This article is part of a special series highlighting the Jewish experience in West Virginia. It's a companion to the television series The Story of the Jews, airing March 25 and April 1 at 8 pm on West Virginia PBS.
We conclude our series on West Virginia's Jewish community - with a story of hope at the Congregation Ahavath Shalom in Bluefield a place where the enthusiasm of youth is bringing a new energy to the older congregation, even if it may be short lived.
From Potomac, Maryland to Athens, West Virginia
When Concord University baseball player Joseph Camp decided to make the move from Maryland to West Virginia to attend college, the dining hall and dorms weren’t the only amenities he was interested in. Finding a welcoming place to practice his Jewish faith was a priority. He found that welcoming place at the Congregation Ahavath Shalom Bluefield Synagogue.
"It’s really important to me to keep true to my faith," Camp said as practice wrapped up.
“It was a very big part for me because being back home I go to services every Friday night. I have a very religious family so being able to come here and find such a welcoming place it was absolutely huge for me.”
As its website says, Congregation Ahavath Shalom “has served the spiritual needs of the Jewish
Community of southern West Virginia and Appalachia for over a century.”
“The congregation there is older than it is back home it’s a lot smaller too but one of the things I liked about the small congregation is that everyone knows each other," Camp said.
Marsha Platnick has attended services at the Bluefield Temple since 1967.
“When I first came here it was fairly large we might have 60 people at a festive occassion now we have 18 families and no children,” Platnick said.
Like the Temple Beth El in Beckley, Bluefield is experiencing a shrinking congregation. It’s also limited to bi-weekly or sometimes monthly services. Platnick says congregants routinely lead the service and give the Dvar Torah (sermon), something she says is rare in the Jewish faith.
Mitzvah (A Good Deed)
When Jewish students like Camp reached out to the congregation with interest in attending services for high holy days such as Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah the congregation welcomed them with open arms.
“We really don’t know many other Jewish kids around here but when we go there we just, you feel like part of the family so it’s a great feeling," Camp said.
Sonya Whitfield is one of the co-presidents at the Bluefield Temple. Whitfield even provided transportation for an international Concord student to help with the commute from Athens to Bluefield.
“What’s incredible about that is, here’s a young man away from his home away from his family in a strange land but yet he still wants to come and be with his Jewish family," she said.
Whitfield says the student’s situation, is similar to the small congregation and even reminiscent of the book of Numbers in the Torah, or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament when the Jews spent 40 years in the desert.
“I think there’s some identification there because simply when you’re alone you really feel alone," Whitfield said. "When you can be together in a group of people that have the like mindset and like beliefs you feel like you’re a part of your family and that’s really important especially when you’re far away from your own family."
"Actually, at the end of the day you can just look at it as a mitzvah and a mitzvah is just a good deed. So if you see somebody who needs help with something we’re actually we’re supposed to help.”
In fact, when Whitfield learned that the few Jewish students would likely miss the Sedar, a dinner reserved for the first day of the Jewish holiday, Passover, she decided to host a special service.
Joseph Camp was excited to get the news.
“The original service that they were having was during a time that we had a game," Camp said. "So I was really upset about that I wasn’t sure should I miss the game to go to Passover services or do I miss the Passover services but with Sonya getting this student service together I’m very excited."
After all, Camps was named to the Tino Martinez Division II Player of the Year watch list prior to the start of the season. He's also started 20 of the 24 games this season as the designated hitter, currently hitting .270 with one home run, and 17 RBI.
For Camp finding the congregation, small or not, was encouraging.
“It’s exciting to see other people just like me," Camp said. "It’s not disconcerting really at all because West Virginia is not really known for having a large Jewish population whereas back home it’s pretty large population but it’s exciting really more than anything else to have people like that in my life.”
With or without a rabbi, at home or traveling to another synagogue, long time member Marsha Platnick also holds tight to her faith. Like most Jews, Platnick says it’s deeply rooted with her traditions and life. Helping students is just another way to live by the golden rule.
“If it were my children in college I would be very thankful if someone reached out to them so we just think of them as part of our family like we’re their grandparents," Platnick said.
Youth Brings More than Hope
Platnick also points out that reaching out to the students isn’t just providing a service. Jewish tradition requires 10 adults to recite certain prayers and Concord students help to fill those needed spaces. Platnick says Camp and the other students bring new hope, even if for a limited time.
“It lights up the Temple it brings back the old years when we had a lot of young children in the Sunday school it just gives us a purpose to keep going," Platnick said.
Camp is a red shirted sophomore who plans to continue attending services while he’s living in the area.