Sidney E. Unger (1896-1972)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Sidney Emanuel Unger, prominent rabbi of Asheville, North Carolina, was born on May 7, 1896, to a strict Orthodox Jewish family in New York City.  He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, where he served as President of the Greater New York Jewish High School Boys Association.  He later spent two years at the City College of New York, where he helped revitalize the football program.  Unger served in the First World War as a machine gunner, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.  After the war, he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, where he received his B.A. degree in 1925.  Unger studied for the rabbinate at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College; there he served as student body president and was ordained in 1928.  His master’s thesis, revealing an ecumenical inclination, compared synagogue music and Gregorian chants.   Unger later earned Master of Education (1934) and Doctor of Sacred Theology (1938) degrees from Philadelphia’s Temple University.  He received an honorary Doctor of Divinity from the Hebrew Union College in 1958.

From 1928 to 1933, Unger served as the assistant rabbi at the Rodeph Shalom congregation in Philadelphia.  From 1933 to 1940, he led the Temple Judea congregation of the same city.  During World War II (1941-1945), Unger served in the West Indies as an Army chaplain, with the rank of major; he later was a part-time chaplain at Donaldson Airbase in Greenville, South Carolina.  After a year at Beth Elohim Congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1946, Unger assumed the rabbinate of Temple Beth Ha Tephila in Asheville, North Carolina, and served the synagogue until 1963.  He married Evelyn Winburg Simon (1896-1985), a native of Grove City, Pennsylvania and graduate of Drexel University; together they reared two children, Carol and Edwin.

Dr. Unger’s civic activities included participation in the American Legion, Asheville Town Hall Meeting Board, Board of Directors of Asheville-Biltmore College (now UNC-Asheville), Auxiliary Board of the Salvation Army, Board of Directors of the Civic Music Association, Community Chest Review Board, Mt. Herman Masonic Lodge (Honorary Member), and Pack Square Memorial Library Board.  He was also a member of the Asheville Planning Board, Asheville Chapter of the World Federalist Movement, Asheville Country Day School Board of Trustees, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Pisgah Council of the Girl Scouts of America Board, and the Lions Club.

Rabbi Unger was an enigmatic figure—altruistic but hard-nosed, ecumenical but distinctively Jewish, theologically conservative yet not legalistically Orthodox.  By starting “Hear O Israel,” his Saturday-night radio show, and offering educational programs for Christian clergy and laity, Unger sought to establish rapport between the Jewish and Christian communities of Asheville.  He addressed church congregations and denominational institutions, such as Mars Hill and Warren Wilson Colleges.  Spiritually burdened for young people, Unger promoted Scouting, the National Federation of Temple Youth, and Beth Ha-Tephila’s religious school.  In good times and bad, he attacked materialism, and during the 1960s and 1970s, he challenged campus radicalism and the Vietnam War.  He died on April 8, 1972, and is buried at Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery.