Oberdorfer family Bible, titlepage

Oberdorfer family Bible, titlepage

Establishing a Community

From Germany, Founding Families

The mid-19th century saw the immigration of a significant number of Jews to the Charlottesville area. Part of a larger movement of Germans of all faiths to America, uprooted by political and economic turmoil, Jews in particular encountered specific restrictions, effectively denying them civil liberties for following the "Israelite faith." In Swabia, Jewish artisans in numerous trades had difficulty establishing permanent residency; in Bavaria, licenses were necessary to engage in business or a profession, and the numbers issued for Jews were severely restricted for matters of religion: in Württemberg, Jews could not exchange or sell property unless it had been occupied or farmed for three years; in Baden-Baden, civil rights to Jews were denied. Thus, it is not surprising that by the 1830s and 1840s, the pace of emigration picked up, especially since the reports from the pioneers provided accounts of success in America. The lure of property ownership, and the seeming lack of prejudice, was especially enticing. Many people wrote of opportunities for Jewish girls in marriage.13

Seeking rural areas and small towns, many Germans, including Jews, settled in the Midwest and South, where they could re-establish familiar roles as traders in agricultural produce and livestock, storekeepers, artisans, and craftsmen.14 Often starting as peddlers, Jews frequently followed retail trades, particularly in dry goods, trades which did not require apprenticeship or much capital. Trading was a well-developed Jewish occupation in Germany as well, and in the emerging towns of the South Jews were prepared to develop markets that opened as the plantation system declined after the Civil War.

German Jews brought with them Ashkenazic cultural traditions (differing from the Spanish Sephardic culture of the earliest settlers) and a style of worship based on reformist principles, emphasizing use of the language of the land (German or English) rather than Hebrew, choral-style singing during worship, and a rejection of traditional practices such as covering the head for men, strict Sabbath observance, and kashrut (eating only kosher foods). These Reform practices allowed for easier integration into the life of the community.

Three Charlottesville-based German Jewish families were central in laying the foundations for the economic, civic, cultural, and religious life of the community for a period of 100 years. The Letermans, the Oberdorfers, and the Kaufmans were distinguished families, evident from the powerful roles they played in the history of the city. These families identified themselves as Virginians, businessmen, community leaders, and Jews. Their lives were embedded in the larger community; they were barely distinguishable by their religion.


Isaac and Simon Leterman were born in Württemberg in the 1820s. The older of the two, Isaac, married Matilda Kaufman in Wurttemberg, where their first child, Hannah, was born in 1848. Simon, the younger brother, married Hannah Baum of Baden; together they raised ten children. In Charlottesville, the two brothers established a retail business on Main Street around 1852. Though business partners, their political views diverged when the Civil War arrived: Isaac Leterman fought for the Union, while his younger brother Simon joined the Confederacy and Simon's wife Hannah volunteered as a nurse.

Hannah and Simon Leterman, with family, on their 50th anniversary

Hannah and Simon Leterman, with family, on their 50th anniversary

Hannah and Simon Leterman, with family on their 50th anniversary. The building behind them is identified in a handwritten caption as the original synagogue building on Market Street; if so, it is the only known view of that building and shows that it was clearly different from the building as it stands now on Jefferson Street.

Front Row (on ground): Harold Leterman, Hattie Leterman Hecht, Jerome Hecht, Maurice Leterman ; Second Row: Hennie Strauss Leterman, Moses Leterman, Roella Leterman Hanline, Hannah Baum Leterman, Simon Leterman, Bertie Goldsmith Leterman, Herbert and Elmer Leterman on the lap of Jack Leterman, Leonard Leterman ; Third Row: Viola Leterman Levi, Billy Hanline, Milton Hanline, Phil Leterman, Joe Hecht, Ben Leterman ; Top Row: Camille Leterman, Felix Leterman, Harry Stern, Ray Stern Kaufman, Louis Stern, Lenora Leterman Lowenberg, Gertrude Leterman Kaufman, Sam Leterman
(Courtesy Helen Hecht)

Simon Leterman, portrait

Simon Leterman
(Courtesy of Joan Nussbaum)

From before the War, however, the Letermans' several stores were a force in the community; by 1898, five of the sons of Simon and Hannah Leterman (Moses, Philip, Jacob, Benjamin, and Samuel) combined their resources to create the largest store ever seen in Charlottesville.

Letermans lived in Charlottesville until the 1950s and had a profound influence on the city. Prominent and successful merchants, members of the City Council, active in civic organizations like the Ladies Aid Society, the White Ribbon Temperance Society, the Masons, and the School Board, they were also leaders in bringing high and popular culture to the city. Hannah Baum Leterman came to be known to one and all as "Mother Leterman" for her activism on behalf of the poor.15

Oberdorfer family

The Family of Bernard and Mathilde Oberdorfer


Bernard (or B.) Oberdorfer was also born in Württemberg and came to the United States in 1849. In New York, he worked in a cigar factory, then migrated as a peddler to Charlottesville. He served in the Confederate Army. Married twice, to Rachel then to Mathilde, he had 10 children. The family store, Oberdorfer and Son, stood on Main Street, and the family lived on Park Street near the Courthouse. The eldest son, Philip, continued the family business and was an outstanding public-minded citizen in Charlottesville, earning acclaim for his contributions. The two youngest, twins Archie and Leo, attended the University of Virginia, two of a handful of Jews to study there in the 19th century.

Bernard Oberdorfer, like his associate Isaac Leterman, felt a strong commitment to establish and maintain a synagogue in Charlottesville. Like Leterman, he was a trustee both for the cemetery and for the land on which the Temple would be built.


The third founding family of Jewish Charlottesville was that of Moses and Hannah Kaufman. Born in 1847, Moses came to the United States at the age of eleven, as the ward of his uncles, Isaac and Simon Leterman. Together, they had twelve children.

Also a merchant, Moses Kaufman started a clothing store in Charlottesville in 1861. It was located across from Oberdorfer's, and the two families maintained a close friendship, lasting to the present day. Kaufman's store, appropriately, was located on the site of David Isaac's old house and store, and was built by David's son, carpenter Tucker Isaacs.

Moses was an entrepreneur: he also maintained a whiskey warehouse toward the close of the century, in addition to manufacturing slate pencils and cigars. When Moses Kaufman died, his sons Sol and Mortimer took over the operation of his main clothing store.