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PORTSMOUTH VIRGINIA'S CHEVRA T'HELIM SYNAGOGUE
An Introduction to Its Early History


Ongoing Research by Irwin M. Berent


This photograph shows the synagogue as it appeared in article in the Portsmouth
centennial issue of Portsmouth Star newspaper, 1941:


The earliest recorded mention of Chevra T'helim appears in a deed for cemetery land dated June 22, 1916. Although Jews of mostly German origin had resided in Portsmouth since at least the 1840s, and Jacob Abrahams and Mordecai Mordecai owned a home (including a slaughter house) in Portsmouth in the early 1780s (see "Norfolk's First Jew: Jacob Abrahams"), there was only one other synagogue, Gomley Chesed, that existed as of 1916. Gomley Chesed was founded as early as 1890, though the name may have originally been different. (A local newspaper, the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, Dec. 30, 1890, reported on a marriage to be held "at the High Street Synagogue." A permit for H. Altschul to conduct marriages, issued May 10, 1894, described the rabbi as "licensed minister [of] Congregation of Ansie Yoser," which was perhaps Gomley Chesed's original name. The 1897 city directory lists, for the first time, a synagogue in Portsmouth: Congregation Gomelat Chesed, at 623 High Street.) By 1916, Gomley Chesed had been located at 519 County Street, a former Methodist Church, since 1907.

The precise reasons for the establishment of Chevra T'helim are not known. Clearly, though, many, if not most, of its earliest members were also current or past members of Gomley Chesed. And it is probable that a combination of all the usual reasons for breaking away from a congregation explain this congregation's reasons as well: for instance, some dissatisfaction with the way the synagogue was run; a desire to maintain a stricter, or particular style of, orthodoxy; a need for more space, etc.

CEMETERY

Congregation Chevra T'helim had no synagogue building of its own when it purchased part of the land for its cemetery on June 22, 1916, on the outskirts of Portsmouth on Paradise Creek near Cradock in what was then Norfolk County. On that date, L. Silverman, P. Abraham, and H. Silverman, trustees for "the Society known as Chevra Teelem, of Portsmouth, Va." purchased from Francis Richardson, for the price of $300, lots #31, #32, and #33, each 25 feet square, located on the east side of Belport Avenue and adjacent to land formerly owned by W.W. Old (Deed Book 430, p.446; Map Book 4, p.66). The location was adjacent to Gomley Chesed's cemetery.

In 1923, additional lots -- #26 to #30 -- would be purchased for $400. The lots were purchased from Maggie M. Harris, who had previously bought them from Richardson. (Deed Book 536, p.553; Dec. 29, 1923)

A few years later, in 1922, a Portsmouth document (Chancery Order Book 10, p.370, March 22, 1922) would record that Will Laderberg, J. Gordon, and George Narkier, then trustees of the synagogue, sold to Annie Laderberg a cemetery lot between lots #32 and #33. The lot was described as currently being used as a burial plot by the family of Annie Laderberg and as being located five feet from the plot of the family of Hyman Resh.

CHEVRA T'HELIM CONGREGATION'S FIRST MEETING PLACE AND ITS FIRST RABBI

Although the Chevra T'helim synagogue was not built until 1922, the congregation of that name is first listed in the Portsmouth city directory in 1917 under the name "Hevera Tillem" (Norfolk & Portsmouth Virginia Directory, 1917, Hill Directory Company). The address is given as 707 S. Chestnut Street – roughly the corner of Chestnut and County Streets, which was about one block south and one block west from where the congregation's synagogue would ultimately be built at 607 Effingham Street. The same city directory shows Vito Cilumbriello, shoemaker, as having the same address; presumably his store was on either a first or second floor, separate from wherever the congregants held their services. The 707 Chestnut location continues to be the location given in the city directories until the Effingham St. synagogue building is completed in 1922.

Solomon "Sol" Soroko, whose father Hyman was an early member, recalls being told by older members that the congregation first met above a Chinese restaurant located at either the corner of Effingham and County Streets or the corner of County and Chestnut Streets. In fact, there were very few Chinese restaurants in Portsmouth before 1920; none were at the corner of Effingham and County Streets, but remarkably two were at roughly opposite corners at the corner of County and Chestnut Streets! Hing Kee's restaurant (621 S. Chestnut) was directly opposite the 707 Chestnut location on the next block; and Sam Lee's restaurant (843 County Street) was adjacent to the 707 location, just around the corner.

As it turns out, Mr. Soroko's recollections proved accurate. For in fact, Sanborn Insurance Maps of the period (1920) show not only that 707 Chestnut (identified with an "S" for "store") was situated directly in back of 843 County Street (identified as "Chine Restrnt") but that it may have been attached to it. Furthermore, the map reveals that both were two stories and that a connecting wall was "1st only" — meaning that when congregants would have gone to the second floor of 707, they would have been able to meet above the Chinese Restaurant, just as Mr. Soroko recalled!

In the illustration below (from Sanborn Insurance Maps, Portsmouth, 1920), you can see the "Chine Restrnt" near the top left-hand corner adjacent to the "843" along County Street, which runs westward (down the page). The street that runs left to right (north to south) across the top of the page is Chestnut Street, along which you can see the "707" where Vito's shoe repair store was and whose second floor extends above the restaurant and is where the Chevra T'helim congregation first met.



As you "traveled" down the page — down County Street, as it were — you arrived at the next north-south street, Effingham. Walking from the original meeting location, you could have done the same thing around 1920 if you wanted to reach what would become the location of the synagogue (607 Effingham Street), turning left onto Effingham and heading toward the end of the block — that is, to the bottom right-hand corner of the map. But at this date the site was just a vacant lot beside a furniture store — 601 Effingham — and its warehouse. We'll return there in a moment.

Alongside the 1917 city directory listing for Chevra T'helim is "Rev. Sam'l Frankel rabbi," whose accompanying address is given as 712 S. Chestnut Street, approximately across the street from the Chevra T'helim address. Mrs. Lena Frankel, presumably his wife, is listed as a grocer at the same 712 address. (1917 is the only year in which either of the Frankels appear in a city directory for either Portsmouth or Norfolk. Lena, however, is probably the same as "Lillie Frankel," who appears in the 1920/1921 directory, listed as widow of "Semmel" Frankel and residing at 1543 High street, Frankel's Market.) The only other city directory that lists a rabbi associated with Chevra T'helim before the synagogue was built is the 1920/1921 edition, which lists "Rev. Benjamin Becker."

The following is a city directory page listing Portsmouth churches and synagogues in 1917. From Norfolk and Portsmouth Directory, Hill Directory Co., 1917.



Another early mention of Chevra T'helim and its rabbi is found amongst the Portsmouth Bond Books, which contain marriage permits for all of Portsmouth's clergymen. In Bond Book #7, page 370, we find the first permit for a Chevra T'helim rabbi. It records that a $500 bond was paid by Max Reshefsky (presumably an officer of the synagogue, perhaps the president) for Samuel Frankel, "a regular ordained Jewish Rabbi, at present in charge of the Synagogue in the city of Portsmouth known as Chevra Tillman, who is this day authorized to perform the Rite of Matrimony." The permit is dated January 18, 1917, just one month before the first Chevra T'helim marriage!

FIRST MARRIAGE

The first marriage performed by a rabbi of Chevra T'helim – Rev. Samuel Frankel – was the marriage of Rose Weisman and Louis Solomon on February 18, 1917. The Ledger-Dispatch of the following day described it as follows:
Solomon – Weisman
A brilliant wedding was celebrated last night at the home of Mr. and Mrs. M. Weisman, 1306 County Street, the occasion being the marriage of their daughter, Rose, to Mr. Louis Solomon, late of Leeds, England, now of Portsmouth. Over 250 guests were present. The couple will leave this evening for their honeymoon trip through Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and on their return will live at 1341 County street, and will be at home to receive friends.
According to their marriage license, Rose, 23 years old, born in Russia, was the daughter of Moses and Blum Weisman; and Louis, 24, born in Leeds, was the son of Solomon and Mary Solomon. (Coincidentally, Rose was apparently a sister of Tom Weisman, who married Tillie Resnik, a great-aunt of Mr. Berent, the author.)



The reason we know that this was the first marriage performed by a Chevra T'helim rabbi is that the Portsmouth Marriage Register Books record no other marriage conducted by a Chevra T'helim rabbi before that date. For although the Marriage Books do not record religious affiliation, they do record the name of the person conducting the ceremony.

LAND FOR THE SYNAGOGUE

The land for the first and only edifice built by and for the Chevra T'helim congregation to serve as their synagogue was purchased from A.H. Goodman and his wife, Mollie Goodman, December 26, 1918. For $4,000, cash in hand paid, "H. Bangel, Sam Friedman and B. Reshefsky, trustees of the Chevra Thilum Sunagogue [sic]," purchased all the lot, piece, or parcel of land on the east side of Effingham Street, "beginning at the northwest corner of F.J. Friedlin's line, one hundred and thirteen feet more or less from the southeast intersection of Effingham and King Streets, thence running north along Effingham Street sixty (60ft.) feet, thence east seventy five (75ft.) feet; thence south sixty (60ft.) feet; thence west along J.F. Friedlin's line seventy five (75ft.) feet, to the point of beginning."

In other words, the lot on which the synagogue (607 Effingham Street) would be built was located on the eastern side of Effingham Street in the 600 block (between King Street to the north and County Street to the south), and began in the center of the block (113' from either corner), and spanned a little over one-fourth of the way (60') up the block towards King Street; and the lot extended 75 feet back.

F.J. Friedlin owned the property to its south, which included structures at 617, 619, 621, 623, and 625 Effingham Street (Friedlin resided at 623), ending at the County Street corner of Effingham.

To the north of the synagogue lot were 2 structures beginning at the King Street corner of Effingham. Those structures (601-603 Effingham) comprised the A.H. Goodman and Brother furniture store. (A few years later, Goodman and Brother would move one block up, to 733-739 High Street, which, incidentally, was the former location of The Friedlin Company furniture store.)

(By the time of the opening of the synagogue in 1922, the former Goodman location at 601-603 Effingham housed a billiard parlor. The "Colored YMCA" was briefly at that location in 1923; Smith Furniture was there by the mid-1920s; and Crawford Furniture, by the '40s.)

At the corner of Effingham and County Streets, looking (to the right) down County Street and (to the left) down Effingham Street, at the end of which is Crawford Furniture (and the synagogue, to its right).
    Click here for a photo showing Crawford Furniture and buildings to its north.  Click here for a later photo, showing buildings to the right of the synagogue, and here for a photo taken from the opposite side of the street about a block north (synagogue is barely visible, about 3 buildings to the right of the telephone poll) -- and here for a similar, but closer and later, photo. All courtesy Portsmouth Public Library



The white line coming across the upper-right-hand quadrant points to the synagogue in this depiction of the city of Portsmouth from a 1939 postcard. The synagogue's 4 columns are clearly seen.

The general section within which the synagogue lot is located was originally known as Proctor Square, formed by Effingham St. on the west, King St. on the north, Green St. on the east, and County St. on the south. The name "Proctor Square" (which is, according to Marshall Butt's Place Names of Early Portsmouth, probably named for Catherine Proctor, daughter of Metcalfe Proctor, Esquire, wife of Thomas Howard, 3rd Earl of Effingham, for whom Effingham Street was named) likely dated back to William Crawford's original plan of the town of Portsmouth, circa 1752, on which a map of 1851 by Rolin and Keily is based. (The Rolin and Keily map is the earliest surviving map showing street and square names.) Crawford's plan assigned square names to each rectangular section of land created by the intersection of the various Portsmouth streets.

And by at least the time of the Rolin-Keily map, each square was in turn subdivided into 4 equal parts (180 feet by 113 feet), each with its own lot number. Proctor Square contained lots numbered 267, 268, 289, and 290. Although such square and lot number designations have not been used since the 19th century, the synagogue lot can be said to be situated within lot 289, which would be the northwest quadrant of Proctor Square.

The following illustration, shows a portion of the 1851 Rolin-Keily map, running down the page (from east to west). Proctor Square is near the bottom right corner.


One of the earliest (if not the first) owners of lot 289 (and perhaps of all of Proctor Square) was Thomas Veale, whose will (Aug. 8, 1793) indicates that he owned at least 56 lots in Portsmouth. Subsequent owners of lot 289 included Veale's grandson William C. Veale; Robert B. Butt for $100 (Norfolk County Deed Book #52, p.102, Dec.14, 1823), and David M. Woodson for $130 (#55-345, April 29, 1830), who subsequently sold half of lot 289 (the half that includes all the current synagogue lot and more) to John Tabb for $160 (#56-261, Feb.10, 1831). Tabb then sold the western half of the half-lot (45 feet by 113 feet) to Cornelius Ironmonger for $140 (#61-382, Nov.15, 1836) and the eastern half (45' X 113') to David Higginbotham for $100 (#56-459, June 20, 1831). The synagogue lot falls within portions of both of those halves.

Portsmouth deed books reveal the remainder of the chain of ownership: Ironmonger's half descended to his children (#4-30, 543, 544, Sept.30, 1868). Subsequent owners included John H. Gayle for $880 (#13-309, Jan.9, 1882), D.W. Todd, Jr. for $800 (#13-306, Jan.20, 1882) and M.J. Nash and George A. Tabb (#36-471, May 16, 1899).

Higginbotham's half descended to his son William F. Higginbotham, then was purchased by W.H. Morris for $1,200 (#3, 503, 610, Sept.5, 1866), A.E. Warner for $1000 (Mar.15, 1899), and ultimately, Nash and Tabb, who took ownership of this half as well for $1,000 (#36-455, May 12, 1899), effectively "reuniting" the half-lot of the original lot 289. Then Robert H. Barrett purchased from Nash and Tabb a portion of the lot for $4,500 (#37-23, June 28, 1899), which A.H. Goodman subsequently purchased for $5,000 (#53-202, Oct. 9, 1905). Finally, it was a portion of this lot that Goodman sold to Chevra T'helim (#80A-297-298, May 17, 1919).

ON THE RIGHT: Here's a view of the entire block taken from the 1889 "Map of the City of Norfolk, Va. and vicinity including the City of Portsmouth," by G.M. Hopkins. Notice that the quadrant numbers -- especially lot 289 -- were still being used. (The view is upside down from the original, to retain the same orientation as our other graphics on this webpage.)

BELOW: Let's go time-traveling to see how Lot 289 — the northwestern quadrant of the original Proctor Square — changed over time. By using the Sanborn Insurance Maps for the years 1893, 1903, 1920, and 1943 (all below), we're able to see 1- and 2-story structures (denoted by "1" and "2"), most of which are dwellings (denoted by "D"), be built, renovated, or destroyed; to see the dwellings at the corner become a furniture store; and to see the furniture store's warehouse become Chevra T'helim's "Sunday School," as Chevra T'helim itself rises in the empty lot next to the store.
[Important: To see all four of the above graphics you may need to slide beyond the normal width of your webpage window.]
(Note: To see graphics that show the entire block — the entire original Proctor Square — for each of those years, click here.)


CONSTRUCTING THE SYNAGOGUE

On July 7, 1921, the Virginian-Pilot reported that "Work on the new Jewish synagogue, which will be erected on Effingham street, will be begun within the next few days. The contract for the work has been awarded to the Portsmouth Construction Company, which is composed of Salomon & Klein. A handsome edifice will be built."

The next day's newspaper contained this classified advertisement:
The Portsmouth Construction Co., Salomon and Klein, Props. have contract for building Jewish Synagogue on Effingham street. Also looking for a first-class Foreman and Bricklayers. Phone 2629, or call at 616 Crawford St.
By July 12th, a building permit had been issued to the Portsmouth Construction Company "to build a brick synagogue on the east side of Effingham street, 60 feet south from King street, for H. Bringle [probably Bangel], A.N. Hillman, A. Friedman, Max Silverman, L. Kline and A. Hillman, trustees, at a cost of $10,980" ("Building Permits of City and County," Virginian-Pilot, July 12, 1921).

Salomon & Klein, proprietors of the Portsmouth Construction Company, appear to have been Maurice Salomon and Joseph Klein. For the 1920/1921 city directory lists Maurice Salomon as president-treasurer of Salomon and Sons, 616-618 Crawford Street (the same address listed in the classified ad above), and lists Joseph Klein as a contractor (residence at 509 Fayette). Klein does not appear in the city directory for any other year.

Maurice is presumably the same person as Moses Salomon, who first appears in the 1907 city directory, with a hardware store located at 616-618 Crawford Street and a home at 315 County Street. By 1917, Maurice Salomon is listed in that year's city directory as president of Salomon and Sons, Inc. hardware; Asher Salomon, as its vice president; and Frank Salomon and Max Salomon, clerks. By 1922, Asher Salomon is listed with a hardware store at 620 Crawford; Maurice too is listed as working at (and owning?) a hardware store and residing at 315 County street; 616-618 Crawford is vacant; Frank is manager of the Virginia Auction Company, and Max is salesman at the auction company.

As of 1920, according to the 1920 Federal Census (vol.57, e.d. 166, sheet 3), Maurice was 52 years old, born in Roumania, arriving in the U.S. in 1886, naturalized in 1891. His wife is listed as Clarice (age 47, also born in Roumania), whose father is Jacob Zussman (age 72). Their children (all born in Virginia) are Flora (age 28), Sarah (18), Bessie (15), Jennie (14), Charlotte (12), Margaret (10), Levy (9), Nathaniel (7), Max (17), and Frank (22). (Asher, not listed, may have been an older son, no longer living with his parents.)

The Portsmouth Construction Company appears not to have been incorporated until well after construction of the synagogue was completed. Its first identifiable certificate of incorporation (see below) is dated December 29, 1922 (Portsmouth Charter Book #3, pp.597-598). Its declared purpose was "to conduct and carry on the business of builders and contractors [and] to perform engineering and architectural work, including the preparation of plans and specifications…" Its directors were Jacob Serlin, of Norfolk, president; Joe Klein, of Portsmouth, secretary, and Joseph Gordon, of Portsmouth, treasurer.



It is uncertain, though, whether the Portsmouth Construction Company actually designed the synagogue or was solely its constructor.

On July 16, 1921, the Virginian-Pilot reported:
CORNERSTONE TO BE LAID TUESDAY
Appropriate Exercises to Take Place at Site of New Synagogue
PROMINENT SPEAKERS TO DELIVER ADDRESSES

    Announcement was made yesterday that the cornerstone of the new synagogue of the Cherva [sic] Thilum Congregation, in Effingham street, will be laid with appropriate exercises at 5 o'clock next Tuesday afternoon. The breaking of ground for the building will take place at the same time, it is stated. Invitations have been sent out to the event, and it is expected that there will be a large attendance.
    Arrangements have been made to have a number of prominent speakers present at the exercises. There will be a musical program and refreshments will be served.
    The new building is to be errected on a site acquired in Effingham, between King and County street, regarded as an ideal location for the structure, for which plans have been in formulation for some time.
    The contract for the construction of the building was awarded a short time ago.
On the day of the cornerstone-laying, the newspaper announced "CORNERSTONE TO BE LAID TODAY" and noted that "construction will be pressed forward…so that the synagogue may be occupied at the earliest possible time" (July 19, 1921, Virginian-Pilot).

Unfortunately and puzzlingly, the next day's newspapers appear to have contained no coverage whatsoever of the cornerstone laying. Perhaps if it had been reported on, details about the synagogue's designer would have been revealed within such an article.

Let's take a walk down the Effingham Street of 1922. Here's how: Using the following page from the 1922 city directory, begin at the first column, starting at the word "EFFINGHAM" and just work your way down the column; then continue at the top of the next column and work your way down, and so on. Keep in mind that odd-numbered addresses were on the east side of the street (as is the synagogue), and even-numbered addresses were on the opposite side of the street. (And don't forget to be careful when you come to the intersections.) [NOTE: The "(c)" beside an address designated the resident at that address as "colored." Regrettably, such practices as this were common among many city directories of that day; earlier Norfolk and Portsmouth city directories used asterisks for the same purpose for many decades.]



THE INTERIOR

On April 9, 1922, the Virginian-Pilot headline for the Portsmouth section proclaimed, "New Synagogue Now Complete." At the synagogue, which was now "in a practically completed state," special services commemorating the occasion were to be held that afternoon. The members of the congregation had extended an invitation to the general public, and arrangements had been made for a special musical program in connection with the exercises. The next day, the newspaper reported:
DONATIONS MADE TO SYNAGOGUE
Cherva Thilim Congregation Has Special Ceremonies in New Building

    Special ceremonies in connection with the fitting out of the new Cherva [sic] Thilim Synagogue in Effingham, near County street, were held yesterday afternoon and last night. A number of donations were made to the new building in the way of fittings. Mrs. H. Laderberg, of Suffolk, donated a handsome altar decoration.
    The eternal light, which will burn perpetually in the synagogue, was turned on at the service last night in the name of David Louis Resh. Addresses were made by Rev. Levin, of Berkley; Sam. Silverman and I. Hillman, of this city.
    Refreshments were served at the close of the service last night.
    Abe S. Resh was chairman of the committee on arrangements.
According to Sol Soroko, the ark was built by the Portsmouth Lumber Company. He recalls that a family in the congregation had paid $1,000 for the work. (Portsmouth Currents, January 26/27, 1984)


Portsmouth Currents, Sept. 28, 2003. Photo by Mark Mitchell Photos/Virginian Pilot

The pulpit would not be built until later. Lithuanian-born Hilliard Shapiro, who was a member since 1925, recalled that the pulpit had just been installed when he arrived in Portsmouth that year. Also, at that time, chairs were being used until the first mortgage was paid off. (In Chancery Order Book #10, page 364-65, reference is made to a deed of trust to R. B. Albertson in early 1922 to secure payment of a $5,500 note or bond.) A second mortgage was taken to pay for benches, which remain in the building to this day. The chandeliers are all different styles, since they were donated by different families. (Currents, January 26/27, 1984)

RITUAL AND RABBIS

Chevra T'helim retained its Orthodox ritual throughout its existence. And the only other orthodox synagogue in Portsmouth, Gomley Chesed, would begin drifting away from orthodoxy by at least the late 1940s. (In 1946, Gomley Chesed officially affiliated itself with the Conservative movement; and in 1949, it inaugurated mixed seating of men and women, and at about the same time, the bimah was moved from the traditional center to the front of the sanctuary.) However, in terms of the service itself, Gomley Chesed was arguably as orthodox as Chevra T'helim. But when Gomley Chesed's downtown location (519 County St., about 2 blocks east of Chevra T'helim) was finally closed a few years after its new (Conservative) synagogue was built in Sterling Point in 1955, Chevra T'helim was truly the only orthodox synagogue not only downtown but in all of Portsmouth, and it remained so until it was closed.

Its spiritual leaders, though probably not ordained rabbis, were always men highly knowledgable in Jewish law and ritual and were often referred to as "Rabbi" or "Rev." Most, if not all, were foreign born, and some were educated in Jewish law from Yeshivas in Europe. Often they were also shochets, qualified to slaughter chickens and cattle according to strict Jewish law. In fact, an area in the back of the main synagogue was used to kill chickens; Rabbi Mendel Silberstein (from Palestine) was (according to Solomon Soroko) the last of Chevra T'helim's rabbis to use that back area for slaughtering.

According to city directory listings of churches and synagogues, Chevra T'helim's rabbis were Samuel Frankel (1917, residing at 712 S. Chestnut St.), Benjamin Becker (1920/1921), Meyer Chovitz (1924, at 718 County St.; also appears separately in directory at 840 High St. in 1934), Mendel Silberstein (1937-1946, at 510 S. Green St.; also appears separately in directory in 1932, at 614 County St., and in 1947 and 1948), Harry L. Alembick (1949-1956, at 12 N. Elm St.), Ben Asher (1963-1973, at 609 Powhatan Ave.). Additionally, the Portsmouth Bond Books include permits to perform marriages for "Rabbi N. Silberman" (Sept. 27, 1928, #9, p.84) and Meyer Chovitz (July 5, 1923, #8, p.307), both described as "a regular ordained minister of the Chevra Thelum Synagogue."

Chevra T'helim did not hire its own cantor. Often the "rabbi" would also serve as cantor. For High Holidays, though, cantors were sometimes hired. Because of the length of the High Holiday services, three people were needed to conduct those services.

In one of the earliest references to the synagogue's services (at the "Effingham street Synagogue") in the local newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot (April 18, 1924) reported:
The Jewish Passover will begin tonight…. Saturday, the first day of the Passover, Rev. M. Nodel will speak in the Gomley Chesed Synagogue on "A Nation's Birthday." Sunday he will speak before the reading of the Torah in the Effingham street Synagogue, and after the reading of the Torah at Gomley Chesed Synagogue. The subject will be "The Palestine Foundation Fund."
The synagogue had its own cheder (Hebrew school), which was held in the one-story addition to the left of the main building. The addition (which presumably was later removed, perhaps sometime in the early 1940s) was also used for minyans and as a general meeting place; it also had an Ark, Torah, etc. By looking at the Sanborn Insurance Maps for 1920 and 1943 (click here to see the maps), we can see that the structure was originally a warehouse attached to the funiture store at the corner of Effingham and King streets. It may have been this structure that a Virginian-Pilot article (Aug. 18, 1922) was referring to in one of its earliest references to the completed synagogue:
FIREMEN CALLED TO EFFINGHAM STREET
    The fire department was called to Effingham, near King street, at 9:40 o'clock last night by an alarm from Station No. 34. Fire in the weatherboarding of a small frame structure adjoining the synagogue of the Chevra Thilim synagogue was responsible for the alarm. The fire was extinguished before the arrival of the apparatus.
This similar item about the fire appeared in the Norfolk Ledger of the same date. (Note that this article was one of the first discovered by the author, and because the article referred to the synagogue as being "new," it was an important clue to narrowing down, and ultimately establishing, the exact dates of the synagogue's origins.)

Until about 1980, Chevra T'helim also had its own chevra kadisha (burial society). Chevra T'helim, however, never had its own mikvah (ritual bath); congregants used the mikvah of Gomley Chesed until it fell into disrepair by at least 1930, by which time users had to go to Norfolk and sometimes as far as Newport News to utilize a mikvah.

THE SYNAGOGUE WITH EIGHT (AT LEAST) SPELLINGS

The Hebrew phrase meaning "family (or congregation) of the psalms" may be transliterated as Chevra T'helim. But transliterations are never exact. And when the phrase is spoken by someone with an unfamiliar accent, or when the phrase is written by someone new to the English language, or when the phrase is heard by someone unfamiliar with Hebrew, spellings can be surprisingly varied. Chevra T'helim is no exception.

From the earliest document yet found that mentions the Chevra T'helim congregation, the spelling has varied considerably. In the 1916 deed for the first part of its cemetery, the congregation is referred to as "the Society known as Chevra Teelem, of Portsmouth, Va." And in Rabbi Frankel's 1917 permit to perform marriages, the congregation's name was misunderstood as "Chevra Tillman." And remarkably, even the 1918 deed for the purchase of the property on which the synagogue was built has yet another unique spelling: Chevra Thilum. (One might be tempted to conclude that this spelling, Chevra Thilum, which is repeated twice in the original deed, is the "official" spelling. Some confidence, however, in its reliability is at least somewhat weakened by the fact that the full phrase used, repeated twice, is "Chevra Thilum Sunagogue" and "Chevra Thilum Synogogue," neither of which correctly spells "Synagogue.")

Even the two local newspapers had trouble with the spelling. In fact, in 1922, when reporting on a fire in the weatherboarding of a structure adjoining the synagogue, the two newspapers gave virtually identical accounts; yet one paper spelled it "Chevra Thelim" while the other spelled it "Chevra Thilim." (Norfolk Ledger and Virginian-Pilot, August 18, 1922)

City directory spellings provide an annual tracking of the evolution of the synagogue name: "Hevera Tillem" in 1917; "Chevra Thilim" in the years 1918 to 1924; "Chevra Telim" from 1925 to 1937; "Chevra Thelim" from 1938 to 1971; and "Chevra Thilim" from 1972 until it was disbanded in the 1980s.

Chevra T'helim, as it appears today. Portsmouth Currents, Sept. 28, 2003.
Photo by Mark Mitchell Photos/Virginian Pilot

Although the synagogue, built in 1922, is no longer a place of worship, the edifice remains as a preserved example of an Orthodox synagogue. It is currently being restored and made into a museum of Jewish history for southeastern Virginia. (For more information about the restoration efforts — and what you can do to help — click here.)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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