There has been a small Jewish presence in Wilmington since its founding in 1739. It was only in the next century that the population of Jews indicated the need for and support of a synagogue. During the 1840s and 1850s several Jewish families established themselves in the port city. These German-Jewish emigrants were part of a large movement of Jews away from small towns in Germany to North America. Wilmington was North Carolina’s most promising place to relocate. It was the state’s largest port, rail center, and city. The founding of a synagogue was inevitable but interrupted by the Civil War. Many Jewish residents of Wilmington enlisted in the Confederacy or invested in blockade running.
In 1872, a congregation was organized by forty families. They chose to follow Minhag America (American Ritual), which became the Union of American Hebrew Congregations the following year. The Ladies Concordia Society was organized in 1872 and B’nai B’rith in 1874. Begun in 1875 and completed in 1876, the Temple of Israel was the first synagogue constructed in North Carolina. At the time, the Moorish Revival architectural style of the building was popular for synagogues in both Europe and the United States. Today the Temple is one of fewer than thirty congregations to endure in its original nineteenth century structure. The Temple of Israel was dedicated on May 12th, 1876, with Rabbi Samuel Mendelsohn presiding. His tenure spanned a remarkable forty-six years (1876-1922.) In his initial sermon, he spoke about Jewish liberty, which had been slowly won through the ages and exhorted his people to be true to their history, tradition, and faith.
In 1878 there were 200 Jews in Wilmington. By the turn of the twentieth century Temple of Israel merchant families had expanded their businesses to form some of the largest retail and wholesale companies in the city. They also began a long history of Temple activism in local politics, civic and social organizations, and philanthropy.
During the twentieth century, the congregation experienced periods of expansion and decline along with the fortunes of the city. Military activity in the area brought many new families into the Temple during World War II. After the 1960 demise of the railroad, diversification of manufacturing and industry resulted in new faces at Temple services. Wilmington began to grow rapidly after the 1990 completion of 1-40. Numerous professional and business people moved to the area along with many retirees. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Temple membership is as diverse as any time in congregational history.