CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – From the outside, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
synagogue certainly looks like a temple – but not of the Hebraic
The 161-year-old edifice, constructed in the fashionable Greek
Revival style of the time, boasts a row of classical columns standing roughly 30
feet tall supporting a large triangular roof, or pediment, to use the
An ancient Athenian would approve.
followed whatever prevailing customs and fashion were at the time, and this was
the fashion,” said tour guide Randy Serrins, who is a member of the
congregation, which dates back to the 1740s.
“There are other churches in
Charleston from the same period of time which look the same; but, honestly, none
are as magnificent as this is.”
KKBE, the acronym by which the synagogue
is referred to by locals, is the second-oldest extant Jewish place of worship in
When it was built in 1840 to replace an older synagogue that was
destroyed in a fire, it was intended to be the showpiece of a vibrant Jewish
community – one of the largest in the country at the time.
is full of architectural flourishes. The ceiling is capped by a large dome,
stained glass windows depicting Jewish symbols decorate the walls, and a carved
wooden bima, with large antique menoras on either side, is located at the front
of the floor.
“The menoras are believed to have been from the original
synagogue,” said Anita Rosenberg, former president of the local Jewish
federation and a member of one of the oldest Jewish families in town. “They were
found buried under the floor, where they were thought to have been hidden during
Rosenberg traces her roots in South Carolina back to the early
18th century, when her ancestors on her father’s side –Jews from Alsace-Lorraine
who came via Santo Domingo in today’s Dominican Republic – first settled in
Charles Town, as it was then called.
“Charleston is a natural port. We
have a beautiful harbor, and there was a big shipping business going on,” she
said. “The interesting thing about South Carolina is that before it was a state
– when it was a colony – we had freedom of religion written into our
constitution and this was very unusual, very rare in the world; that everyone
can worship as they please.”
The community prospered in the tolerant
religious climate of the Holy City, so-called because of its abundance of places
of worship, producing many notable politicians, businessman and
Francis Salvador, a Sephardi Jew who immigrated to the city from
London, was the first Jewish elected official in the colonies. He died fighting
the British during the War of Independence, becoming a martyr for the Republican
Another famous Jewish American with roots in Charleston was Judah
Benjamin, who served in three cabinet posts during the short-lived
Benjamin’s identification with the Confederate cause was not
unusual for Southern Jews at the time. Back then, slavery was endemic throughout
the region, and Jews traded and owned slaves the same as gentiles
“Jews owned slaves and they fought in the Civil War [for the
Confederacy] because they were thoroughly assimilated and they wanted to give
back to this community, this state and this land that gave them opportunities
they couldn’t have anywhere else in the world,” Serrins explained.
130 Jewish South Carolinians in all are believed to have fought the Union in the
bloodiest conflict in US history.
The city is probably best remembered in
the context of Jewish history as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in North
As early as the 1820s, some congregants sought to shorten the
prayer books; but a schism occurred only in 1840, when an organ was introduced
to KKBE in a marked break from tradition.
“Music was very important for
the congregation,” Serrins explained. “So our Orthodox brethren went off and
formed their own congregation.
We split; we later came together, and
split again; but, generally speaking, the Charleston Jewish community has had
A large organ – the third of its kind since the original
was first introduced – can be seen in the gallery overlooking the floor of
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Charleston went into a steady
decline, together with the rest of the South.
By the early 20th century,
its dwindling Jewish community had long been eclipsed by the massive influx of
Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to other parts of the country.
last study done in the 1990s found 6,000 Jews,” said Sarah Swingle, program
director for the Charleston Jewish Federation. “I’ve heard my executive director
say there are about 8,000 now. We generally say about 6,500 to people who ask.
The numbers are rising and in the past few days we’ve had five separate calls
from people moving here.”
One of the causes for this growth is the
massive new Boeing factory being built in the city’s outskirts, which is
expected to provide thousands of jobs.
“Boeing is bringing new residents
to town,” said Adam Rosenblum, the head of the Conservative Synagogue
Emanu-El. “But the bigger reason people are coming is that magazines are coming
out all the time with lists of “most friendly city, most livable city – and in
some cases, we were at the top of the list.”
Rabbi Yossi Refson, who
heads Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country, says the city reminds him in
some ways of his country of birth, England.
“I say this all the time,
there is a very distinct British influence here,” said the native of Leeds, who
has been living in South Carolina for three years. “The streets are named after
British people, and the sense of hospitality is also similar.”
like many others, credits the high quality of life for attracting Jewish
newcomers, especially retirees.
“It has the art, the culture, the
weather, the shopping, the food and the history, the tremendous history,” he
said. “Everywhere you walk, you have the old and the new.”
Refson said he
would soon open a new Chabad center on a three-acre location in the Mount
It will join a list of Jewish institutions already
servicing local Jews, including a school and community center.
renewed growth, will Charleston once again become a center of Jewish life in
North America the way it once was? “It kind of depends on your definition of a
major center,” responded Rosenblum.
“Will it rival New York, or even
Atlanta? Probably not; but Charleston has always been described – to me, at
least – as a small town that thinks big.”
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