them died in childhood.
Before long, Jewish residents in surrounding towns began flocking to Pocomoke.
Francis “Sonny” Heilig, born in Pocomoke City in 1928, the grandson of Faivel, remembers the small but connected Jewish community of his childhood.
“Whenever somebody had a yahrzeit, we could barely get a minyan,” he said. “We used to have to go to people’s homes” to find them. And they did.
Heilig became a bar mitzvah at the Congregation of Israel before it had a home, in 1941. For years, the congregation met in homes, lodges, a fire station and above stores.
The Glick family was one of those families who came from a nearby town — Onancock, Va., 30 miles south of Pocomoke — to find Jewish community. Glick’s grandfather, Myer, who came to the United States in 1890 and grew up and opened a business in Baltimore, later moved his soft goods and department store to Onancock. It would operate for three generations until 2005, when it closed after 115 years.
Glick’s father, Saul, lit the synagogue’s ner tamid in 1948 when Congregation of Israel was dedicated.
A Thriving Community
The Spinak and Scher families played major roles in the early and late life of the synagogue. Marc Scher’s grandfather, Philip, raised money for the synagogue but died in 1941 before he could see it be built. Legend has it that his uncle, Leonard, bought the building’s bricks for cheap after they were delivered elsewhere in Pocomoke. He acquired the church pews that served as benches. A communion table was repurposed as the bimah, which is now a part of the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s collection in Baltimore, along with several other items from the congregation.
The synagogue, built in 1947 and dedicated in 1948, identified as Conservative when it opened but reflected its Orthodox heritage. An estimated 80 worshippers attended weekly and High Holiday services in the late 1940s and 1950s, according to information compiled by Barry Spinak. In the mid-1950s, the congregation could no longer afford a full-time rabbi but arranged for a Salisbury rabbi to conduct services, religious school classes and study sessions. Various rabbis would conduct High Holiday services.
Growing up, Spinak said the Friday evening Shabbat service was a major event in every Jewish family’s schedule.
“As children, we identified strongly with all of the other Jewish children as proud members of the small Jewish community,” Spinak said via email. “That identification was enhanced when, after our bar mitzvoth, as ‘adult’ members of the congregation we were now included, and often necessary, as part of the minyan.”
Although Glick had no trouble as the only Jewish kid in his high school, and Scher had no troubles growing up Jewish, Spinak’s experiences were different.
“When I was around 8 or 9 years old, some of the other kids, likely reflecting attitudes expressed at their homes by their parents, would gather in groups of three or four to ambush me as I walked home from school and ‘get the Jew kid,’” he said. “I took those lumps without saying anything to my parents, but when I would catch one of my attackers by himself, I would return the lesson.
“That would usually result in a phone call to my parents from the other boy’s parents complaining that I had ‘attacked’ their poor little, defenseless child,” he continued. “When I explained the situation to my parents, they provided only understanding.”
He recalled a Newberry’s manager telling him “no Jew kid will ever work at this store.” Spinak said he later became friends with those same boys as they got older.
Scher’s Pocomoke roots go back to 1933, when his grandfather moved his department store from Exmore, Va., to Pocomoke.
While it evolved over time and offered various products over the years, the shop, still in the same space on Market Street, has survived, Marc said, because his father put a bridal department in the store in the 1960s. These days, the store survives on bridal and prom dresses and tuxedo fittings. He and Judy, a Baltimore native, do business with about 300 to 400 weddings a year.
His shop is surrounded by relics of the former Jewish businesses that now are either other shops or vacant storefronts. There was the Heilig’s Pocomoke Provision Company, the Miller’s Feldman’s furniture store, the Groh family’s clothing store, Ben Cohen’s office supply store, Kleger’s grocery store and more.
“We had a thriving Jewish community,” Scher said. “If somebody told me when I was bar mitzvah age that one day I would be the last from the congregation in Pocomoke … I’d say you’re crazy.”
Scher and Spinak kept the congregation running after their fathers passed away in 1996 and 1997, continuing the yearly High Holiday services. But after Spinak moved to the state of Washington in 2009 to be closer to his grandchildren, the two decided to cease operations.
Karen Falk, a curator at the Jewish Museum who visited Pocomoke when the museum acquired its bimah, candles, yad, a gavel from meetings and more, got a sense of the congregation in her brief time there.
“What strikes me about all the synagogues on the Eastern Shore [is] how they opened with such hope for permanence, for the future, the sense that ‘now we’re established, now we’re permanent,’” she said. “And the kind of thing that happens is not uncommon. It’s always said to see a synagogue close.”
Modern-Day Eastern Shore Jewry
Some of those who left Pocomoke went to Salisbury, where the conservative Beth Israel Congregation was founded in 1925 and built its current building in 1951.
Rabbi Arnold Bienstock, who works at the congregation half time and spends the rest of his time as the chaplain at Coastal Hospice, said his congregation has shrunk over the years. It now has 70 families, which are mostly elderly, and will have two bnai mitzvot this year, one bar and one bat.
“We’re a microcosm of everything that’s going on in the Jewish community,” Bienstock said. The once industrious city was home to many Jewish businesses in the 1960s. “The Jews were the merchants, and the early group of Jews tried to gain respect with the upper-crust Anglo-Saxon Protestant community, that the Jews could run businesses and be philanthropic.”
But, as in Pocomoke, times have changed.
“All the Jewish merchants that were once here are gone,” he said.
While smaller than it used to be, it is not without vibrancy. Its youth lounge was renovated in 2014 and dedicated to Barry Berger, “a pillar of our congregation” Bienstock said. The congregation hosts Mitzi Perdue on July 24. Wife of the late Frank Perdue, she is a member of Hadassah and was part of the U.N. delegation that defended against the “Zionism is Racism” movement during President Ronald Regan’s era.
In Easton, Rabbi Peter Hyman is preparing to usher in a new building for Temple B’nai Israel. He hopes to break ground in the fall and about 18 months later move into the $6 million, 9,000-square-foot Temple B’nai Israel: The Satell Center for Jewish Life on the Eastern Shore.
He can’t exactly pinpoint why his 140-family synagogue is growing, but in his eighth year there, he has a bit of an idea.
“I’m the first full-time rabbi they’ve had in decades, and as my friend … said ‘with the coming of a full-time rabbi, it meant that the community had to be full-time Jews,’” he said.
In his time there, he’s worked to strengthen overall synagogue education, create challenging and interesting programming and weave the synagogue into the fabric of the community as a leadership institution.
He said Easton is sophisticated, upscale and cultured, with a world-renowned chamber music festival and fabulous art museum. CEOs and politicians retire there. His congregation includes people from all over the Eastern seaboard.
“Not surprisingly, the synagogue serves as a focal point for Jewish life,” Hyman said. “Nobody moves to the Eastern Shore to exercise their Judaism, but it is certainly a good thing and an important component to the fabric of the community that B’nai Israel exists and is vibrant and is, in many ways, a beacon of Jewish life here.”