To commemorate Temple Beth El's 59th year of continuous Judaic presence in Williamsburg, Mrs. Ethel Adolf Sternberg, the last founding member of the congregation, is donating personal scrapbooks that record five decades of Jewish activity in Williamsburg. Memorabilia range from synagogue design and construction to photographs/flyers, news clippings and personal recollections. A formal presentation occurred on January 26th at the Special Collections department of Swem Library, The College of William and Mary.
Mrs.Sternberg, a Holocaust survivor, and her late husband, Dr. Paul Sternberg, settled in Williamsburg in the early 1950's and gradually joined with several other Jewish families to create a Jewish meeting place. Initially services were held in private homes and local churches. The Williamsburg religious community provided space and time for the most essential programs: Sunday school classes used a variety of churches on Richmond Road, Passover celebrations were hosted at Colonial Williamsburg's Lodge, and prayer services were conducted in both the Wren Chapel of William and Mary and the Fort Eustis Chapel. The closest synagogues were in Newport News, which was a fairly long drive prior to the construction of Interstate I-64. By the early 1960's the growth of the Jewish community revealed a need for local Jewish education to prepare children for Bar and Bat Mitzvah.
The three founding families, Sternbergs, Murray and Mimi Loring, and Leonard and Bea Legum, focused first on the construction of a new synagogue, proceeding through the design stage. By good fortune, however, a viable building was offered for sale by Colonial Williamsburg in 1966 at the cost of $1.00. The sales price did not include the cost of moving the colonial revival brick cottage, but relocation from Frances Street to a new location on Jamestown Road was possible. The plans for a new synagogue were shelved in place of moving and rehabilitating Mr. Foster’s gift shop. A second surprise came in the offer for sale of a key piece of land on Jamestown Road by a grateful patient of Dr. Paul Sternberg. And the price, $17,000, was fortunately affordable. The response to these changes was rapid and unanimous. Mrs. Sternberg recalled, "We really wanted to be where the churches were. We wanted to be on Jamestown Road and not be hidden somewhere."
Moving the new building to its ultimate location was memorable according to all who witnessed it. The Virginia Gazette described the scene on March 28, 1968: "Hoisted high on dollies pulled by a truck, the two-story structure was routed down Duke of Gloucester Street, up Richmond Road for a short distance, then across the College of William and Mary’s campus to Jamestown Road and its permanent site." Finally there was a Jewish home in Williamsburg for prayer services, education, holiday observances and social activities.
The task of leading religious services in the early years fell to congregational members. A growing congregation rapidly expressed the need for a trained leader. Again good fortune provided the help. Emeric Fischer, a law professor and rabbi’s son assumed the post of lay leader. Ultimately the congregation required a full-time religious leader, a post that was filled by TBE’s first trained rabbi, Sylvia Scholnick. Rabbi Scholnick’s term from 1997 to retirement in 2007 was notable for an expanded membership, several renovations and an expansion of the building. From the three founding families, Temple Beth El now serves approximately 170 families under the leadership of Rabbi David Katz.
As the congregational size and activity increased, the administrative tasks also grew. Dr. Sternberg was elected the first president, serving for 16 years, while Mrs.Sternberg inherited the title in subsequent years. The Sternberg family played every role from clerk to cook, even fielding synagogue phone calls from their home. Much of this activity is documented in the evocative photographs and flyers found in the scrapbooks. Along with this religious activity Mrs. Sternberg continued to provide her Holocaust remembrance lectures to schools and civic organizations. At age 90+ she is still actively presenting her life experiences.
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