Wilmington’s Storied Jewish History
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Wilmington’s Storied Jewish History

The city is home to one of America’s oldest synagogues and a thriving Jewish film festival.

Wilmington has one of the country’s largest collections of historic neighborhoods.
Wilmington has one of the country’s largest collections of historic neighborhoods.

Walking along the streets of downtown Wilmington, N.C., built along the banks of the Cape Fear River, is like taking a step back in time.

The 100-square block district is just one of eight historic areas in this city of slightly more than 100,000. A visit to Wilmington is not unlike a journey to Charleston and Georgia’s own riverfront city, Savannah, its better-known neighbors to the south.

The historic charm of this coastal Atlantic community is part of what attracted Debbie Smith to relocate here from southern California with her late husband some eight years ago. What she found in Wilmington was a rapidly growing group of Jewish retirees like herself who were attracted to the city’s warmth and openness.

“I had no idea of the influx of people that were retiring and coming from the Northeast. And not only Northeast, but even some from the Midwest and, like myself, from much farther away. I was really surprised. There were so many new folks who wanted to connect and be part of a community that it was very easy to meet people,” she told the AJT.

Before Smith knew it, she was volunteering at the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival, which had been kickstarted by a local philanthropist and Jewish film buff just a year prior to her arrival.

Temple of Israel was built in 1876 as the first synagogue in North Carolina. // Credit: Temple of Israel

Today, Smith and her committee of volunteers put together a well-attended weeklong festival of films, not unlike the larger event that takes place in Atlanta. (I had the pleasure of hosting the opening in April.)

Like the Atlanta festival, about a quarter of those attending are not Jewish. The festival takes over the old Thalian Hall, a large theater that was built almost 175 years ago and has been transformed into a major cultural venue.

Significantly, support for the film festival comes from the entire community. It is what impressed Rabbi James Apple when he became a volunteer chaplain for the Wilmington Police and came to know the local mayor and sheriff on a first-name basis.

“Jews have been a part of the history of this city as far back as the Civil War,” he said. “They have had two Jewish mayors here during the 1970s and ’80s and there’s no antisemitism that I’m aware of. Jews have played an important role here.”

Temple of Israel is one of the oldest synagogues in continuous use in the U.S. // Credit: Temple of Israel

The local Reform congregation, Temple of Israel, is a symbol of that relationship. This tall, stately structure, built in what is known as a Moorish Revival style, was dedicated in 1876 as the first synagogue in North Carolina. The local newspaper at the time was said to have helped raise funds to build it and a local Presbyterian minister spoke at the dedication. The building has been in continuous use ever since and is one of the oldest synagogues in the country.

Rabbi Apple, who served the congregation for seven-and-a-half years, sees the building, with its old wooden pews and large, original windows of French stained glass, as a genuine sanctuary.

“It isn’t fancy,” the rabbi says. “But as you sit in those pews there is a sense of peace and quiet in that space. There is a sense of history.”

It was this very real sense of history that helped give Wilmington a new lease on life, beginning in the 1980s. The famous Hollywood film producer Dino De Laurentiis was scouting locations for an adaptation of a Stephen King novel and needed a Southern plantation for much of the filming.

The riverwalk along the Cape Fear River is a popular attraction.

Just outside Wilmington, he found what he was looking for, and his experience inspired a plan to build a series of large motion-picture sound stages that now constitute an important part of the economic life of the city. The TV classic “Matlock” was largely filmed here, as was the popular series “Dawson’s Creek.”

Last year, the state brought in productions valued at over $400 million. The studios in Wilmington are said to be fully booked, and it’s not unusual to find film crews shooting on the streets surrounding the Thalian Theater while the Jewish Film Festival is screening the year’s offerings.

Thalian Hall in Wilmington, N.C., is the home of the Wilmington Jewish Film Festival. // Credit: David Mc Bride Photography

And that’s just one aspect of a thriving cultural scene. At the Cameron Art Museum, until October, there’s a spectacular exhibit of costumes from the HBO series “Treme” by a Wilmington native.

The featured attraction next month at a concert on the riverfront is singer Josh Groban. And in September, the City Ballet of Kyiv, from war-ravaged Ukraine, is set to tour the city.

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