Over its nearly 100 years, the Ohev Zion Synagogue in Martinsville has gone through the stages of growth, strength, and decline – and appears to be on the rise once again.
Dicky Globman, a member of the congregation and grandson of two of its founders, talked about Martinsville’s synagogue recently during a Sunday Afternoon Lecture at the Martinsville-Henry County Heritage Center & Museum, sponsored by the MHC Historical Society.
The first Jewish person to come to Martinsville was Sam Heiner in 1900, Globman said. Fifteen years later, there were five Jewish families: those of Heiner; Sam Kolodny, whose son and daughter-in-law, Harold and Anita, ran Kolodny’s Ladies Shop; Max Berlin, the father of Ted Berlin who ran Ted’s Men’s Shop; Abe Fusfeld; and Abe Globman. Abe and Masha Globman were the proprietors of Globman’s, Martinsville’s iconic and most famous department store.
By 1927 Martinsville had 25 Jewish people, who formed the core group that built the synagogue, he said.
Kolodny and Abe Globman were the original members of the building committee for the synagogue whose name means “Love of Zion.” They chose as its location Moss Street, which was in the area where many of the Jewish families lived.
Not only was being within walking distance convenient, but it was also crucial, in the following of their Orthodox Jewish practices.
Most of the families were first-generation American citizens from Eastern Europe, Poland, and Russia, he said, and observed all the Jewish traditions. They observed strict restrictions against any labor on the Sabbath. That includes cooking, cleaning, washing – and driving.
Construction began in 1927 after $5,000 had been raised, though the construction estimate was at $11,000. Donations and a $3,000 loan from People’s National Bank covered the rest. A crowd of several hundred people were present for the laying of the cornerstone in 1927.
As Martinsville grew in the 1930s and 1940s, so did the synagogue’s membership. They were a close-knit group, Globman said; pictures from the mid-1900s showed a close-knit community that “did everything together.”
The first graduations recorded from Ohev Zion’s Sunday school were in 1943, with four. “Sunday school” is the term used for the religious classes which were held on Sundays, while the Sabbath is observed from sundown Friday to after dark on Saturday.
In 1945, the women founded a chapter of Hadassah, an American Jewish volunteer women’s organization.
The Ohev Zion Sisterhood operated a fundraising store in the synagogue’s social hall. Since several of the members were clothing retailers, much of the merchandise had been donated by vendors. Through the years, the Sisterhood raised over $200,000 to help with the synagogue’s costs and salary for a rabbi.
In 1948, members started the process to get a cemetery; that cemetery, located in Ridgeway, was dedicated on Oct. 2, 1949.
Though it was a comparatively small congregation, Ohev Zion started having a full-time rabbi in 1949, with the first being one who didn’t last too long. To help with personal financial problems, Globman said, that the first rabbi borrowed $500 from the synagogue treasury, couldn’t pay it back, and left.
That followed a series of rabbis, whose time ranged from 20 days to several years.
“Hiring a rabbi for such a small congregation was almost unheard of in those days,” Globman said.
The congregation bought a house next to the synagogue to be a home for a rabbi to live.
One rabbi who had a great impact on Dicky Globman and his contemporaries was Rabbi Mordecai Thurman, from 1954-1963. He was a dynamic speaker and scholar “and well respected in the non-Jewish community.” He formed a youth group that met every Saturday to discuss Jewish topics, then have lunch and go bowling. Later, the congregation had a chapter of United Synagogue Youth.
As the years went on, the congregation let go of some of its Orthodox practices, he said. “Living in a small town, it was almost impossible to keep all the kosher dietary restrictions.” They would have had to order most of their food from Baltimore or Charlotte. So the congregation “settled into Conservatism,” which was less strict on the old practices, but still had services conducted largely in Hebrew.
“By 1961, members wanted a more modern synagogue in a nicer neighborhood,” so they built the one still in use on Parkview Avenue.
“It is in wonderful condition and will probably be our synagogue forever,” he said. A house for a rabbi was built next door in 1965.
The synagogue had a robust youth population of around 40 kids in the 1960s and ’70s.
After Thurman left, the synagogue had difficulties in finding a full-time rabbi. Ohev Zion asked United Synagogue, the national organization for Conservative synagogues, of which it was a member, for help getting a rabbi.
That was no help, though, so the congregation asked the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, a Reformed organization. It responded that it could not help Ohev Zion since it was not a member. Ohev Zion replied, “‘You help us find a rabbi and we’ll switch teams, and they did, and we did,’” Globman said.
The men had a chapter of B’nai Brith, a national Jewish men’s service organization. Its main branch is the Anti-Defamation League, which is “vigilant in trying to prevent antisemitism.”
In the late 1970s, the synagogue held an art auction and continued to remodel and upgrade its building, with extensive renovations including stained glass windows in 1981. By 1985 the congregation was comprised of 45 Jewish families.
“Then the fortunes of our congregation, along with the fortunes of Martinsville-Henry County,” began to deteriorate, as major industries closed or moved production offshore. As happened with much of the local population, several of the synagogue’s families moved away.
The congregation no longer could afford a rabbi, but “fortunately … had an excellent relationship with Beth David Synagogue in Greensboro.” From there came a cantor, who led the musical part of service, and a lay rabbi.
A well-loved cantor was Paul Gould, who came from Austria. During the Holocaust, he had escaped from a concentration camp in the bottom of a vegetable wagon. He died in 2016, “a sad occasion … We miss him to this day.”
Ohev Zion had part-time rabbis in Michael White of Greensboro until 2002, then Beth Socol of Greensboro, until 2020. Since then, the rabbi has been Nadav Avital, a history teacher at Weaver Academy in Greensboro.
After a decline that paralleled Martinsville’s decline, membership at the synagogue is now on the uptick. However, for a while, it had looked like the synagogue may have reached its final days.
Without any more children in the congregation, the Sunday school closed 20 years ago. In addition to being small, the membership also was aging.
“In 2008 the board got together and began preparation for what is basically called the last will and testament,” he said. “We outlined plans for disposition of assets and establishment of a Jewish legacy in our area in case we could no longer function as a synagogue.”
Ohev Zion “invested quite a bit of money with the Jewish Federation of Greensboro,” a large organization that has member congregations in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. “They agreed, in case of dissolution of the synagogue, they would take over and fund the management of our cemetery in perpetuity.”
The synagogue sold its house on Parkview in 2019.
Members of Ohev Zion are involved throughout the Martinsville community, Globman said. They have been presidents of the Retail Merchants Association, the country club, and the hospital board of trustees; they have been members of the City Council and the boards of various businesses and industries, and mayor.
“Both Barry (Greene) and I have served as president of that great Jewish organization, Christmas Cheer,” Globman quipped, as the audience chuckled. “I served as a board member and the president of the YMCA.” Barry Greene’s father, Dane Greene, helped found Little League baseball, and the football stadium at Martinsville High School is named after him.
Though the congregation now is small, it remains active with service and events, and “our financial position continues to be strong.” Recently, “our numbers are starting to tick up,” as Jewish families have moved to Martinsville, Henry County, and Eden, N.C.
“We have a last will and testament on file,” Globman concluded his program. “Let’s hope it stays there.”The Museum is at 1 E. Main St. (former Henry County courthouse). Upcoming programs include its annual Christmas Music Program, 7-8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, and the Sunday Afternoon Lecture Series continues with “Founders Day,” at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21.
The Museum is open 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and other times by appointment or chance. Keep up with it on Facebook and see videos of its programs on its YouTube channel.
(Kozelsky is the Historical Society’s executive director.)