Jews populated Roanoke from its earliest days, were responsible for many downtown retail businesses and founded some of the city’s oldest houses of worship, according to an elder in Roanoke’s Jewish community.
Sig Davidson gives color to the story of Jewish Roanoke in a personal narrative that was captured on film and turned into a documentary. The film is now out.
About 100 people gathered Sunday at Mill Mountain Theatre’s Waldron Stage for the film’s first local screening, after which Davidson, 91, spoke for several minutes. The film was produced by Amy Morris, a former news director at WDBJ and now assistant news director at a television station in Philadelphia. The film was co-produced by Debbie Kaplan of Roanoke and assisted by a host of other individuals and businesses.
Davidson’s decade-by-decade account, told to the camera from an armchair at home in the Brandon Oaks retirement community, is one man’s intimate story of a community’s birth and evolution. In the film, he sketches the arrival of the earliest Jews in Roanoke, who came for the most part from Germany though the Baltimore port of entry. There were 18 Jewish families in Roanoke in 1899, he said.
He charts the opening of Temple Emanuel in 1899 and Beth Israel Synagogue in about 1902. The two Jewish houses of worship are still in existence with 160 and 140 members today, respectively.
He touches on anti-Semitism that banned Jews from public pools and the Jewish response — to create a club for Jewish families with swimming, volleyball and fields near what is now Green Hill Park.
He says 101 Jewish men served in World War II.
He describes the Roanoke Jewish community’s tradition of raising and distributing money for the welfare of Jews here and beyond and for the benefit of the Roanoke community generally, furnishing support for mental health assistance, higher education, literacy and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
He details some of the community’s rich business history. While Roanoke had railroading before the turn of the last century, another hearty business sector early on was retail — numerous merchants of clothing, shoes and dry goods downtown were Jewish. For his part, Davidson went to college, fought in World War II and then took the reins of the family business, the men’s clothing retailer Davidsons, until he retired in 1985. Davidsons is nearly 104 years old.
“We’ve come a long way. We’ve still got a long way to go,” he said near the closing moments of the short film, titled “Sig Davidson: Reflections on Jewish Roanoke.”
After the viewing, Davidson took a chair before the audience and spoke some more. Though they banded together to cope with discrimination early on, Roanoke’s Jewish congregations, a Conservative Jewish congregation at Beth Israel Synagogue, and a Reform Jewish congregation at Temple Emanuel, have experienced some separation and rifts.
Davidson told the mostly Jewish audience present for the film that he’d like to see the two congregations socialize and work together more, “being part of one community, not two houses of worship.”
The audience clapped.
Davidson’s own Jewish background is diverse in that he had a Conservative Jewish father and a Reform Jewish mother. He said that for most of his life, he belonged to both congregations, though today he worships mostly at Temple Emanuel. It’s a legacy that accounts for the some of his stature as a man to whom Roanoke Jews have looked for leadership, vision and identity over the years.
“It’s a remarkable family and a remarkable man,” said Roanoke physician Donald Stefl at the event.
Robert Klein, a regional representative of the Jewish Federations of North America, said in honoring Davidson with a gift Sunday: “He’s living history.”
Rabbi Fabian Werbin, who heads Beth Israel Synagogue, acknowledged Davidson’s wish for more closeness between Jewish congregations. “We are in the process of trying to see if we can build bridges,” Werbin said.
Joe Gallo, president of the board of trustees at Temple Emanuel, said it’s hard for the two congregations to connect spiritually owing to their different views on the faith. Similarly, social events with food can be a challenge because some Roanoke Jews eat kosher and some don’t. That said, a small group is making efforts to “rebuild trust,” Gallo said.
Copies of the documentary, which includes numerous photos of the region, are available at Beth Israel and Temple Emanuel.
Photo by Rebecca Barnett. L to R Sherry Davidson (son Steve's wife), Sig and Janice Dinkins Davidson (Larry's wife), with Larry in foreground out of focus. Barnett's photo below catches Sig talking to the audience after the film.