South Carolina is a spectacular beach destination with miles of shoreline to explore. There are boardwalks stretching along the ocean, green marshes, endless water activities and golf courses. But this Southern state is also home to history and culture dating back hundreds of years, including old plantations, Civil War historic sites, and even a connection to Judaism.
South Carolina’s famous vacation town, Myrtle Beach, is popular with Canadian families. But not far from the sun, sand and surf of the Atlantic lies historical Georgetown County. Positioned on the Sampit River it’s about an hour drive along U.S. Highway 17 from central Myrtle Beach. Georgetown is the third-oldest city in South Carolina and a good starting place to learn about early Jewish settlers to the state.
In the mid-1700s Jews began arriving in Georgetown’s seaport, and although the Jewish population was quite small, it was still important to the future of the community. Abraham and Solomon Cohen were two of the first to arrive, coming via Charleston in the early 1760s. These brothers, along with Mordecai Myers, were responsible for early business in Georgetown. It is estimated that there were approximately 80 Jews by the year 1800. This might not sound like a lot, but it was the second-largest Jewish community in South Carolina, second only to Charleston. However, after the Civil War, the Jewish population decreased to only 54 people.
Nathan Kaminski, a current Georgetown resident familiar with the Jewish history of the town – although he was not raised Jewish – sat down to explain the history of his ancestors. His paternal Jewish great-grandfather, Heiman Kaminski, immigrated to the United States from Poland (at the time Prussia) by boat in 1855 with his friends Manus Baum and Simon Baruch, all of whom were 15 years old. “My great-grandfather went to high school for two years in Charleston and then became a clerk in a mercantile house here in Georgetown,” Kaminski said.
Over the last half of the 19th century, Heiman Kaminski and his peers became an essential part of life in Georgetown and contributed to its modernization. Kaminski was one of Georgetown’s most prominent merchants and contributed to establishing the shipping, rice, timber, groceries and hardware industries within the community. Nathan Kaminski describes his great-grandfather as an honest person who was very active in the Jewish community and in civic affairs in Georgetown. “He married Charlotte Emanuel and had three sons, one of which was my grandfather.”
Sadly, Heiman Kaminski’s first wife, Charlotte, passed away, but he later went on to marry Rose Baum and they had one child named Harold Kaminski.
“Harold served in the naval reserves as an officer in World War I… At the beginning of World War II, he want back on active duty and was the naval duty officer in charge of submarine nets at Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked,” Nathan said.
Before the war, Harold attended both Princeton and Yale universities and became an inventor and entrepreneur. Harold served as the mayor of Georgetown from 1930 to 1935. It was during this period that the Jews of Georgetown played an important role in the community’s politics and economy. During Harold’s reign as mayor, he made a significant purchase. There was a magnificent house on Front Street built just prior to the American Revolution, depicting exquisite Southern Georgian architecture. Over the centuries, several prominent families owned the house, but Harold and his wife, Julia, bought it in 1931 and were the last private owners.
The core of The Kaminski House, now a museum, was built in the 1760s, but it was renovated after World War II. Harold and Julia both inherited and collected beautiful furnishings that are still in the house today and owned by the city. The colonial home, furnished with 18th- and 19th-century English and American artwork and furniture, has been open to the public since 1973 and teaches visitors from around the world about the history of Georgetown.
After touring the museum you can visit Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation in Georgetown first established in 1904 so that the Jews of Georgetown could have a formal congregation. Back then, without an actual building, they worshipped mostly in each other’s homes. The congregation was incorporated in 1921, but it wasn’t until 1949 that a temple was built for the approximate 50 members. Today, the red brick building includes a classroom where future generations of Jewish Georgetown children can learn about their history and Jewish roots. There are 43 families actively involved in the congregation, and Shabbat services are held on Friday night.
Visitors to Georgetown may visit the Beth Elohim Cemetery, the second-oldest Jewish cemetery in South Carolina. Three of Georgetown’s six Jewish mayors are buried there, including Harold Kaminski, as well as Harold’s father Heiman.
You can also learn about Georgetown’s history by visiting the Rice Museum, taking a boat tour to Hobcaw Barony, and checking out the Georgetown County Museum, which documents families who helped establish Georgetown, many of whom were Jewish.
On your drive back to the seaside shores of Myrtle Beach, you can continue with a Jewish-themed day by eating at the Jerusalem Mediterranean Restaurant and Bar located on North Kings Highway. It serves hummus and falafel and is one of the few glatt kosher restaurants in the Carolinas.