When Dave Lerner settled in the small town of Lincolnton, near Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early 1920’s, the prospects for any sustained Jewish future seemed grim. Raised in a shtetl in Poland, Dave had landed up in Lincolnton by some odd fluke, and the Yiddish speaking man and his wife were one of only two Jewish couples for miles around.
The Lerners tried hard to preserve their children’s Jewish identity, driving to Charlotte for kosher poultry, and making sure that both their sons were Bar Mitzvahed. And the neighbors always had cheese sandwiches prepared for the Lerner boys, says Harry, Dave’s eldest and only surviving son. Still, in a town where the social life pretty much revolved around church, being Jewish was best downplayed.
But earlier this month, nearly one hundred years since Dave traveled from his hometown in Eastern Europe for the golden land of opportunity, his great-grandchildren welcomed a brand new Torah scroll to Chabad’s Congregation Ohr Hatorah, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the culmination of a nine-month long campaign called “A Sefer Torah For a Safer World.”
According to Chabad Rabbi Yossi Groner, the campaign, initiated in the aftermath of September 11th and the onset of the second intifadeh, was aimed at “involving the entire community in a Jewish project that would serve as a new source of positive energy for Charlotte’s Jews.”
The dedication ceremony drew 350 people from across the Jewish spectrum of this now thriving community, one that has literally tripled in size over the last twenty years, for a lively celebration of song, dance, and an exciting children’s program.
For Harry, the ceremony was telling of the transformation that’s taken place here. “The kids were so full of joy,” he says, and their Jewish pride was palpable, an amazing feat in Dixie. As a child, Harry says, he “never felt too comfortable about my Jewishness,” something he attributes to a lack of formal Jewish education. But these children, he says, are being given the means and the wherewithal to feel confident about their Jewish identity.
Thanks to Chabad’s educational system in Charlotte, says Harry, “Jewish children here can say ‘this is what I believe’ and really know what being Jewish means.” That concern for Jewish education, and the future of Jewish life in in this city are what inspired Harry to support the campaign as a tribute to his late brother Samuel, a staunch supporter of Chabad’s efforts here.
When Rabbi Groner arrived here with his wife Maryashie in 1980, Charlotte was “a spiritual wasteland,” says Eric Lerner, Samuel’s son. But over the course of the last two decades the Groners, and the three Chabad couples who have joined them, “revived this city to a monumental degree,” with a full range of Jewish educational, social, and religious programming that include a preschool and day school with over 260 children enrolled, adult education, and holiday programming.
And Chabad’s focus on providing children with the experience of a living Judaism has given the community new promise. According to Eric’s wife Allie, “our generation has been yearning for a deeper connection to Judaism, and our children—through their involvement with Chabad—are giving it to us.”