Portsmouth’s Third Synagogue and Contemporary Jewish Community

By 1974, Portsmouth’s Jewish community numbered no more than 120 people. The existing syngaogue at Eighth and Gay grew increasingly expensive to maintain and its size no longer fit the needs of the congregation. In 1973, Beneh Abraham’s leadership sold the building to a Christian congregation known as the First Evangel Assembly of God.

About two years later, in April 1975, a new synagogue was dedicated at the corner of Second and Union Street. The new sanctuary at 1239 Second Street could seat 120 people. An additional area at the temple contained space for religious school classrooms and social gatherings. Beneh Abraham had purchased the corner lot from the Scioto Area Council Boy Scouts. Construction on the new synagogue had begun in 1974 and the hexagonal design was created by Benjamin Dombar of Cincinnati. The Brown Construction Company handled the building job. Jerri Fish, Phillis Fried, Michael Mearan, Herbert Strauss, Regina Schapiro, and Abe Zuber served on the congregation’s building committee. Paul Warsaw was the committee chairman and Bernard Levi, a third-generation member of Beneh Abraham, served as the congregation’s president. Brett Goldstein, a student from Hebrew Union College, served as Beneh Abraham’s religious leader during the dedication and Dr. Eugene Mihaly, a former student rabbi at the congregation and a professor at Hebrew Union College, was the guest speaker for the dedication.

While smaller than in previous years, Beneh Abraham continued to hold weekly Shabbat services throughout the 1970s. Major Jewish holidays were also observed at the congregation. Some Shabbat services such as Big Brothers Shabbat, which raised awareness of the work done by Brothers and Sisters of Scioto County, supported local charities. The Temple Sisterhood, which had around 70 members, continued to play an important part in managing the congregation’s religious school. Some new members of Beneh Abraham were added during the late 1960s and 1970s. These individuals included Ross Cowen, Lawrence and Phyllis Fried, Philip Kovsky, and Allan and Evelyn Singer. Newer members of Portsmouth’s Jewish community were more likely to be college-educated professionals than in years past. Antisemitism also declined in the United States after the end of World War II and American Jews were excpeted in a greater number of career fields. As Beneh Abraham’s membership continued to decline, along with the overall population of Portsmouth, newer families played a significant role in maintaining Beneh Abraham.

By the 1980s small-town Jewish communities throughout the Ohio River Valley were facing significant demographic challenges. The Jewish congregation in Ashland, Kentucky, Agudath Achim, located 32 miles east of Portsmouth, closed around 1986. This community had close ties to Portsmouth throughout its history. Organized Jewish life in Gallipolis and Ironton had disbanded by the early 1900s, and between the two towns only a few Jewish residents remained by the late 1900s. As of 2022, only three towns along the Ohio River between Pittsbugh and Cincinnati are home to organized Jewish communities. These communities are Wheeling, Huntington, and Portsmouth.

One feature common to these places is the existence of institutions of higher education. These institutions are an important source of employment and offer opportunities for people of various backgrounds to relocate to the Ohio River Valley. In Portsmouth, various Jewish faculty, staff, and students at Shawnee State University have been involved at Beneh Abraham at different times since 2000. As Beneh Abraham’s membership continued to decline after 1980, Shawnee State University eventually partnered with Portsmouth’s Jewish community. This partnership allowed the congregation to sell its property at 1239 Second Street to the university with the understanding that it could still be utilized for religious services when needed for the next fifty years. When not in use, the religious articles of the congregation are stored away.

Additionally, in the twenty-first century interfaith collaboration continues to play an important part of Beneh Abraham’s activities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Union Street space was too small to allow for social distancing, the Second Presbyterian Church on Waller Street opened its larger sanctuary to Beneh Abraham. This action also allowed Second Presbyterian to repay an act of kindness Beneh Abraham had done for the church in the 1930s when the synagogue opened its doors after Second Prebyterian experienced a fire.

As of 2022, Beneh Abrahm claims no more than 20 active congregants. Some members come from Chillicothe and other areas outside of Portsmouth. The congregation also continues to support a visiting rabbi, Susan Stone. While diminished in size, Beneh Abraham continues as a living community in Portsmouth. Its historic legacy in Ohio and the contributions of its members to Portsmouth’s civic, economic, and social development merit the preservation of this unique congregation.

Works Cited - Primary Sources:

“Jewish Temple Dedication Scheduled.” Portsmouth Times, March 29, 1975.

“Open House Slated at Temple April 27.” Portsmouth Times, April 19, 1975.

“Volunteers Sought by Agency.” Portsmouth Times, February 17, 1977.

“Temple Scene of Hannukah [sic] Dinner Party.” Portsmouth Times, December 12, 1977.

Susan Stone. interview by author. Phone. 2022.