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Huntington synagogue celebrates 90 years

Herald-Dispatch photo by Anthony Davis  Larry Lapelle, left, and Sam Kinkaid, right, sing in the choir during B’nai Sholom’s 90th anniversary celebration on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Huntington.
Herald-Dispatch photo by Anthony Davis
Larry Lapelle, left, and Sam Kinkaid, right, sing in the choir during B’nai Sholom’s 90th anniversary celebration on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016, in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — The doors of the B’nai Sholom synagogue at 10th Avenue and 10th Street in Huntington and the arms of its members are always open to those who might want to come in and see what goes on inside of it.

But it seems to the members of the congregation that many people simply walk on by.

“So many people say, ‘I’ve walked by that building all my life and, but I’ve never gone inside,’ ” said Rabbi Jean Elington. “Well, everyone should come on inside because it’s beautiful.”

 On Sunday, the sun shined through the Blenko Glass Company-crafted stained glass windows of the synagogue’s sanctuary, where congregation members offered guided tours of the building as well as all the treats one could fit on a plate during the last day of the 90th anniversary celebration of the synagogue, where about 125 people attend services regularly, said congregation member Maurice Hartz.

Completed and dedicated June 11, 1926, the sanctuary was built by the Ohev Sholom Congregation, whose founders arrived in Huntington in the 1870s. In 1974, Ohev Sholom merged with the B’nai Israel Synagogue, located at 9th Avenue and 9th Street, with both synagogues citing falling membership and lack of a permanent rabbi between the two, thus forming the B’nai Sholom Congregation in the former Ohev Sholom’s sanctuary.

During a tour of the synagogue, Hartz pointed out that B’Nai Sholom is the only synagogue located along the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Wheeling.

Reflective of Huntington as a whole during the past three decades, the synagogue has been subject to a decline in population, part of the catalyst for the merger of the Ohev Sholom and B’nai Israel congregations and perhaps most reflected through its religious school, which included about 70 students during the late 1970s and 80s.

“It’s different. In, say, Cincinnati, there are many different Jewish congregations,” Elington said. “So you can choose. Here, if you want to be connected with other Jews, this is it.”

The synagogue offers services for both Reformed and Conservative Judaism, at different times, to make everyone feel comfortable.

“We don’t have very many kids,” Elington said. “We have around 10 kids in our religious school. On the one hand, that’s sad that they don’t have a lot of Jewish kids to hang out with. But on the other hand, they all know each other.”

As opposed to more urban centers where students tend to drift off after their bar mitzvahs, in the Huntington congregation, most students continue with the congregation through confirmation.

“This is the only place they can be Jewish,” Elington said. “It’s not hard to be Jewish in large metropolitan areas. In the small, rural places, you need jobs. When we figure out some more professional careers in this area, it’ll be easier for our young people to stay. We do have young people who have come back, just not as many as who had left. Jewish identity isn’t in danger just yet in Huntington. We’ll be here for 30 years, easily. But after that, it’s hard to know.”

Tori Wucher, a member of the congregation who also was offering tours Sunday, said while the Jewish community in Huntington may be smaller than it once was, that doesn’t put a damper on the congregation’s spirit to reach out into the community.

 “The Jewish community has been here for more than 130 years, and we are part of Huntington,” Wucher said. “We are dedicated to Huntington.”

B’nai Sholom’s dedication this weekend was to celebrate its history, and it did so Friday night with a musical Shabbat service featuring Pittsburgh’s Cantor Henry Shapiro and the Steel City Klezmorim and the congregation’s holiday choir. The service also honored Joan Lerner, former longtime principal of the congregation’s religious school, and her many alumni.

As the Havdalah blessing ceremony closed out the Saturday night Shabbat, the congregation stepped from the grand formality of the old sanctuary to the social hall, sparking up the weekend’s gala celebration. Again beneath the folk sounds of Shapiro and the Steel City Klezmorim, churchgoers and guests enjoyed Israeli and Jewish cuisine, sampled Israel wine and stepped up for a few rounds of traditional dancing.

The celebration took place as the congregation looks forward to the synagogue’s centennial anniversary in 2026, by which time congregation leaders hope to have completed work on the building to preserve the structure, which is part of the National Register of Historic Buildings kept by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The sanctuary of the synagogue is in need of a new roof, and extensive restoration is needed for the dome and cupola that cover the room’s 60-foot ceiling.

The congregation is seeking grants to support the work, but members also are organizing fundraising events through such programs as Kroger Community Rewards and Amazon Smile.

There are also more than a dozen funds to support everything from the church construction and grounds keeping to its choir.

For more information on how to support B’nai Sholom synagogue, visit www.wv-bnaisholom.org.

To see more from The Herald-Dispatch, click here. 

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