Rabbi Reflects on Drug Epidemic, Gun Violence, and 170 Years of Faith in Wheeling

Aug 7, 2019

Wheeling's Jewish community got together over the weekend to celebrate 170 years of faith and service in the Northern Panhandle. Rabbi Joshua Lief grew up in Wheeling’s congregation. He says despite challenges throughout the region, he’s proud to be a part of a legacy of resilient, caring people with deep, multi-generational roots in the Mountain State.


On Becoming Rabbi at Temple Shalom

When I was a child growing up here in Wheeling, my family were, and in fact still are, members of Temple Shalom. And we lived right down the street. I used to come to services every Sabbath and Sunday school and youth group events. This was my home congregation.

Rabbi Lief grew up in Wheeling, went away, and says he's part of a wave of people excited to return and hopeful about contributing to the betterment of the Ohio Valley.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

When I graduated from high school, I went off to college, and then off to the seminary graduate program after college, and I served a small congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee for the first five years out of the seminary. And then I was called to be the senior rabbi at a very large congregation in Florida for about a decade.

During that time, all those years of college and graduate school and serving other congregations, our congregation here at Temple Shalom has an associate member program where, for a very tiny fee, people who used to live in Wheeling stay connected and get the monthly newsletter. And I did that, I paid the fee.

In my “outsider's view,” if you will, the congregation was shrinking slowly over time. It was less than half the size that it was when I was a child. And Wheeling had shrunk over time -- the congregation had become small enough that there was even a question as to whether having a full-time rabbi was worthwhile. But they wanted a full-time rabbi.

This community is still very much a vibrant Jewish community and needed more attentive service. When I read in the bulletin that Wheeling was going to go searching for a new rabbi, I immediately called one of the members of the search committee, who happened to be my father and said, “What do you think the congregation would think about me coming home and being the rabbi here in Wheeling?”

I have never stopped caring about this community. It's always been my home. Our family is a multi-generation temple family just like many of our other families. And I like to think that I get to help make it an even better place for all its citizens.

On 170 Years of History

We have a hallway that leads from the social hall to our library. And hanging in the hallway are all of the confirmation class photos from the past hundred plus years. We have them all the way back to the 19-teens. My picture hangs on that wall, as does my sister’s, as do many of our friends, as do some of their parents, grandparents and great grandparents and even great, great grandparents. And it's amazing to see oneself as part of a very long, ongoing tradition of Jewish life in this community.

I'm very familiar with the history of our temple, not only because I've read our extensive archives, but because I know those family names. When we think about Wheeling as a city, certainly all credit goes to the Zanes and the McCollochs and the other Scottish Presbyterians who were here in colonial times in western Virginia, when it was still a colony. And they are our founders no question. But the city boomed in the 1840s and 50s because of the influx of German immigrants, German Lutherans, German Catholics, and German Jews. Those German immigrants in the 1840s and 50s made this city come alive with business and industry and culture and arts. It's inestimable the difference that they made.

Rabbi Lief peruses images of generations of Jewish community members on display in the hallways of Temple Shalom, in Wheeling, W.Va.
Credit Glynis Board / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

We look around Wheeling, and we see the effects those families made on our town. There wouldn't be a Wheeling Park without the Sonneborns. There wouldn't be a Good Zoo at Oglebay without the Goods. The effects of those families, not just in the naming rights of things, but the behind the scenes effort of the downtown business community of engaged citizenry to transform this community for the better, is an ongoing trend.

Wheeling is celebrating 250 years. Temple Shalom for the last 170 of those years has been deeply invested in making the city the best place that it could be. It continues, we're still very much engaged. We seek partnerships all the time with our friends of other faiths. We connect with our friends at Catholic Charities, to staff their soup kitchen and to stock their shelves with canned goods from our food drives and to give gifts to the kids on their Christmas kids list. It's not our holiday, but it's our friends and neighbors who are in need, so we partner with them. We partner with Wheeling Health Right. We can't run a clinic here at temple alone, but we can certainly support the efforts of those who are. And that's what our members have been doing for 170 years. We continue those efforts today.

On the Substance Use Disorder Epidemic 

It is truly an epidemic with the fallout from pain medication abuse, which of course segues into heroin abuse. It's devastating. It touches the lives of all of us. Temple Shalom has been very proud to be part of the drug take back efforts for the District Attorney.  With the West Virginia Council of Churches we participate in the Day of Hope. With Joelle Richter from the Mozart Evangelical Lutheran Church, we lead the service for those struggling with addiction last year down at St. Matthews Episcopal Church downtown. I personally sit on Youth Services Systems Impact Coalition, trying to stem the tide of drug addiction. I also sit on the board of the Unity Center, trying to give hope and assistance to those seeking recovery.

On a practical level, one of our congregants, Lisa Allen at Ziegenfelder's is renowned nationally for her efforts and those of her team members. When they're putting their values into their employment hiring practices, they're doing more than just making frozen treats. They're making our community a better place. Those are our Jewish values that they're living where the rubber meets the road.

On Gun Violence

Our congregation was touched quite intimately and directly by the mass shooting at the Tree of Life congregation, just a year ago in Pittsburgh. When the enormity of the experience became clear to me, as a rabbi, I thought to myself, we're going to have to do something to give people a space in which to grieve. On Sunday afternoon, October the 28th, we had an overflowing crowd of over 500 people. That's more people then who are members of our congregation. It was the whole city turned out. Everybody came from all different religious traditions, public safety personnel, elected officials, friends, neighbors, and total strangers. 

In my sermon that afternoon, I said we could have closed the doors and lock them and drew the window shades closed and hid in fear. Or we could open the doors. And that was our response -- not to hide, but to be even more open, and to say, we value being part of this close-knit community, and a hateful person and their evil actions are not going to change our core values. In fact, it's our core values of openness and inclusive and welcoming, being good hosts like Abraham, our ancestor in the Bible welcoming in the stranger in the guest. That's going to be our answer.

Could Wheeling ever be touched by such a tragedy? Of course. I don't think that folks in Dayton and El Paso this weekend thought that their communities would be the next site of a mass shooting, but they were. Could we? Sure. And would we respond in the same way? Absolutely. Not by closing ourselves off from strangers, but by welcoming in the stranger and making them our friend. Terrorists want to terrorize us. And we have to rise above the fear that is quite reasonable. Intentional inflicting of pain upon somebody else is not acceptable in our society. And we're going to respond not with hatred, but with more love, with more kindness with more grace. That's the only weapon I have in my arsenal. And we're going to deploy it as often as we can.