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The rich Jewish life of Charleston, South Carolina

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Brith Shalom Beth israel Synagogue DOUG WARNER PHOTO

Charleston, S.C., is one of the most popular travel destinations in the United States, with its perfectly preserved old mansions, its charm and grace, as well as the genuine human warmth of those who live there. Just walk along any of its streets and the first person you meet will surely give you a friendly “hello.”

Jews have resided in Charleston since 1695. They were attracted by its economic opportunities and its proclamation of religious liberty for all. In 1749, there were enough Jewish pioneers in town to organize a congregation, Beth Elohim, the second-oldest synagogue in the country, and the oldest in continuous use. Its imposing colonnaded neoclassical structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
The synagogue’s small museum features the historic 1790 letter that George Washington wrote, in response to the synagogue’s good wishes upon his election as president of the United States: “May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me rest upon your congregation.”

This letter is emblematic of the spirit of friendship between the gentile establishment and the Jewish population – and the acceptance, even early on, of Jews into mainstream American society, especially in the South. (More than 20 Jews from Charleston fought in the American Revolution, and one, Francis Salvador, was a delegate to several provisional congresses. This may explain the friendly link between Washington and the Charleston Jewish community.)

During the first decade of the 1800s, Charleston, with its 500 Jews, almost all of them Sephardi, was considered the largest, most cultured and wealthiest Jewish community in the United States. But because of the destruction of the city during the Civil War, Charleston and its Jews became impoverished, and the waves of immigration of Jewish people in the 19th and 20th centuries passed it by. However, after the Second World War, the city prospered, as did its Jewish population. Today, an estimated 9,500 Jews call the Greater Charleston Area home. From the 1920s through the early 1950s, the city’s main street, King Street, was virtually shut down on Saturdays. Walk along King Street today and one will still see many Jewish names on the shops.

In addition to three synagogues, one each from the major branches of American Jewry, there are a number of Jewish philanthropic and communal organizations, a Jewish community centre and a well-established day school.

The College of Charleston, the oldest municipal college in the U.S., which is home to 800 Jewish students, also has a broad-ranging and ever-growing Jewish studies program. In addition to an active Hillel branch, the array of courses offered at the college includes Hebrew language, Jewish culture and history, as well as Israel- and Holocaust-related courses.

What makes Charleston especially attractive is its visible Jewish history, coupled with its great annual arts festival

What makes Charleston especially attractive is its visible Jewish history, coupled with its great annual arts festival, Spoleto USA, which runs for about two-and-a-half weeks every year, from the end of May to early June. The festival is an all-encompassing cultural experience, offering opera, dance, theatre, jazz, classical and popular music, even acrobatics.

The twice-daily chamber concerts, at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., hosted with humour and panache by first violinist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, Geoff Nuttall, are considered the musical anchor of the festival.

Likewise, the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which runs during the same two-and-a-half weeks, offers a dizzying array of classical music, plays, cabarets, comedy acts, jazz cruises and much, much more. The College of Charleston’s Jewish studies department also sponsors several events during the festival, including A World of Jewish Culture.

This year, the Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, hosted four evenings of chamber music, featuring Jewish composers, such as Kurt Weill, George Gershwin, Paul Ben-Haim, Ernest Bloch and Eric Korngold, as well as non-Jewish composers who wrote Jewish music, like Maurice Ravel’s Kaddish and Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei.

Charleston was also home to the people who inspired the characters from Porgy and Bess, by George and Ira Gershwin, who resided temporarily on James Island, just outside the city, while writing their opera. They purposely came to Charleston to get a feel of the city, its ambiance and its people. One of the great tunes in Porgy is Summertime, with its Yiddish-sounding melody in a minor key.

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The three Charleston congregations are unique in that their rabbis co-operate for the greater good of the community and even meet once a month for lunch and a study session. Another fascinating crossover is that many Jews in the community belong to more than one shul, a kind of antithesis of the old joke about the Jew on the desert island who builds two shuls. When asked why, he responds, “That one I daven in; the other I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”

One longtime Jewish resident, a spry and active octogenarian who’s proudly agnostic, remarked, “I belong to all three shuls, thank God, but you won’t catch me praying in any of them.” When he was caught one Sabbath morning davening in the Orthodox shul, one of his pals came up to him and joked, “What are you doing here? Today’s not Yom Kippur.” In response, he quipped in his slight Carolina drawl, “Well, then I hope God forgives me for coming today.”

At the College of Charleston, during the academic year, there is a kosher dairy cafeteria called Marty’s Place. And Chabad has pre-packaged, prepared meat meals that are available at the famous Hyman’s Fish Market on King Street. For delicious vegetarian meals at reasonable prices, visitors should check out Jon York’s Gnome Cafe.

Also be sure to take a horse and buggy ride through the historic district. The knowledgeable guides will take you through the residential part of town, focusing on the homes and the history of their occupants. Then stroll along the quiet streets in the famous covered market and tour the nearby plantations.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the second-oldest synagogue in the United States.