The Jewish Presence


When JT reporter Marc Shapiro first told me about the presence of a rich Jewish history in Pocomoke, the so-called “friendliest city on the Eastern Shore” way down at the bottom of Maryland’s third of the Delmarva Peninsula, my first reaction was, “Whoever heard of Pocomoke, let alone of Jews making such a rural outpost on the Eastern Seaboard home?”

My apologies to all of the lifelong Marylanders out there, but prior to moving to Baltimore, my only experiences on the Eastern Shore were two vacations as a kid in Ocean City. And I’ve always been a sucker for obscure Jewish history, so I greenlighted this week’s cover story without hesitation.

As it turns out, my decision was a correct one, even if my motives were rooted in the ignorance accompanying my status as a non-native of Charm City. The long Jewish history in such a place as Pocomoke actually extends up and down the shore, popping up in such places as Salisbury, Easton, Ocean City and Berlin, and in Delaware in Dover and Rehoboth Beach.

While at second glance, the distribution of Jewish life is not surprising — when they moved to this country at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Jews didn’t just call the urban centers home, but established farms and businesses in rural counties of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts, not to mention throughout the Midwest and Mountain West — it certainly is inspiring. When you think about it, there’s nary a place devoid of some kind of a Jewish presence, however small, in the United States.

Even the first rabbi of Pocomoke’s Congregation of Israel, which just transferred its last remaining memorial plaques to Temple Bat Yam in Berlin, first settled in Durham, N.C., in 1899 after leaving the Lithuanian city of Užventis. Jews in Durham?!

Actually, Durham’s own Jewish presence dates back to the 1870s when immigrants were attracted to the Southern city’s tobacco industry before branching out into other businesses. That city’s Jewish story is also part of a long Jewish history in the Deep South, where Charleston, S.C.’s Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim — founded in the first half of the 18th century — is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States and is a contemporary of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel.

Charleston’s Jewish community was in the news this week when its leaders joined pastors throughout the city in mourning the horrific slaughter of nine African-Americans at a historic black church by a radicalized white gunman. And, as you’ll read in this week’s JT, some rabbis here in Baltimore are heading to Charleston in an interfaith show of support for the victims and their family members.

The fact is, far from being a curious side note in this nation’s most recent struggles in overcoming the dark history of slavery of African-Americans and subjugation of non-Christians and non-whites, the Jewish angle to the Charleston story is an outgrowth of the Jewish community’s investment in these United States.

Whether in the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries, Jews have come to these shores in general, and Maryland’s eastern one in particular, seeking refuge and looking for a place where they could peaceably raise their children and the freedom to live Jewish lives.

If anything, what the aftermath of the tragedy in Charleston has demonstrated is the interconnectedness of us all, for wherever we call home, this land belongs to every single one of us.

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