Unboxing a Legacy

Agudas Israel Congregation Turns 100

Planning the centennial celebration of Agudas Israel in 2022 was a daunting task, but Zsa Lobel knew just where to start. 

“Agudas has always been very cognizant of the fact that they needed to record their history,” she says. “We have 27 boxes of archives at the University of North Carolina Asheville, so I spent three days there going through every single box.”

Among the many invaluable items the intrepid history detective found were the minutes of the very first meeting of 27 men and women gathered in the Kantrowitz living room on Sept. 24, 1922. Over tea, coffee, and Mrs. Kantrowitz’s delicious rugelach cookies, the group determined that to keep growing, they needed to move from worship in residences to their own synagogue. At that meeting, they voted to name it Agudas Israel Congregation.

MAZEL TOV AND OTHER TALES
Scenes from Mid Century at Agudas Israel. The synagogue celebrates its 100th year in Hendersonville on Sept. 24. (Vintage photos used courtesy of Sidney Williams via UNCA D. Hiden Ramsey Library’s Special Collections & University Archives)

The purpose in establishing a synagogue was twofold: to have a more accommodating, central place to pray, educate, and hold services; and to show their non-Jewish neighbors the legitimacy of their faith, one largely unfamiliar to the Christian population of the rural county.

In 1900, Edward Lewis and his family were the first Jews to settle in Hendersonville, opening an apparel store on Main Street. Six years later, the Harry Patterson family arrived and opened a general mercantile store. More relatives and friends followed, forming a large foundation of merchants. Lobel points to the documentary Jewish Merchants of Hendersonville, made by Dr. Michael Beckerman and Sid Williams, that premiered in 2015 at Agudas Israel’s Mountain Jewish Festival. 

In 1925, a building was purchased on King Street and became the Agudas Israel Congregation synagogue for the next 77 years, during which Agudas transitioned from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform. Through much of that time, members ran services and education themselves, with the occasional visiting rabbi. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the postwar Baby Boom resulted in the hiring of a rabbi and the formation of a religious school, before reverting back to the original model. 

In the late 1990s, leaders determined a modern building with more accessible parking was needed to better accommodate an aging congregation. A capital campaign commenced, and in 2002, the new and current building for Agudas on Glasgow Lane in Laurel Park was consecrated. 

IT STARTED WITH COOKIES, AND THAT’S HOW IT CONTINUES
Jay Naparstek and Zsa Lobel are in the kitchen at Agudas Israel.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

At about the same time, the congregation chose to hire a professional clergy person, transitioning through several rabbis until Rabbi Rachael Jackson arrived in 2015 directly from seminary at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She has settled deeply into the role, and her husband and now-eight-year-old son into the community.

“We had not been here before, but the congregation was so lovely and welcoming and it just felt right,” she says. “Hendersonville is such a sweet community, and felt like a good place to raise a family. My formative years were spent in Colorado, so I went from one set of mountains to another.”

A group shot from the synagogue’s Sunday School, circa 1950s, and other youthful scenes.

Initially, the intent was to recruit young families to the congregation, but eventually she determined their focus should be on serving the existing members — about 120 individuals. That included building a robust adult-education program (somewhat sidelined by the pandemic)  and honoring the traditions of what came before. “Beyond being present in the congregation, because we are the only Jewish congregation in the area, it’s important to be welcoming and visible to our interfaith community,” says Jackson. “If someone invites me to speak or teach for their church or group, I say yes.”

Members are encouraged to volunteer in the community — among the organizations they support are Feed the Kids Coalition, Boys and Girls Club of Henderson County, and Interfaith Assistance Ministry (IAM). The Morris Kaplan Auditorium in the Henderson County Main Branch Library and the Sammy Williams Center at the Council on Aging are named for congregants. “This is part of our legacy, part of our 100 years here,” Jackson says. “We are not just in Hendersonville; we are of Hendersonville, and proud of that.”

Because Lobel was committed to a totally authentic Jewish dinner just like Bubbe — Yiddish for grandmother – would have served, she and Jay Naparstek cooked every single course for the recent 100th Anniversary gala dinner in the Agudas kitchen, using recipes taken from cookbooks previous congregants had published as fundraisers. That includes matzoh-ball soup, 60 pounds of brisket, roasted vegetables, potato kugel, apple strudel, and, of course, cookies. 

“We want to honor the brave people who came to the mountains 100 years ago and built this congregation,” says Lobel. “And remind ourselves to be as dedicated and diligent to build a future. You can’t just rest on your laurels. You’re never done.” 

Agudas Israel Congregation, 505 Glasgow Lane, Hendersonville. The congregation turns 100 years old on Sept. 24. For more information, see agudasisraelsynagogue.org.

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