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Martinsburg Jewish congregation dissolves

April 08, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Beth Jacob Congregation, organized in 1912 by Martinsburg's once-prominent Jewish community, has dissolved.

Two years after selling its synagogue at 126 W. Martin St., the organization's few remaining members were authorized Monday by 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gray Silver III to distribute about $290,000 remaining in congregation bank accounts and dispose of other property.

In his order, Silver recognized the congregation as being defunct and authorized trustee Jerry J. Kusner of Martinsburg to distribute the money to a number of area organizations, pending the subtraction of legal fees and costs that arise from the auction of furniture, stained glass windows and other items.

Based on current assets, the congregation proposed that parks and recreation in Martinsburg receive $135,000 and Berkeley County's four libraries receive $20,000 each, according to a petition filed with the court by attorney Wm. Richard McCune Jr., on behalf of Kusner and congregation president Bruce H. Brody.

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B-Nai Abraham Synagogue in Hagerstown and Beth El Synagogue in Winchester, Va., each would receive $30,000, and the congregation planned to donate $5,000 each to the Reformed Movement Georgia Katz, Berkeley County Historical Society and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

A report on the actual amount of money disbursed after expenses are subtracted is expected to be filed with the court by July.

"Bruce and I are all that remains (here in the community)," Kusner told Silver in a hearing Monday.

Kusner is one of three remaining trustees and the only one still residing in West Virginia, according to McCune. Brody is the only remaining officer. Trustees Edwin E. Cohen and Howard G. Malin now live in Maryland and did not attend the hearing on Monday, but McCune said they did not lodge an objection against the petition that he filed.

"Over the years, I think the Jewish community enjoyed living in Martinsburg," Kusner told Silver.

Upon granting the petition, Silver recalled the Jewish community's "substantial contributions" to Martinsburg, specifically noting the prominence of several downtown businesses when he was growing up.

Some of the Jewish-owned businesses were The Hub Store, George Katz & Son, Katz's Economy Basement, M. Cohen & Son, Diamond's Smart Fashions and Louis Lipsic Men's Store, according to historical accounts.

An advertisement promoting Cohen's ladies apparel as "that Cohen look" still is visible on the side of the former retail center along North Queen Street that Silver said was capped by a "penthouse" apartment.

Jews first settled in Martinsburg sometime before 1870 when the Weil Family opened a retail clothing store in the town, according to historical accounts. The Fine, Levin, Katz, Kirson and Snyder families were some of the earliest Jewish families to settle in Martinsburg.

Before the congregation organized and opened a synagogue at the former United Brethren Church building along Pennsylvania Avenue in Martinsburg in 1913, the Jewish community gathered at individual homes, according to a history prepared in commemoration of the synagogue's 50th anniversary.

Beth Jacob Cemetery, a Jewish burial ground established in 1916, is next to Rosedale Cemetery outside of Martinsburg.

In 1952, the organization moved to West Martin Street and converted what was a former funeral home into new house of prayer and community center.

Kusner said Monday there were between 26 and 30 families at one time.

As membership declined in recent years, leaders of the congregation realized it wasn't feasible to keep the synagogue and sold it to William Bryant of Blue Ridge Investments LLC in March 2007.

The property was sold for $276,000, according to a deed recorded in March 2007 in Berkeley County Clerk John W. Small Jr.'s office.

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