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The history of Jews in Richmond, VA goes back a long time. Among the earliest Torah leaders in America, including Rev. Isaac Leeser and the renowned Talmid Chacham R' Yisrael Ber Kurshteed (a colleague of the Chasam Sofer, zy"a) both served as the spiritual leaders of Kahal Kadosh Beth Shalome, which was the first synagogue in Virginia, and the sixth in the country and at the time the westernmost synagogue in the country, with the Congregation being founded in 1789, and the building being built in 1822. Later on, German Jews founded Congregation Beth Ahabah in 1841, and a few years later a group of Polish Jews founded Congregation Keneseth Israel in 1857, in reaction to the steps toward reform by Congregation Beth Ahabah. In the early 1900's Congregation Keneseth Israel moved to a location at 19th St., and was often referred to as the 19th St. Schul, with the first Mikvah in Richmond. Soon thereafter, there were founded two Russian synagogues, Congregation Etz Chayim and Sir Moses Montefiore, which would later merge to become Congregation Beth Israel.
From 1924-1939, there was HaRav Yechezkel Podbelevitz (1877-1939), zt"l, the Richmonder Rov, who served Congregation Keneseth Israel (according to other reports he served Congregation Sir Moses Montefiore, or possibly both congregations) in downtown Richmond on 19th St. He was known to be a charismatic tzaddik and talmid chacham,born in Poland, of Litvishe extraction, who oversaw the Kasruth in the city with mesiras nefesh, and inspired some of the local residents, including members of the Grandis family, to a more devoted approach to Torah. HaRav Podbelevitz passed away 6 Tishrei (September 19), 1939 without children. Newspapers reported that he was known in the Orthodox Jewish community of Richmond for his piety and learning He is buried in Sir Moses Montifiore Cemetery here in Richmond, VA.
Shortly thereafter, there was a short-lived Haredi congregation known as Beth Torah, which had its own mikvah, school, and cemetery, founded by the Grandis brothers, inspired by their late Rov, Rabbi Podbelevitz. This was because the Jewish community was moving further west, and the new Beth Israel Congregation (formed from the mergin of Etz Chaim and Sir Moses) lacked a mechitzah (the new building had separate seating but no balcony nor mechitzah, as the previous congregation had). When Keneseth Israel closed down in 1954 and merged with Beth Israel (forming the present Keneseth Beth Israel Congregation, which in the 1970's moved to its present location, which includes a mechitzah), Beth Torah was the only synagogue in Richmond with a Mechitzah, and housed the only Mikvah in Richmond. Congregation Beth Torah was lead by HaRav Meir Lieberman, who came from the Mirrer Yeshivah in Europe. Their is a story that the mikvah of Beth Torah was paid for by Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the greatly revered Satmar Rebbe, zy"a, as Rabbi Lieberman was briefly his neighbor when he lived in New York. After serving in Richmond, Rabbi Lieberman became a respected Rov in Montreal, Canada. The congregation existed around 1950-1962, and was located at 2619 Floyd avenue - the building is now an office building.
In 1964, in the wake of the closing of Beth Torah, brothers Abraham and Emil Dere spearheaded the founding of the Jewish Academy of Richmond, which, shortly thereafter became Congregation Kol Emes (which is Hebrew for "Voice of Truth"), with the guidance of HaRav Nachman Bulman, zt"l, who at the time was a Rov in Newport News, VA. At the time, once again, Kol Emes housed the only Mikvah in Richmond (until the Chabad Mikvah opened in the 1980's) and the only shul in Richmond with a Mechitzah (until Keneseth Beth Israel moved to its present location in the 1970's). In 1965, the Richmond Hebrew Day School, presently Rudlin Torah Academy, was founded in the Kol Emes building, with personal blessings from Gedolei Yisrael.
Past Rabbis of Congregation Kol Emes have included, Rabbi Aaron Winter, Rabbi David Spetner, Rabbi Alan Schwarz, Rabbi Eli Stern, Rabbi Nechemiah Rosenhaus, Rabbi Chananyah Berzon, Rabbi Avraham Isaacs, Rabbi Samuel Friedler, Rabbi Yosef Bart, Rabbi Shlomo Shulman, and others.
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