There has been a Jewish presence in the Charlottesville area since Colonial times, and the city has been home to Jewish families since the late 18th century. Because Jewish worshipers do not need a synagogue building in which to pray, the first act of establishing a permanent Jewish community is often the founding of a proper burial site, a cemetery. In 1870 the land for the Hebrew Cemetery, located at Elliott and 1st Street, was deeded to the Charlottesville Hebrew Benevolent Society, with two prominent members of the congregation as its trustees.
In 1882 the cornerstone was laid for the original Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Market and Second Street at the current site of the Jefferson Madison Regional Library. It was the first synagogue in this region. In 1904 the Federal Government purchased that site for the Charlottesville post office. Building materials from the old synagogue were moved to the present site on Jefferson Street. A newspaper account indicates that the design of the new structure was modified and improved. Local architect, George Wallace Spooner designed the Congregation Beth Israel building in Gothic Revival, at the time a common style of religious architecture. Spooner designed some area churches and other buildings in a similar style. The fleur de lis on the synagogue’s rooflines are sometimes mistaken for crosses.
There is a long history of the sharing of worship space among local congregations. After fire destroyed the roof of the CBI sanctuary in 1946, a number of churches offered the use of their sanctuaries during the period of renovation. During that time synagogue members worshiped at the Hillel Foundation at UVA. Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church used Congregation Beth Israel when its new church was being built. Additions were made to the synagogue in 1987 and 1994-95, and again, churches offered their space. When Holy Comforter Catholic Church, across Jefferson Street, underwent renovation, CBI reached out to them.
The 1994-95 addition to the synagogue provided much needed space for the growing congregation. Added were a small sanctuary, classrooms, a library, new kitchen, offices, and the large O’Mansky assembly hall named in honor of Harry and June O’Mansky, proprietors of The Young Men’s Shop on Main Street from 1931 until the 1990s, and leaders of the Congregation throughout that time. Bruce Wardell was the architect of the new construction.
Congregation Beth Israel is the oldest continuously utilized synagogue in Virginia and among the twenty oldest continuously utilized synagogues in the United States. Formally affiliated with the Union of American Reform Jewish congregations since the 1920s, many worshipers are Conservative/traditional, and some follow other varieties of ritual practice.
However, CBI is far more than an historic building. Numbering over 400 households, CBI is composed of a diverse membership reflecting the variety of the community. It provides a locus for a thriving local Jewish community, and serves as a house of worship and prayer, study and learning. CBI continues to evolve and mature, and serves its members and the Central Virginia region with professional staff and volunteers of all ages and skills.
In 1883, Rabbi William Weinstein was brought from Alabama to lead the congregation. After his departure, laymen conducted the services for nearly a century before a full time Rabbi was hired in 1979. Joining the Union of Hebrew Congregations in 1927, Congregation Beth Israel established itself as a Reform Congregation. Today the synagogue strives to meet the needs of the entire Jewish Community. In 1994, an exhibit was mounted at the Albemarle County Historical Society detailing the history of Jewish settlement in the Charlottesville area. An accompanying catalog was written by Carol Ely, Jeffrey Hantman, and Phyllis Leffler, entitled "To Seek the Peace of the City: Jewish Life in Charlottesville". Read Phyllis Leffler's History of CBI, delivered at the kickoff of the Synagogue's Centennial Celebration in 2004.
All who wish to deepen their understanding of Judaism through worship or study are welcome. Since 1988, Rabbi Daniel Alexander has served CBI and the Jewish community of Charlottesville and Central Virginia.
The Religious school offers Sunday and Wednesday Hebrew and religious education classes to over 200 children and adults. The preschool and Camp CBI adds another dimension to the growing need for the care and education of young children. An active adult education program provides many avenues for learning, socializing and volunteerism. Through both volunteer and financial support of social action and social justice activities, CBI also touches the lives of many in Central Virginia who are not affiliated with the congregation. CBI has something to offer to people of all ages.