Portsmouth's Second Synagogue and Jewish Life in the Mid-twentieth Century

Following the construction of Portsmouth's first synagogue, Portsmouth's Jewish population expanded further in the early 20th century. The Jewish community created a new organization called the B'nai B'rith and sought out additional locations to practice. The Beneh Abraham's previous location could no longer support its growing community, another synagogue was needed.

During the 1910s and 1920s Portsmouth’s Jewish community experienced a period of growth. In 1919, an estimated 150 people attended Rosh Hashanah services at Beneh Abraham. This same year, a new Jewish organization, B’nai B’rith, was created in Portsmouth. Previously, anyone wishing to join B’nai B’rith sought out membership in lodges located in nearby cities. The new Portsmouth lodge, which was given the number 840 by the national B’nai B’rith governing body, soon helped to raise funds to support charitable causes both locally and internationally. One cause Portsmouth’s Jewish community supported in the aftermath of World War I was national relief efforts for famine victims and refugees living in Eastern Europe.

In 1919, fundraising efforts were also underway to build a new, more spacious place of worship for the local Jewish community, which now numbered approximately 200 people. In 1921, Beneh Abraham sold its property at the corner of Third and Washington to Portsmouth’s Moose Lodge. The lodge occupied the building until it was sold and developed into a parking lot. The sale of the former building, combined with various fundraisers organized by members of Beneh Abraham and individual donations, allowed the congregation to purchase two properties near the corner of Eighth and Gay streets in 1923.

One notable fundraiser was a lecture delivered at the Portsmouth High School Auditorium by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of the Free Synagogue of New York City. At the time, Rabbi Stephen Wise was among the foremost Jewish religious leaders in the United States. Jews from outside Portsmouth once again donated to Beneh Abraham’s building fund. One especially large gift came from the Richman family in Cleveland who provided $10,000 towards the construction of the new synagogue. In 1923, funds were sufficient to begin building the new Beneh Abraham synagogue. Two homes, formerly owned by Louis Vallee Harold and Robert Howland were demolished so the synagogue could be built. The cost to create the new building was about $75,000 or approximately $1,280,000 in 2022 after adjusting for inflation. Early in 1925, the new edifice was complete and dedication exercises were held in January of the same year. Simon Labold served as the president of Beneh Abraham during this time. Philip Jacobs, Max Lehman, and Morris Meidenberg served on the building committee for the new synagogue. Approximately 300 people could be seated in the new sanctuary. It is also of note that both Catholic and Protestant clergy participated in Beneh Abraham’s dedication ceremonies. One guest, Father John McQuirk of St. Mary’s Catholic Church expressed:

"We Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are here this afternoon to dedicate this beautiful temple. In a higher sense to rededicate the temples of our souls to the cause of civic and religious patience or tolerance… Almighty God commissioned the Jewish people to preserve and to spread the knowledge, love and service of God and the observance of His law among their own people and the Gentile people… No people so much as the chosen people of God are this day doing the will of God by breaking down the walls of social, religious and class prejudice… Here today this temple is filled with the spirit of God’s love…."

A prominent feature of the new synagogue was a large organ donated by the members of B’nai B’rith. Dorothy Knost, a noted musician in Scioto County for decades, was hired by Beneh Abraham to play this organ during religious services. She would hold the role of organist at the congregation for over fifty years.

In March 1927, the Ohio Jewish Chronicle, a newspaper out of Columbus, reported that the members of Franklin County’s B’nai B’rith lodge, who visited Beneh Abraham to participate in initiation exercises for new B’nai B’rith members, were impressed by “the grandeur and beauty” of the new synagogue. The new site would serve Beneh Abraham until 1973, when the congregation relocated and sold the building to the First Evangel Assembly of God. This community, now known as the Evangel Temple Assembly of God, continues to occupy the space as of 2022.

1929 marked the start of the Great Depression, which brought challenges to many communities throughout the United States. Portsmouth was particularly impacted. The city’s economic challenges were compounded by a disastrous flood that struck the city in 1937. Around 35,000 residents were made homeless by the flood and 60 percent of all homes in Portsmouth were destroyed. Between 1930 and 1940, the overall population of Portsmouth fell by 2,094 people according to the decennial federal census. Between 1940 and 1950, an additional 3,668 people are estimated to have left Portsmouth. The city’s Jewish community reflected this demographic trend to an ever greater extent. In her 2007 work Jewish Communities on the Ohio River, Amy Hill Shevitz estimates that between 1927 and 1947 Portsmouth’s Jewish community decreased from approximately 200 people to 140. This decrease of 30 percent was much greater than the overall decrease of 14 percent measured in Portsmouth between 1930 and 1950. Several Jewish-owned businesses went bankrupt in the 1930s, likely a contributing factor to the community’s decreased size. Couples or individuals known to have departed from Portsmouth Between 1930 and 1940 include Joseph and Rose Braffman, Myer and Rae Goldstein, Joseph Horchow, Fannie Kauffman, Kate and Morris Meidenberg, Max and Yetta Silver, and Abraham and Lena Winkel.

While the depression years brought challenges, a significant milestone for Beneh Abraham occurred in 1934 when the community paid off all outstanding debts incurred through the construction of the synagogue at Eighth and Gay, which was commonly known in Portsmouth as the Jewish Temple. A dinner was organized by members of Beneh Abraham to celebrate the event. Interfaith activities also continued to be important at Beneh Abraham. In 1941, the congregation began a tradition of exchanging ministers with Bigelow United Methodist Church. During these exchanges, the rabbi of Beneh Abraham would deliver a sermon at Bigelow and the pastor of Bigelow would teach at Beneh Abraham. This annual exchange lasted at least 21 years.

Interfaith engagement also played a key role in the efforts of the Portsmouth Jewish Welfare Association (PJWA). This organization, formed around 1942, served to coordinate the philanthropic efforts of Portsmouth’s three Jewish organizations, Beneh Abraham, B’nai Brith, and the Temple Sisterhood. Money raised by the PJWA supported both local and international causes. In 1946, when at least $15,000 was raised by the PJWA, the Scioto County Ministerial Association co-sponsored a speaking event at the Second Presbyterian Church with the PJWA that brought Sophie Spanjaard, a survivor of Bergen Belsen to Portsmouth. By this time, knowledge of the Holocaust was widespread in the United States and an estimated 1.5 million Holocaust survivors were living as refugees in Europe. The money raised in Portsmouth from the event went to support the United Jewish Appeal, which worked extensively to support Holocaust survivors. By 1954, the PJWA had changed its name to the Portsmouth Jewish Welfare Board. Local fundraising efforts on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal continued until at least 1973.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Portsmouth’s Jewish population returned to its previous high point of around 200 individuals. In 1958, Beneh Abraham marked its centennial. An estimated 125 people attended the congregation’s anniversary banquet at the American Legion Auditorium, including many former members of Beneh Abraham who now lived outside of the Portsmouth area. Rabbi Louis Kuppin of Columbus, Mississippi, and Rabbi Lou Silberman of Nashville, two former student rabbis at Beneh Abraham, spoke. Since the early 1900s, the student rabbi placement program sponsored by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati had been the source of Beneh Abraham’s trained religious leadership. Mayor Paul Flohr, Reverend Ernest Ford, and Father Hubert Ruebeck also attended the anniversary dinner as guests of Beneh Abraham. Portsmouth’s other Jewish organizations, B’nai B’rith and the Temple Sisterhood, were also active. The Sisterhood had at least 40 members. In addition, Beneh Abraham hosted an active religious school and youth group during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

By the late 1960s, however, Portsmouth’s Jewish population was again on the decline. The community’s synagogue at 802 Gay Street grew increasingly expensive to maintain and its size no longer fit the needs of the congregation. This reality led the congregation to again relocate.

Works Cited - Primary Sources:

“Big B’nai B’rith Affair was Held at Portsmouth Last Thursday Evening.” Ohio Jewish Chronicle, March 04, 1927.

“Feast of Rosh Hashanah is Observed in Impressive Manner.” Portsmouth Daily Times, September 25, 1919.

“Noted Rabbi Here Tonight.” Portsmouth Daily Times, March 29, 1922.

“To Start Work on New Jewish Temple.” Portsmouth Daily Times, January 10, 1922.

“Fitting Exercises Mark the Dedication of New Temple.” Portsmouth Daily Times, January 05, 1925.

"Five Institutions Here Share in Henry C. Richman Estate." Portsmouth Times, March 01, 1934.

“Jewish Temple Free of Debt.” Portsmouth Times, September 30, 1934.

“Local Congregation Celebrates Final Payment on Temple.” Portsmouth Times, October 07, 1934.

“Liberated Jews Have Hard Life, Speaker Avers.” Portsmouth Times, November 13, 1946.

“Social Affairs.” Portsmouth Times, May 18, 1950.

"Dinner Affair to End Jewish Centennial." Portsmouth Times, November 01, 1958.

“Ex-Members Return for Temple Centennial Rites.” Portsmouth Times, November 03, 1958.

“Second Phase of Exchange Set.” Portsmouth Times, May 26, 1962.

“Israel Emergency Fund Drive Opened.” Portsmouth Times, October 12, 1973.

Works Cited - Secondary Sources:

Shevitz, Amy Hill. “Appendix: Population Tables.” In Jewish Communities on the Ohio River: A History, University Press of Kentucky, 2007, p 210 - 211.

Touring Ohio. “Portsmouth.” Accessed June 21, 2022, http://touringohio.com/southwest/scioto/portsmouth/portsmouth.html.