Next to hundreds of Confederate graves, there lies a small plot of land in Oakwood Cemetery – just 35 by 120 feet – marked off by a low chain-link barrier.
This is the final resting place for approximately 30 of Raleigh’s first Jewish residents. In 1869, a 28-year-old Bavarian immigrant named Max Erlanger became the first to occupy what is now known as the Hebrew Section of Historic Oakwood Cemetery.
Barbara Freedman, chair of Raleigh’s historical resources and museum advisory board, led a walking tour of those graves Saturday morning sponsored by the City of Raleigh Museum.
When Jewish immigrants began arriving in Raleigh around the middle of the 19th century, they were few in number but seem to have been successful in their efforts to establish themselves, Freedman said. Many of those buried in Oakwood lived or ran businesses in the city center along Fayetteville Street.
Never miss a local story.
“This is so common in small, Southern towns,” Freedman said. “Someone dies and they have to scramble to find somewhere to bury them.”
That’s because Jewish tradition requires that Jews be buried in plots consecrated according to the religion’s customs and usually within 48 hours of the death. The Hebrew Section, carved out of the roughly 2 1/2 acres set aside for Confederate graves, supported that purpose until 1912, when Raleigh’s Jewish congregation split along modern and traditional lines. The nearby Raleigh Hebrew Cemetery, which is much larger, has housed the majority of Jewish dead since then, Freedman said, although Oakwood’s Hebrew Section has hosted burials as recently as 1999.
“It’s not like a Christian community, where the first thing you’d build is a church,” said Harlan Shays, a member of Raleigh’s Jewish community and history enthusiast who attended the tour. “A cemetery is the first thing you get – then a school, and then a synagogue.”
Due to the throngs who arrived at Ellis Island, the Jewish diaspora in the U.S. tends to be thought of as a Northern phenomenon. In reality, Freedman said, Jews arrived by way of several Southern ports as well.
“I don’t have one relative who came to Ellis Island,” Freedman said. “Not one. They came to Baltimore. They bought or were given a pack of goods like buttons or shoelaces to sell, and they would set off. When they got to a place where there was a lot of business, they would often stay.”
Oddly enough, Freedman said, none of those buried in Oakwood have descendents in Raleigh today, at least as far as she knows.
Henry Mordecai donated land to Raleigh in 1867 when the city was scrambling to fulfill a federal mandate to relocate the graves of Confederate soldiers. He eventually married a Christian woman and became a member of Raleigh’s Christchurch congregation, meaning his descendents were not recognized as Jewish. But it is perhaps because of that deal that the cemetery’s Jewish enclave abuts its Confederate graves.
“My imagination, my historical guess tells me that out of respect to Mr. Mordecai, there must have been some kind of gentleman’s agreement that it was the right thing to do,” said Robin Simonton, Oakwood Cemetery’s executive director.
That juxtaposition becomes striking when the anti-Semitic attitudes of the early 20th century are taken into account. Freedman told the story of Jerome Rosenthal, buried in the Hebrew Section, who founded the Carolina Country Club and went off to fight in World War I. Upon his return, he found that he was no longer welcome at the club. But as far as she knows, Freedman said, there haven’t been incidents of anti-Semitism toward the Hebrew Section.
“I’ve always felt in the Bible Belt that when you get someone reasonably well-educated, they behave themselves,” Freedman said.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan