The Durham Jewish community traces its origins to the 1870s when German and Eastern European immigrants arrived to peddle and open stores in the growing tobacco town. In the early 1880s their numbers were augmented by the arrival of Russian-Jewish cigarette rollers.
The Durham Hebrew Congregation organized in 1887 and rented a hall on Main Street. In 1892, the congregants formally chartered the congregation and hired a rabbi. In 1905, they purchased a small, wood-framed church on Liberty Street, which became Durham’s first synagogue.
After World War I, the congregation built a large, cathedral-style synagogue downtown. When it was dedicated in 1921, the members took the name Beth El Congregation. Beth El remained Orthodox through the 1930s and 1940s, but over the years the community grew more liberal in its religious practices. In 1948, Beth El hired a rabbi who was a member of the Conservative movement.
Beth El broke ground for a new synagogue and center on Watts and Markham Streets in 1957. In its centennial year, 1987, Beth El acquired and renovated the Freedman Center, which provides classrooms and an attractive environment for major social and educational functions.
Beth El today reflects a vibrant, dynamic community led by a volunteer board, enriched with the teachings of many dedicated community members.