The History of Beth El Synagogue

The Durham Jewish community traces its origins to the 1870s when German and Eastern European immigrants arrived to peddle and open stores in the growing tobacco town. In the early 1880s their numbers were augmented by the arrival of Russian-Jewish cigarette rollers.

The Durham Hebrew Congregation organized in 1887 and rented a hall on Main Street. In 1892, the congregants formally chartered the congregation and hired a rabbi. In 1905, they purchased a small, wood-framed church on Liberty Street which became Durham's first synagogue.

After World War I, the congregation built a large, cathedral-style synagogue downtown. When it was dedicated in 1921, the members took the name Beth El Congregation. Beth El remained Orthodox through the 1930s and 1940s, but over the years the community grew more liberal in its religious practices. In 1948, Beth El hired a rabbi who was a member of the Conservative movement.

The above photo was taken by Sidney Markman (Z"'L) in 1953. Click thumbnail for larger view.

Beth El broke ground for a new Synagogue and Center on Watts and Markham Streets in 1957. In its centennial year, 1987, Beth El acquired and renovated the Freedman Center which provides classrooms and an attractive environment for major social and educational functions.

Beth El today reflects a vibrant, dynamic community led by a volunteer board, enriched with the teachings of many dedicated community members.

January 19-21, 2012 we held a gala weekend celebrating our 125 years along with the installation of Rabbi Daniel Greyber. Below are links to photos from the Saturday night celebration and a slideshow of Beth El through the years:
Gala Celebration Photos 1/21/12

L'dor Vador
Beth El's Family Photo Album




Durham's Jewish Community in Transition - A Panel Discussion

Sunday, June 16, 2013 at the Main Durham County Library
Beth El Synagogue, along with the Durham County Library, and the Durham History Hub, hosted this panel discussion about Durham's Jewish past. On the panel were local historian Leonard Rogoff along with lifelong Durham residents & Beth El members Lynne Grossman and Robert Rosenstein. Another Beth El member, Karin Shapiro served as moderator. In addition, Karin's exhibit, "Beth El Synagogue - the first 125 years" was on display & remained at the library for the following month. Pre-panel music was provided by the popular Klezmer band, Freylach Time (including Beth El member Riki Friedman), and Don Mazzio, the JCC's chef, brought delicious babka, rugalah & bagels with lox & cream cheese. Attendees were requested to bring memorabilia for a community-curated "pop-up museum."
Photos from the event: https://picasaweb.google.com/synagogue.bethel/LibraryProgram61613
Video footage:Video footage available at: http://vimeo.com/72811615

On September 13, 2013, our President, Barak Richman dedicated his Kol Nidre Address to our history as well as our future. You may read this address here: 2013 President's Address

More history of our community is available on our Durham Hebrew Cemetery pages (click here).