The Star of David etched in a highly visible glass pane at First Presbyterian Church
is a reminder of how Jewish life
is interwoven in the tapestry of Greensboro.
That pane with the universal symbol of Judaism faces the old Temple Emanuel synagogue across Greene Street. First Presbyterian gave hundreds of dollars when the temple built a structure there in 1924. Later, the synagogue responded by helping First Presbyterian retire the debt on its structure.
“You have been such good neighbors to us, we just wanted to help pay off your mortgage,” then-Pastor Charles Myers read aloud from the church pulpit one Sunday in the early 1940s. Inside was a check for $10,000.
This month marks 350 years of Jewish life in this country, dating to 1654, when the first Jewish families arrived in New Amsterdam, which was to become New York. It would take more than a century, but Jewish families soon would settle in Greensboro and later High Point, establishing homes, families and businesses — and becoming part of the community.
In Greensboro, the Jewish population has long been disproportionately large for a Southern city. Jews succeeded here.
“I think it speaks to the fact that Greensboro is such a welcoming place to religious minorities,” said Bob Cone, 52, the great-grandson of Ceasar Cone.
By 1902, contractors were working to produce the 6 million bricks it would take to build the South’s largest cotton mill for brothers Moses H. and Ceasar Cone.
Jewish-owned businesses would soon dot the landscape in High Point, including Max Samet’s auto-parts store — an AutoZone before its time.
“During the Depression, nobody could buy new cars, so they had to keep them running,” said Samet’s grandson Harry Samet, 72, who would return from college and establish High Point Furniture Industries with a Jewish partner.
In 1919, the first Jewish congregants in High Point met over a retailer’s store, the S Robinowitz Store, which sold everything from dry goods to men’s clothing.
The history of Jews in this country includes Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and Albert Einstein, who warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Germans might build an atomic bomb. Closer to home, the Goldsteins, Marks, Oettingers, Schiffmans, Sternbergers, Sterns and others quietly were helping Greensboro flourish socially and economically.
The Cones, among the first Jewish settlers to arrive in the early 1890s, built schools, hospitals and YMCAs and assisted in erecting churches.
The Cone and Sternberger families were founders of the cotton and denim mills whose growth turned Greensboro from a village founded in 1808 into a city.
Sigmund Sternberger left millions of dollars after his death to establish a foundation that would assist individuals with integrity and character who have a desire to make a contribution to the community in which they live. The money has been used to provide college scholarships, but it also built a cultural center, the infirmary at an Easter Seals camp and an alcohol recovery center.
Leah Tannenbaum channeled millions of dollars to support the arts, education and social services. After World War II, she helped found the local arts council and, in the 1960s, helped organize Head Start and United Day Care Services.
“They didn’t attach their names to their money,” said Brenda Henley, who is not Jewish but who works at Temple Emanuel. “They give from their hearts — that’s the way their religion is.”
Long before the civil rights movement, Ruth Rypins helped organize the Pearson Street YWCA, a branch in Greensboro’s predominantly black southeastern community.
She also had her own private prep school, held in her attic in cold months and on her side porch on warm days. Hundreds of Greensboro youths, including former U.S. Rep. Richardson Preyer and U.S. Senate hopeful Erskine Bowles, were tutored there.
And when interfaith groups were in their infancy, Rypins’ husband, Rabbi Fred Rypins, already was holding meetings in his home. He became the founder of the local branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. At one time, he also was president of the Rotary Club.
Herbert and Louise Falk extensively supported the Weatherspoon Art Gallery.
In 1949, Benjamin Cone became the first Jewish mayor of the city — just five years earlier, out of a population of 70,000 people, Jews numbered only 500.
Though Jews were a minority, their religious beliefs did not isolate them, said Betty Roth, 81, who is Jewish and grew up in Greensboro’s Fisher Park neighborhood.
“You didn’t have air conditioning, so people sat out on their front porch all summer long,” Roth said. “I had lots of friends, and most of them were not Jewish. In those days, everyone went to the school near your house, and you walked downtown, and Saturdays you took your 25 cents and went to the drugstore and had a cheese sandwich and a Coca-Cola, and had 10 cents for the movie.
“Relations were wonderful, where in so many communities at that time, there were so many restrictions for Jews,” Roth said.
In Greensboro, Jews were accepted into country clubs and belonged to the Kiwanis and Rotary clubs as early as the 1930s and 1940s. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that the first Jewish person was accepted into the Emerywood Country Club in High Point. High Point was more provincial.
“You established your own social life. … Back when I was growing up, my father and his contemporaries were not members of Kiwanis and the Lion’s Club or what have you. … My uncle moved to Rock Hill and was president of the Kiwanis there,” Samet said. “By the time I came along, the Jaycees were open to everyone. It was a different generation, and people were thinking differently.”
Greensboro would have other attractions for Jewish families over the years.
It is home to the only Jewish boarding school in the United States, the American Hebrew Academy, which is so appealing that some families have moved to the area so their children could be day students there.
And the next Jewish generation is trying to make its own imprint here.
Dori Chandler, 17, participated in Anytown, a program that brings local teenagers of different religions and backgrounds together. Her experience was much like the experience she’s had in the greater community in regard to being Jewish in Greensboro.
“We could get together with people of all different religions and backgrounds and still feel like they accepted you for who you are, and you respect them for who they are,” Chandler said. “We feel connected beyond our religion.”
She’s always been in the middle of Jewish life in Greensboro, having gone to B’nai Shalom and the American Hebrew Academy. She appreciates her community, she said, just as generations of Jews have before her.
“I’ve met people here … Leah Rabin and Gerta Wiseman Cline, a Holocaust survivor, who came to Greensboro (for events) because Judaism here is so alive,” Chandler said.
Contact Nancy H. McLaughlin at 373-7049 or nmclaughlin@