The first permanent Jewish Congregation in Lynchburg, VA was founded by a small group of men, variously reported as 13-23 mostly Eastern European immigrants, on December 8, 1897. The purposes for which the society was formed, in keeping with charity and learning as keystones of the Jewish faith, were “to educate and train the children of the members thereof, and of such others as it may elect; and to aid and assist indigent and afflicted persons; to have a place of social meeting; and to engage in literary and benevolent pursuits.” The minutes of the organizational meeting, ten days later, gave a more immediate purpose of the association as gathering to raise funds for a “Thora Roll” and the establishment of a “Minjon” for regular Sabbath services.
As the 23 men gathered together to found the Congregation were a “fellowship of brothers”, they adopted the Hebrew name Agudath Achim. But this plan was not destined to become a reality for within two months the “fellowship of brothers” was split in two when, one year later, 11 members withdrew from the Congregation and took with them the sacred Torah Roll. The written record gives no reason for the split, but we must remember that these were rugged men who took their religion seriously and differences of opinion could very easily result in highly charged emotions. The withdrawing group formed their own congregation and adopted the name Ahavath Shalom “love of peace.” But they soon ended the quarrel and reunited as Agudath Shalom “fellowship of peace,” the name it has held until this day.
Initially, the Congregation had no full-time rabbi, but one of its members, Elias Schewel, shouldered the task of religious leadership of the group. By 1903 the group could afford full-time leadership and hired Rev. S.B. Schein of Reading. PA as rabbi, In that same year, rather than continuing renting space, the Congregation purchased a former church in the heart of the downtown business district on Church Street. The building was arranged for two segments of the membership: the Orthodox group on one floor and the Conservative group on another, both served by one rabbi. In 1957, growth prompted the construction of the present facility. By the 1960’s the Reform movement took hold and by one vote the Congregation joined the UAHC, to which it has belonged until it became the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
In 1997, the Congregation celebrated its Centennial with a community-wide program of historical, religious, educational, academic and social events. Unlike many other Congregations in the South, whose membership dwindled as the formerly strong Jewish mercantile class died off, Agudath Shalom has kept together despite the loss of its merchant base. When the Centennial Committee was raising funds for that event, many non-Jewish friends and neighbors stepped forward with contributions, stating “your members were always ready to contribute to our churches and organizations, so now it’s our turn to help you.”
Dr. Robert D. Gardner, z”l, Historian 11/01/06