Ellis and Bessie Mopsik, portrait

Ellis and Bessie Mopsik
(Courtesy Elizabeth and William Sager)

Sustaining the Community

From Russia, New Arrivals

By the turn of the 20th century, Jews had become essential to the mercantile, civic, educational, and cultural life of the city. As the second generation of the German Jewish families continued in their prominent roles, new families arrived, mostly of Russian descent. They mirrored the diversity of the Jewish population in the United States, bringing with them "Old World" habits, and in many cases a more traditional style of worship. They fled restrictions on livelihood and residence, pogroms (anti-Jewish riots), intolerable poverty, and forced Army service. In most American communities there was tension between the more assimilated and successful German Jews and the poorer, Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews. Charlottesville was no exception.

Despite the differences between the Russian "Ridge Street" community (called the "orthodox Jews" by the others) and the older families, Jews continued to contribute to the city in much the same way--through their mercantile and civic involvements. They operated a range of stores from the finest clothing to a second-hand furniture store. They were merchants, they were tailors, and they were shoe salesmen: they operated businesses that served the community. Most became involved in the synagogue despite differences in styles of worship.

Among the first of the Eastern European immigrants to arrive in Charlottesville were Louis and Ida (Beer) Shapero. Arriving in the 1890s, the Shaperos ran a successful department store in Charlottesville on Main Street, had five children, and merged easily with the German Jewish families of Charlottesville, as well as their non-Jewish neighbors. The Shaperos were soon joined by other Russian Jewish families like that of Morris and Annie Rubin, who also had five children, ran a dry goods store, and joined the synagogue. In these families the sons and daughters went into the family business or opened businesses of their own. For instance, "Shapero's" would later become "Shapero and Walters" with the addition of son-in-law Isaac Walters, who married Florence Shapero. Isaac Walters served as president of Congregation Beth Israel and director of the Sunday school for more than 25 years. The sons of the Rubins, Henry and Abram, went into the clothing business and oil business, respectively. The grandchildren of these particular families, the Goldstens, Machts, and Kassels, would later enter the University of Virginia of the 1930s and 40s, moving into the professions of law, medicine, and engineering.

Mopsik Tailor Shop

Mopsik Tailor Shop (Courtesy Elizabeth and William Sager)

One Russian immigrant to find his place in Charlottesville was Hillel (later Ellis) Mopsik. Born in 1886 in Bobrusk, Minsk, he knew by the age of 10 that he would leave Russia, because of forced army service and other prohibitions.He passed first through London, Philadelphia, and New York, but opportunity beckoned him South; by 1908, he had established a ladies' tailoring shop in Charlottesville which he subsequently ran for over fifty years.

Elizabeth Mopsik graduates from UVa

Elizabeth Mopsik graduates from UVa
(Courtesy Elizabeth and William Sager)

To maintain his connection with Jewish organizations, Mopsik joined the Workman's Circle, a progressive and social group, and subscribed to The Forward, a popular Yiddish newspaper published in New York. He met his Russian-born wife, Bessie Golin in Richmond where they married in 1911. They had two children, Harold and Elizabeth, who both attended the University of Virginia to study education. Elizabeth met her husband, William Sager, a Jewish student from Front Royal, Virginia, at the University.

When tensions ran high, as they occasionally did between the Reform congregation and the newer Russian immigrants (the more orthodox), it was the older Russian immigrants who would try to strike compromises. Not until 1927 did the congregation officially affiliate with the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations. This formal affiliation emerged as part of a compromise which would keep the synagogue open to all Jews in the community but ensure that the prayer style would remain in the Reform tradition. Joining the UAHC was a mechanism, it appears, to preserve the older style of worship. At the same time, however, many in the community understood the need to accommodate diversity; the synagogue would be available to everyone.28

Ellis Mopsik was one who tried to serve as a bridge between the newer Russian families and the German-American families. While most of the religious service was conducted in English, usually led by Mortimer Kaufman as lay reader, Ellis Mopsik would occasionally read from the Torah in Hebrew. The Russians tended to be more traditional in their religious observance, and some would organize a separate service for High Holidays. These services might meet above the stores of the Jewish merchants, or in the basement of the synagogue. But all of the Jewish children attended Sunday school together and most Jews in the Charlottesville area were members of the congregation.

The Young Men's Shop, exterior

The Young Men's Shop

For a while, traditional services were held above The Young Men's Shop and were attended both by University students and by those in town who preferred to worship that way. Some very observant families obtained kosher food brought by bus from Lynchhurg.

Victory Shoe Store

Victory Shoe Store

For some, the challenges of maintaining businesses through the Depression years, raising families, attending Friday night services, Saturday dances or card games, and participating in Sunday School for the community's children who needed to learn Jewish stories and traditions, filled their lives. Others found time to become involved in civic activities, continuing the tradition of Jewish commitment to the town.

Some Russian Jews, like Isaac Kobre of Kiev, left to avoid being drafted into the Czar's army. In 1900 Kobre landed in New York, and found his way to Lynchburg, where a Jewish man named Levine taught him how to fix shoes. In 1904, he sent for his wife, who arrived with a brother and sister, and in 1906, the rest of the family - aunts and uncles - arrived. Kobre established a wholesale shoe house in Lynchburg, spending much of his time as as travelling salesman. On a trip to Charlottesville, a customer, Mr. Michtom, urged him to open a store. In 1922, the Victory Shoe Store opened, and it is still (in 1994) operated on a daily basis by Tillie Kobre Miller and Faye Kobre - now 72 years in the hands of the same family.

For Faye Kobre, who grew up in Baltimore, Charlottesville was first a small country town to which she came to visit her aunt and uncle, the Massings, who owned the Union Dollar Store. In 1938, Faye married Abe Kobre, Tillie's brother, a UVa graduate. They were married in Richmond because there was no rabbi in Charlottesville. Tillie met her husband in Baltimore and they were married there in 1937, again because a rabbi could officiate. Obviously, maintaining Jewish traditions at life-cycle events was fundamentally important. Charlottesville Jews who were observant relied on the larger traditional Jewish communities of Baltimore, Richmond, and Lynchburg for support and connections.

Harry O'Mansky, group portrait

Harry O'Mansky

In 1930, another important Jewish citizen arrived in town: Harry O'Mansky opened the Young Mens' Shop on Main Street. The family, originally "Uhmansky", came to the United States in the 1880s from Kiev. Settling first in Baltimore, they worked in a cigar factory, then opened a small store, then moved to Emporia, Virginia in 1898 to buy a "general" store from another Jewish family. Harry O'Mansky was born in Emporia and moved finally to Charlottesville in 1930, where he purchased a men's store from a Jewish man, Henry Rubin.

The Young Men's Shop, card

The Young Men's Shop

The Young Men's Shop remained under his ownership until the late 1980s, but Harry was in the store daily until the early 1990s when he became too ill.

June O'Mansky

June O'Mansky

His wife June, from a Baltimore family that had emigrated from Minsk, continued the Jewish tradition of civic involvement. In addition to her work with the synagogue and its sisterhood, she did volunteer work for the Attention Home for Children. In her civic duties June was often joined by her friend Sylvia Horwitz, a well-respected and popular English teacher at Charlottesville's Lane High School.

Harry and June became pillars of the community, maintaining close relations with Christians and Jews alike to improve the quality of life in this small southern city.

Maintenance of the synagogue was fundamental and difficult for the small community in the mid 20th century. The O'Manskys, with the Walters family and the Kaufmans, gave generously of themselves and of their funds. In the lean years of World War II and into the 1950s, the O'Manskys oversaw the payment of dues and bills of the synagogue, provided the leadership to maintain services on a weekly basis, provided an organ, and regularly served on the Board of Directors. On January 16, 1948, they even salvaged the Torah scrolls from a fire within the sanctuary:

"...we sit down on a Friday night, about eight of us and I hear crackle, crackle, crackle...! I looked up...flames were up in the air...The whole roof had to be taken off. And it remained that way, now we had services on Friday night, all the churches, most all the churches in town invited us to have service on Friday night. We had services at the Catholic Church, we had services at the Baptist Church, and I think we had services at the Methodist Church, too..."29

The O'Manskys and those of their generation deeply valued the Reform service. They spoke nostalgically about the lay-led services of the 1950s and 1960s, when beautiful music came from the Choir (all Christians), accompanied by the strains of the organ. Yet Harry understood that such a service did not suit the needs of everyone, and generously offered room above his store for those who wished a more traditional form of worship.

The generation of the O'Manskys, Kaufmans, and Walters kept Jewish life alive in Charlottesville. Others joined them, but it was largely in their hands. The Cohens (Rosemae and Milton) of Scottsville, the Levys (owners of Levys clothing store), the Michtoms, the Hymans (owners of Eljos), Witkins, Shwartzes, Benders (owners of the Leader), were among the merchant families of the town who sustained the Jewish community during a time when numbers were dwindling as the children of many families moved to larger cities.

Changing Jewish life in the South

"The story of The Jews in the South...is the story of fathers who built businesses for their sons who did not want them," wrote historian Eli Evans.30 By the mid-20th century, across the Southern countryside, small towns that had once had a flourishing merchant community with an active synagogue now had only a remnant of older Jews remaining. Synagogues became churches, community centers, museums of a lost Jewish culture, or were demolished. The children of the Jewish community, when they did not assimilate entirely, took their educations to the larger cities such as Adanta or New Orleans where a more cosmopolitan Jewish community grew.