Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Charleston Synagogue(s)

Charleston, South Carolina is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the United States. The 1669 charter for the Carolina Colony explicitly included liberty of conscious for "Jews, heathens and dissenters." It is believed that the first Jew came to the area in 1695 as an interpreter for Governor John Archdale. Records indicate that several Jews voted in the 1702 general election.

As in most of the colonial cities, the majority of Jews in Charleston were Sephardic, and the first synagogue in the city followed traditional Sephardic rites. Established in 1749, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim built its first building with a capacity of 500 people in 1794. Its opening attracted attention and praise from both the Jewish and non-Jewish community.

By the turn of the century, Charleston had the largest Jewish population of any American city. With growth, however, came division. Beth Elohim maintained strict rules on its congregants and expected every Jew in the city to become a member when they turned 21. In 1824, a sizable number of congregants decided to leave Beth Elohim and formed "The Reformed Society of Israelites." Although the society failed to thrive after its organizer, Isaac Harby, left for New York in 1827, it was the first Reform congregation in America. By 1833, Beth Elohim was whole again, but not for long. In 1838, a fire destroyed the synagogue and division returned when the congregation began to plan for the new building. By the end of the 1840s, after a court battle over the installation of an organ, Beth Elohim identified as a Reform congregation, while Shearith Israel was established as the new Orthodox synagogue.

In an interesting turn of events, the two congregations, both of which had suffered from the Civil War, were reunited afterward. As a result of the war, Beth Elohim's membership was greatly affected, and its Torah scrolls and organ, which had been sent to Columbia for safekeeping, had been destroyed in General Sherman's march. Shearith Israel's building had been severely damaged. After a lengthy negotiation, the two congregations merged once more as Beth Elohim, which exists until today.

It should be noted that Beth Elohim and Shearith Israel were not the only congregations in Charleston at the time of the Civil War. The Ashkenazic immigrants who arrived in the early 1800s had organized Congregation Brith Shalom in 1854, which is today one of several other synagogues in Charleston.

Today is the anniversary of South Carolina becoming the eighth state of the Union in 1788.


Prominent Jews associated with South Carolina:

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