By Ben Rappaport
In Judaism, l’dor v’dor means passing history and lessons from generation to generation. It’s a core value about carrying traditions and honoring a shared past.
So when the opportunity came for Ricky Leinwand, the grandson of Austrian Jewish immigrants, to take over his family’s clothing store in Bladen County, there was no question what he’d do.
The store, Leinwand’s, has been in Elizabethtown since 1935. For 88 years, it’s been a staple of the community, offering work wear, shoes and more to its customers with a personal touch.
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Now Leinwand’s is more than just a family-owned business: It’s one of the last remaining symbols of a once-thriving Jewish culture in this rural pocket of southeastern North Carolina.
Leinwand is the last man standing in what was a long line of Jewish-owned clothing stores across rural southeastern North Carolina. Whiteville once had six Jewish-owned stores; none are still in business.
With each generation, the fabric that tied the families to the storefronts frayed. And the rise of big box stores dimmed the chutzpah of the mom-and-pop shops.
Meanwhile, Beth Israel Synagogue in Whiteville closed in 2021, meaning Jewish families in Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties have to travel to Wilmington or Fayetteville for services. Developers bought the Whiteville property in May to make way for a very Southern staple: Biscuitville.
In its glory days, Beth Israel regularly hosted 16 Jewish families, with dozens of others coming to the synagogue for holidays, bar mitzvahs, weddings and more. Now, just two of those families remain in the area.
Like their ancestors before them, the Jewish community that once anchored these small towns now finds itself in the diaspora.
“We may be the only Jewish family in town,” Leinwand said, “but we certainly don’t just keep to ourselves.”
North Carolina is home to between 94,400 and 113,300 Jewish residents, according to a 2020 study by the Brandeis University American Jewish Population Project. Since 1980, the percentage of Jews in North Carolina has grown 247%, thanks mostly to economic opportunity in the state’s urban centers like the Research Triangle and Charlotte.
Synagogues in the state’s rural areas, however, have shuttered their doors as membership declined. Goldsboro, Jacksonville, Lumberton, Tarboro, Wilson and Weldon have also seen their synagogues close as membership has dwindled.
Leinwand, 70, hangs on. Like Jews throughout the region, he’s made his mark on the community beyond the walls of the synagogue. He serves on the Elizabethtown Town Council and Bladen Community College Board of Trustees and is involved in several community organizations.
Finding a homeland
James Martin is a history professor at Campbell University and author of the forthcoming book “Jewish, Southern, And Successful: Small Town Jews In North Carolina.” He said southeastern North Carolina’s Jewish community, and especially the Whiteville congregation, was “among the most vibrant.”
“Unlike so many small town congregations, this one in Whiteville remained in existence – in part because of the concerted efforts of resident Jewish families to pass down religious traditions to their children,” Martin said.
The Jewish migration to these rural communities in North Carolina, Martin said, followed a typical pattern. Many immigrated to New York through Ellis Island from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland or Russia to flee persecution.
Jews who came south often did so as peddlers, with hopes of becoming merchants in the search for economic prosperity. They would stock up on supplies in Baltimore, then get told by the owners of the bargain house where to peddle their goods, which was often in rural communities.
“Customers used to come in and tell us all the time that they never knew style until our store showed up,” said Rivka From, a former Whiteville resident whose father, Abe Moskow, ran Moskow’s Department Store until it closed in 2017. Moskow passed away in 2018. “I like to think we taught them how to ditch their overalls for something a bit more fashionable.”
Family chain migrations were also a factor in the rise of the local Jewish population.
Ricky Leinwand’s great-uncle Samuel Leinwand settled in Marion, South Carolina, in 1920. Samuel’s daughter, Yetta, married another Jewish immigrant, Herman Leder. Samuel convinced them to settle nearby, and Herman soon moved to Whiteville to open their first store. The Leder Brothers store became one of the most prosperous clothing operations in the region, owning 25 stores across the South at its peak.
Tradition, tradition, tradition
This interconnectedness of the families made the bonds of the community especially close, and everlasting.
“While we were competitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the end of the day these people were like family to me,” From said. “It didn’t really matter who outsold who because I always knew I was going to see them at Friday night Shabbat services at Beth Israel regardless.”
From, 71, left Whiteville for college when she was 18 and now lives in Raleigh. She says she cherishes her childhood memories with other Jewish children because they shaped her identity.
Even today, she has weekly calls with her friend Gary Kramer, whose family also owned a clothing store in town.
“We all worked together for this one goal: educate our children and do the best we could for the community,” Kramer said.
The longevity of these connections, and strong dedication to Jewish traditions, are part of what makes Whiteville an anomaly in the larger story of the Jewish South.
“All around them in places like Lumberton, synagogues closed, but for a long time Whiteville was able to persist because they were dedicated and had strong leadership,” said Leonard Rogoff, a Jewish historian for the Jewish Heritage Foundation of North Carolina and author of “Down Home: Jewish Heritage in North Carolina.”
That dedication to tradition showed off in a myriad of ways. Ricky Leinwand said when he joined a Jewish fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, at UNC-Chapel Hill, he knew more prayers and spoke Hebrew better than his peers from urban centers like Baltimore and Atlanta with strong Jewish populations.
Rogoff said these sorts of stories are often found in close-knit rural Jewish communities. In communities across the country, he said, the strongest members of Jewish congregations are those who grew up in more rural areas.
“In a small community, every Jew is responsible for the survival of the community, and you can’t take it for granted,” Rogoff said. “One of our core values as a people is sustaining another generation of Jews, and Whiteville certainly did a strong job at that for a long time.”
Beth Israel used to host Friday night Shabbat services every week and also Sunday school as a traveling rabbi came through town. When the rabbi wasn’t scheduled to visit Whiteville, services were led by synagogue member Jackie Steinberg.
And for 62 years, that lay leadership was enough to keep the Jewish community afloat. Over time, however, fewer and fewer young people returned to Whiteville. The clothing stores shuttered their doors as the children of the owners stayed in the big city to pursue other economic opportunities. Then came COVID-19, further reducing the already dwindling congregation.
While the congregation lasted longer than most rural Jewish communities, the expiration date finally arrived. Rogoff said the loss of Jewish life in Whiteville is part of a national trend of Jewish people moving away from merchant work and toward more professional settings.
“The era of the small independent businessman is largely over,” Rogoff said. “Earlier Jews were primarily involved in retail trades, and clerks and managers. Now, they’re moving disproportionally into the highly educated professions. They’re going to where the economic opportunities are.”
The appeal of agricultural towns once drew Jewish merchants from far and wide, but the economy has since shifted away from mill towns to corporatization. The clothing stores were once the only place to get properly outfitted. Now, Walmart carries clothing substitutes at less than half the cost.
The synagogue is also destined for a similar corporate fate as fast-food chain Biscuitville prepares to open on the property.
‘The rich tapestry’
Across the country, rural Jewish communities are declining, said Marcie Cohen Ferris, professor at the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. Their decline also matches population trends across demographics in the region.
Ferris said despite the low population, there is still tremendous value in these communities because of the history and culture they represent.
“Jewish people are part of the fabric of the town,” she said. “They’re the voices that made Whiteville what it is. They were part of the rich tapestry of what Columbus County really looks like.”
The impact of the Jewish community in the region was both civic and religious. The Jewish-owned clothing stores, and the families that owned them, were the backbone of Whiteville, too. Their legacies can still be found on ball fields, scholarships, Rotary Clubs and mayoral seats across town.
Ricky Leinwand’s father, Wallace, was the Elizabethtown mayor from 1992 to 1999. Terry Mann has served as Whiteville’s mayor since 2009 and recently filed for re-election in 2023. Mann’s father, Sol, ran J.S. Mann’s clothing store until it closed in 2020.
David Weinstein, from a prominent Jewish family in the Robeson County city of Lumberton, served as the town’s mayor from 1987 to 1991. Weinstein also chaired the Board of Trustees for Pembroke State University (now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke) and represented Robeson County in the North Carolina Senate from 1997 to 2009.
The Jewish people who remain in town, including Terry Mann and Ricky Leinwand, are now in the process of dissolution of the synagogue — dividing the assets and donating funds to local organizations. They’ve allocated funding to scholarships at Bladen Community College, North Carolina Hillel and Southeastern Community College. They’ve also donated the Torah scrolls to synagogues in Raleigh and Wilmington to help continue Jewish traditions in the state.
“We’re taking whatever we have from the synagogue and pumping it right back into our community,” Leinwand said. “That’s what we’ve always done. This community made us and we became successful because of it.”
From generation to generation, Jewish people have passed on their rich history to their family members, and the community at large. In Whiteville, those traditions have helped shape the town today. While the clothing stores have come and gone, the legacy of the people remains.
“We are multiple golden threads of having this neshama, this Jewish soul, in our hearts,” said From. “We worked tirelessly to serve the community, and that lineage was passed down from the time my grandparents arrived here.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Ricky Leinwand’s age. He is 70.