Charleston’s Jewish community flourishes again

Massive new Boeing factory will provide thousands of jobs; Chabad center to open soon.

Anita Rosenberg311 (photo credit: Maayan Keren)
Anita Rosenberg311
(photo credit: Maayan Keren)
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – From the outside, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue certainly looks like a temple – but not of the Hebraic kind.
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 architectural term.
An ancient Athenian would approve.
“We 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 the US.
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.
Its interior 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 a crisis.”
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 artists.
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 cause.
Another famous Jewish American with roots in Charleston was Judah Benjamin, who served in three cabinet posts during the short-lived Confederacy.
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 did.
“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.
Some 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 America.
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 good relations.”
A large organ – the third of its kind since the original was first introduced – can be seen in the gallery overlooking the floor of KKBE.
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.
“The 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.”
Refson, 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 Pleasant neighborhood.
It will join a list of Jewish institutions already servicing local Jews, including a school and community center.
Given the 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.”