(Charleston). Holy Congregation House of God was founded in Charleston in 1749 as an Orthodox Sephardic congregation by Jewish settlers, mainly from England. The Reverend Moses Cohen was its religious leader, Joseph Tobias its first parnass (president), and Isaac DaCosta its hazan (reader). They worshiped in houses converted into synagogues until 1794, when they dedicated a handsome cupolaed synagogue on Hasell Street. At that time Beth Elohim, with about four hundred members, was the largest Jewish congregation in the United States.
In 1764 the congregation bought the DaCosta family burial ground on Coming Street as a congregational cemetery, now the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in the South. Members of the congregation organized the Hebrew Benevolent Society (1784) and the Hebrew Orphan Society (1801), both still in existence.
In 1824 forty-eight members of Beth Elohim, led by Isaac Harby and Abraham Moise, whose requests for changes in worship services had been rejected by the adjunta (board of trustees), formed the Reform Society of Israelites. This was the first attempt to reform Judaism in the United States; it functioned for nine years.
In 1838 a citywide fire destroyed the 1794 synagogue. Beth Elohim then built and dedicated a Greek-revival-style building in 1841 as its new synagogue, now the second-oldest Jewish synagogue in the United States and the longest in continuous service. With the approval of the Reverend Gustavus Poznanski, the congregation decided to install an organ to provide music during services—a first in American Jewish history—and to reform ritual practices and observances, thus becoming the first Reform congregation in the United States.
This change caused the withdrawal of the Orthodox members, who formed a new congregation, Kahal Kadosh Shearit Israel (Holy Congregation Remnant of Israel). The two congregations shared the Hasell Street synagogue until a civil case found in favor of the reformers. Shearit Israel then built its own synagogue on Wentworth Street (no longer extant).
Impoverished by the Civil War, and with two damaged buildings, the two congregations amalgamated into Beth Elohim. They compromised their religious differences. But as the years passed, the congregation moved solidly into the ranks of Reform Judaism and became a charter member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1876.
Originally, the 1841 synagogue’s interior was arranged according to Sephardic custom, with women occupying the balconies. In 1879 pew seating was introduced, allowing families to sit together in worship, and the balconies were removed after the earthquake of 1886. Women have been voting members of the congregation since 1920 and full participants in all congregational matters. The synagogue, now the oldest surviving Reform synagogue in the world, became a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
Breibart, Solomon. “The Synagogues of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (July 1979): 215–35.
Hagy, James William. This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.