By Jeffrey R. Orenstein
For all practical purposes, there is no Jewish aspect to life in Cass, West Virginia.
It is a small town in a remote location, and religion in general in Cass is limited to one small United Methodist Church and a nearby Roman Catholic Church. If you want kosher food while visiting Cass and environs, you need to bring it.
In West Virginia, Jews are a small minority, with about 2,500 Jews living in the entire state, mostly in the cities. There are Jewish congregations, mostly small, in Charleston, Beckley, Bluefield, Clarksburg, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Parkersburg and Williamson. Hadassah is represented in five communities, and the National Council of Jewish Women has a chapter in Charleston. Fundraising is conducted by a Federated Jewish Charities organization in Charleston, Huntington and Bluefield-Princeton and a Jewish Community Council in Wheeling.
Jewish immigrants settled on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River as early as the 1770s. The first Jewish community in Western Virginia formed in Wheeling by the mid-1840s. The first congregation, Leshem Shomayim, was formed in Wheeling in 1849, 14 years before West Virginia became a state, and Charleston’s B’nai Israel was formed in 1873.
Some West Virginia Jews have been involved in local politics and many others are active in the business community, civic organizations and social clubs. Notable West Virginia Jewish political figures have included Congressman Benjamin L. Rosenbloom of Wheeling; state Supreme Court Justice Fred Caplan; and the mayors of Huntington, Glen Jean, Keystone, Northfork and Romney.
Among West Virginia’s most famous businessmen is Alex Schoenbaum, the founder, in Charleston, of what eventually become the Shoney’s chain of restaurants and hotels. He died in Florida in 1966, but his widow, Betty, continues to be a major philanthropist in Sarasota, Fla., West Virginia and Ohio.
In the 21st century, West Virginia’s Jewish population is declining along with the general population since the state has hit hard times with the decline of the coal industry. —J.O.