Q&A with Terry Mann: Jewish synagogue donation honors close relationship with communities

By Kerria Weaver


Terry Mann believes in giving back to the community while also making sure the Jewish community is recognized and remembered. 

Mann and other Jewish families who were members of the Beth Israel Synagogue came together earlier this year to donate $200,000 to the Southeastern Community College Foundation and Bladen Community College. 

Mann, 71, currently serves as the mayor of Whiteville. For decades, his family and the Steinberg family owned and operated JS Mann’s, an iconic Whiteville clothing store. 

The Border Belt Independent spoke with Mann about the donation and what it means for the Jewish culture.

What is the mission of the Beth Israel Synagogue?

It’s just like any other Jewish religious institution, the mission is to serve the Jewish community. At the height of the community, we had about 15 or 16 families here in Whiteville, plus two or three families in Elizabethtown. My grandfather came over from Lithuania, which was a part of Russia. His generation was, and still is today, concerned with preserving the Jewish religion. My grandfather moved from New York. He came from overseas in the early 1919 or 1920s. My grandmother – his wife – had been around a lot of family members all her life and she had cousins who lived in Whiteville, so they eventually moved to Whiteville. 

The mission is to serve the members and keep the religion alive. It’s a little bit different with the Jewish religion because, in Protestant religions, if somebody likes a particular church, there’s an opportunity to go to another one, but in the Jewish religion, especially in a small rural town, you don’t have that option. Our mission is to keep the Jewish religion alive in a small, rural Southern town.

How long have you been associated with the synagogue?

All my life. Before we actually had a synagogue, we had a rabbi who would come once a week or once every two weeks and he would go to someone’s home and teach the young people beginning Hebrew and facts and history of the Jewish religion. In 1956, we adopted the synagogue, so the congregation was incorporated or started in 1956.

Why did you donate to the Southeastern Community College Foundation and Bladen Community College?

Due to tax laws, when a nonprofit dissolves, if you don’t give the money to other nonprofits, the government basically gets the money. We got together as a group and picked entities we thought were doing good in the community. Southeastern has had remarkable success in giving people in a small, rural economically deprived county an opportunity to further their education. We felt like giving to both community colleges, situated where they are, was a good way to help them continue that mission.

The figure was $200,000 to Southeastern Community College and $100,000 for Bladen. The reason for the difference was that Columbus County had a larger percentage of the members whereas Bladen had a smaller contingent; that’s why the amount was more in Columbus.

Have you donated to other organizations?

There’s the North Carolina Holocaust commission. It’s statewide, and its mission is to educate middle school and high school students on the Holocaust. This course would be taught to sixth and seventh graders in North Carolina. There’s no penalty if a school system doesn’t do it, but they’re encouraged to. The school system has to find a teacher who is interested in teaching those courses. If one is interested, the commission will send them in the summer on a week’s trip, or several day trips, to Washington D.C., to tour the Holocaust Museum. They also have courses to deepen their knowledge of the Holocaust. 

The money is designated for programs in Bladen and Columbus counties. Bladen County has already identified one teacher who’s interested in going this summer to Washington, and there’s a teacher at Whiteville Central Middle School who has expressed an interest. She has taught in her previous classes a little bit about the Anne Frank diary, which is about the Holocaust. I don’t think she’s reached the point of actually fully committing to the program, but the superintendent or the principal is working with her. 

We’re hoping that we can expand that into all the city and county schools for Columbus and Bladen. If the school decides to teach the course, there are books available through the Holocaust Commission that our money would pay for. There’s a book for the sixth and seventh grades and also books for the higher grades, but the concentration point at the moment is sixth and seventh grades.

There’s also an organization called Hillel that keeps college students engaged in the Jewish religion and provides a facility to worship in or hold Jewish holidays in case students are not able to go to their home synagogues. We have given money to help continue that program.

The City of Whiteville is in the planning stages of building a downtown park, and due to our strong presence there, we want to do some public art in recognition of the active Jewish community, so some money will be going toward that.

Who is in charge of making these donations?

What happened over the years, as the old members died, just about everyone in the second generation came back to run the stores, but then it got to the point that the next generation, my children, and the other ones’ children, were not interested in coming back. That’s the scenario that’s happened in many small towns. This happened in Lumberton 25 or 30 years ago where they just dissolved their synagogue. We’re fortunate enough here that we had enough people still living in town that we could support the synagogue, but it’s gotten to the point now that because of retirement and people are moving away or passing away, there’s only five or six of us left. So we just all got together as a group and discussed this.

How do you think these donations represent Jewish culture?

In the Jewish religion, the highest form of charity is to give anonymously where people don’t know where it comes from. We certainly haven’t done that, but I think we’re at the next level where we’ve given money that’s going to last these organizations a long time, long after my children are gone because it’s a hefty sum of money. From that perspective, it’s kind of sad that 25 years from now there might not be anybody in Whiteville who is Jewish, but yet, through these donations, it’s going to give us the opportunity for at least the name to live on. 

In Jewish religion, you give charity to help other people that aren’t as fortunate as you. We’re going to help kids through scholarships and things of that matter. It might make a difference for them continuing their education, Lord knows what that might do for a person. We just feel like it’s a way to give back and to hopefully help the name live on. There’s no guarantee that it will live on because it’s kind of out of sight out of mind once we all leave or pass away and there being no building here to identify with, but this is probably the best way we could hopefully make that happen. 

The essence of the whole thing is we’re giving this money, most of it locally, because without the support of the community we could have never maintained those seven or eight businesses in downtown Whiteville or the one or two in Elizabethtown through all the years. During that time, my father and my grandfather were always very charitable in the community. When school would begin and have fundraisers or events, the Jewish community would always be responsible for those efforts. 

We have a good relationship with the community and that’s why they supported us, because we’ve supported them. In the long haul, it’s all to recognize the support that they gave us to help us survive. You’re talking about a long history of Jewish merchants that wouldn’t have been possible without support of the community and that’s why we want to give back. We could give the money to the United Jewish Appeal and send it to Israel, which would be good, but we wanted to recognize the communities that we live in and thank them for what they’ve done for us.

Whiteville Mayor Terry Mann is one of a long line of Jewish merchants who became leaders in small Southern towns. The former Mann’s store is behind him at left. Photo by Les High