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Unbuckling the Bible belt: Being Jewish in Charlotte

Far from the Upper West Side, a vibrant Jewish community thrives.

By Elizabeth Leland
eleland@charlotteobserver.com
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Courtesy of Temple Beth El - Courtesy of Temple Beth El
Patty Torcellini leads children in songs at Temple Beth El's weekly Tot Shabbot service for boys and girls up to 5 years old. Courtesy of Temple Beth El

More Information

  • More: Tales of the New South
  • 'Tales' provoke a (mostly) civil war
  • Families of Abraham exhibit

    A photographic narrative exploring similarities among the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Museum of the New South, 200 E. 7th St. Through Sept. 9. museumofthenewsouth.org


  • 10 New South Tales

    June 17: Southern Drawl

    June 24: Livermush

    Today: Jewish life

    July 8: Globalizing city

    July 15: Segregated past

    July 22: Rural poverty

    July 29: Gateway to city

    Aug. 5: Still Bank Town?

    Aug. 12: Flying the flag

    Aug. 19: Booster gene

    • For convention visitors, the series will be featured at charlotteobserver.com.


  • About the series

    Before 35,000 outsiders arrive in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention, the Observer is taking a look at some of the people, places and events that might surprise people about the region.



You know you’ve entered the Bible Belt when you drive away from Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the sign announces: “Billy Graham Parkway.”

This area’s Christian roots date back to early Presbyterian settlers. Not so long ago, Charlotte was known as “The City of Churches.” One on every corner, people used to say. And, of course, Billy Graham grew up on a Charlotte dairy farm before he began preaching the gospel.

Out-of-town friends who came to visit after I moved here in 1985 were often curious about The PTL Club’s Christian theme park at Heritage USA. Even though Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker built their evangelical kingdom 15 miles south in Fort Mill, they started their TV show here and much of the world associated their ministry with Charlotte.

Still, I was surprised by a woman’s comments on an online forum: “We are Jewish from Manhattan thinking about relocating to Charlotte. My friend who went to UNC (she’s Catholic) told me that I might feel uncomfortable as a Jew in Charlotte.... Is there a nice Jewish life in Charlotte, and when it’s time for me to have kids, will they feel accepted?”

Are Jewish people really that skeptical of our fair city?

Despite the fact that 12,000 or more Jewish people live in Charlotte. And that 55-acre Shalom Park is home to two large synagogues. And that some of our most generous benefactors are Jewish and their names are inscribed throughout the city, from the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center to Levine Children’s Hospital.

I met with three women to talk about what it’s like being Jewish in a city so rooted in the Christian faith. Karen Maniloff, Jen Lahn and Marni Eisner work at the Jewish Community Center. Eisner is a member of the Democratic National Convention steering committee and is hoping to find ways to share Charlotte’s Jewish story during the convention.

From bagels to casseroles

The women told me that they love living here but, boy, were they nervous before they came.

Karen: “I’m from the Upper West Side in New York City. I’m very Jewish. My husband was relocated here (in the mid 1990s) and I had one thought: ‘Are you out of your mind?’ I told my father that there are churches on every corner. And my dad, he’s a very religious man, he said: ‘What would you prefer - that there be a brothel on every corner?’

“I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the Jewish community and the graciousness of the non-Jewish community. This is the story of so many people.

“We have never experienced any anti-Semitism. But we get lots and lots of questions like: ‘You don’t celebrate Christmas?’ ”

Marni: “Unfortunately, there’s a stereotype and fear associated with how you can be Jewish and live in the Bible Belt. My entire family is in New Jersey and I’ve spent the last 20 years being made fun of (for living in the South).

“Where I grew up being Jewish was not being a minority. When you are a minority, you have to create a community. There’s something special we have here.”

Jen: “So many people ask me what faith house I go to. When I moved here in ’95, there were people who had never met a Jew. There wasn’t even a Starbucks. I used to drive to the airport to get my coffee. Now there’s a Starbucks and a church on every corner.”

Karen: “One of the things I missed at first was the anonymity. You never had to say ‘Hello’ in New York City if you didn’t want to. Here, people are so embracing.”

Marni: “I had been in the South since ’92 and we moved back to New Jersey in 2002 when I was pregnant with my second child. We thought we should be near family. Within six days, we realized we had just made the biggest mistake. When we lived in Richmond and Lynchburg, people brought us casseroles when we moved there. They brought over directions to the supermarket. We had been in our house in New Jersey for six days and nobody had come over. Ten months later, we moved to Charlotte.

“This city is so Southern-lite. You have people who are not from here. That has really changed the whole fabric of this community.”

A unique community

Yes, we are in the Bible Belt. Charlotte is home to many churches. But you’ll also find synagogues, an Islamic Center, even a Wiccan temple.

I grew up in Charleston, which was not only where the Civil War began, but also the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America. There were 2,000 Jewish people living there by 1800 (more than in any other city in America – even New York). Charlotte’s Jewish population didn’t reach 2,000 until 1960.

But as Charlotte emerged as a banking center and newcomers poured in, the Jewish population grew.

So why are some Jewish people still wary of moving here?

In the past, according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, “Charlotte Jews sometimes experienced prejudice, facing exclusion from elite clubs and neighborhoods.” Even today, some say they are occasionally subjected to slurs and hostility.

Historian Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South – named in honor of a Jewish couple, philanthropists Sandra and Leon Levine – said he has been surprised to discover that some very successful Jewish people feel in many ways like outsiders here.

“This is a legacy, I think, of the often awful way Jewish people have been treated over the last many 100 years around the world,” Hanchett said. “You don’t just get over it.”

Open to all

Rachael Levine, who works with the Jewish Federation of Greater Charlotte, said she sometimes gets questions about Billy Graham Parkway after she picks up visitors from the airport.

Though Graham is respected as one of our nation’s most prominent religious leaders, he exchanged anti-Semitic remarks with President Richard Nixon in a conversation recorded in 1972. After the tapes were made public in 2002, Graham apologized.

“Even though people may come to Charlotte a little bit nervous, they are quickly put at ease when they see Shalom Park,” Levine said. “This campus is the only one that exists in the entire county. It houses almost 90 percent of the Jewish agencies. It has synagogues of different denominations. When you come from another city, it’s completely unfathomable.

“During the High Holy Days, whether you’re a Reform Jew or a Conservative Jew – something as different as Baptist and Presbyterian – you are celebrating the holidays together. It’s a community feeling.”

Karen Maniloff is associate executive director of the Jewish Community Center, and she pointed out that 50 percent of the members and staff are non-Jewish.

“We are the Jewish Community Center,” she told me, “but we are open to all.”

I’d like to think the same could be said about our city.

Leland: 704-358-5074
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