Congregation Beth El, the oldest Conservative synagogue in Virginia, is dedicated to the perpetuation of traditional Judaism in the South Hampton Roads area. Beth El's more than 500 member families take pride in its long history and its primary purpose - to enable Conservative Judaism to meet the religious, educational and cultural needs of today's Jewish community. The congregation maintains a complete program of activities in keeping with that fundamental purpose. Over the years Beth El has played a leading role in the Tidewater Jewish community as well as in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the national association of conservative congregations. The congregation is dedicated to the continuation of this record of service to God and our community.
The history of what is now Congregation Beth El began in 1844, with Jacob Umstadter who arrived in Norfolk from Germany. Umstadter, who became the Kosher slaughterer and cantor for the small Jewish community, was shocked by the religious laxity he found here and began to conduct regular religious services. Soon, in 1848, a synagogue called "Congregation House of Jacob" began in rented quarters. In 1850, a cemetery was established on Princess Anne Road. This date was chosen by Congregation Beth El as its official beginning.
In 1859, the congregation erected its own synagogue on a lot purchased from the Umstadters on the east side of Cumberland Street and held the first service in their new house of worship by the end of that year.
Following the war between the states, the congregation was reconstituted as Ohef Sholom Temple in September, 1867. The Civil War brought with it a sweep of Liberalism that caused factions to develop between the traditional founding members and the emerging reform philosophy of newer members agitating for a change in ritual practice. Consequently, the Traditionalists, led by Jacob Umstadter, resigned from the congregation and on February 27, 1870 founded a new synagogue with the name Beth El, thus providing a historical continuity from 1848 to 1870, even though traditional religious services took place under several different congregational names.
In 1880, Beth El purchased the old Cumberland Street synagogue (Ohef Sholom Temple had previously moved to larger quarters) and occupied that building until the erection of a new building in 1921 on what is now Shirley Avenue. That structure eventually became the synagogue's social hall (Myers Hall) after the present 1400 seat sanctuary was constructed in 1950.
The Barr Office and Educational Center was constructed in 1939 and the school wing was recently completely renovated. Beth El's total complex now comprises almost the entire city block.
In 1912, the first Hadassah chapter in the state of Virginia was organized at Beth El. One year later, in 1913, under the outstanding leadership of Rabbi Louis Goldberg, Beth El became one of the 13 charter members of the United Synagogue of America (today, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism). The dual causes of Conservative Judaism and Zionism were furthered during the distinguished rabbinates of Dr. Alexander A. Steinbach and Dr. Paul Reich, serving the congregation for nearly half a century.
Congregation Beth El faces the future poised to soar to new heights of communal and religious achievement under the present dynamic and spiritual leadership of Rabbi Jeffrey Arnowitz, Rabbi Emeritus Arthur Ruberg, and Cantor Wendi Fried and pledging to continue its service to God and its dedication to the perpetuation of traditional Conservative Judaism.