Following the Revolutionary War, South Carolina’s Jewish population surged. When Columbia became the state capital in 1786, seven Jewish men from Charleston were among the first to buy town lots.
Jews arrived in the British colony of Carolina with the first wave of European settlement. A new outpost in the mercantile traffic of the Atlantic basin, Carolina offered economic opportunities, as well as risks, and a degree of religious tolerance remarkable for the time. The colony’s Fundamental Constitutions of 1669 granted freedom of worship to “Jews, Heathens, and other Dissenters from the purity of the Christian Religion.” Although the colonial assembly never endorsed the provision, British Charleston became known as a place where people of all faiths–except Catholics–could do business and practice their religion without interference. In 1696 Jews in Charleston allied with French Huguenots to safeguard their rights to trade and the next year to secure citizenship.
Most of Carolina’s first Jewish settlers traced their roots to Spain or Portugal. Expelled during the Inquisition at the end of the fifteenth century, the Sephardim (from the Hebrew word for Spain) dispersed around the globe and established themselves in capitals and port cities in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the West Indies. In 1749 Charleston’s Jewish community chartered Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim–one of the first five Jewish congregations in America. Like her sister synagogues in New York, Newport, Savannah, and Philadelphia, Beth Elohim was Sephardic in ritual and practice. Charleston’s congregation remained so for two generations after the Revolutionary War, though by then the majority of South Carolina Jews were Ashkenazic, hailing from central or eastern Europe.
Following the Revolutionary War, South Carolina’s Jewish population surged. When Columbia became the state capital in 1786, seven Jewish men from Charleston were among the first to buy town lots. Jews in Georgetown, Beaufort, and Camden belonged to the business and civic elites. By 1800 Charleston was home to the largest, wealthiest, and most cultured Jewish community in North America–upwards of five hundred individuals, or one-fifth of all Jews in the nation.
Carolina’s Jews pursued the same material goals and status symbols as their white neighbors. Those who could afford it owned slaves. The affluent lived in finely furnished houses and traveled abroad. Many Ashkenazim adopted traditional Sephardic practices and assumed an aristocratic view of themselves as “earliest to arrive.”
Charleston’s highly acculturated Jewish community produced the first movement to reform Judaism in America. In 1824 a group of young, mostly American-born Jews petitioned the governing body of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim for shorter services, a sermon preached on the Sabbath, and prayers in English. Rebuffed in their efforts, the dissidents drafted a constitution and established the Reformed Society of Israelites. For eight years the reformers worshiped separately, then returned to the traditional congregation. In 1840 the reform faction prevailed. With the blessing of Beth Elohim’s popular minister, Gustavus Poznanski, a proposal to install an organ in the synagogue was adopted by a narrow margin. The traditionalists seceded and formed Shearit Israel (Remnant of Israel), with its own burying ground adjacent to Beth Elohim’s Coming Street cemetery. A brick wall separated the dead of the two congregations.
While schism in Beth Elohim divided traditionalists and reformers, a new group of immigrants introduced another brand of orthodoxy to Charleston. People of modest means–peddlers, artisans, metalworkers, bakers–these newcomers from eastern Europe gave the city’s Jewish population a more foreign appearance than before. As early as 1852, a minyan, or prayer group, began meeting under the leadership of Rabbi Hirsch Zvi Levine, recently arrived from Poland. In 1855 they formally organized as Berith Shalome (now Brith Sholom) or “Covenant of Peace”–the first Ashkenazic congregation in South Carolina and one of the first in the South.
Southern Jews rallied to the Confederate cause during the Civil War. Thousands of Jewish men served in the Southern armies, while Jewish women, in accord with their gentile sisters, threw themselves into the war effort, sewing uniforms, knitting socks, rolling bandages, preparing boxes of clothes and provisions, and working in hospitals to care for the sick and wounded.
After the war, during the period known as Reconstruction, some South Carolinians of Jewish descent supported the Radical Republicans’ drive to build a new society (including the notorious “scalawag” governor, Franklin J. Moses, Jr.), but most backed the Redeemers’ crusade to restore white rule. Jewish women such as Octavia Harby Moses were prominent in memorializing the “Lost Cause.” In the shared experience of defeat, Jewish Confederates demonstrated their fierce sense of belonging to their state and region.
East European migration to America beginning in the 1880s brought about a dramatic increase in the nation’s Jewish population.
Charleston’s Jewish community, which had maintained itself for decades at around seven hundred, doubled between 1905 and 1912. The neighborhood where the “greenhorns” settled was called Little Jerusalem. Immigrant men commonly started out as peddlers, then established small businesses. At one time some forty stores on upper King Street were closed on Saturday, in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. The men held prayer services above stores. The women kept kosher homes. They trained their African American help to make potato kugel and gefilte fish, and they learned, in turn, to fix fried chicken and okra gumbo.
By World War I, Jewish communities in the Midlands and upcountry had grown large enough to support synagogues. Meanwhile, certain country clubs, fraternities, and sororities barred Jews, who responded by forming their own social groups and athletic teams modeled on the ones that kept them out. These organizations helped unify Jews around an ethnic identity without regard to place of birth, date of arrival in America, or degree of observance.
The revival of the Ku Klux Klan with an anti-Semitic agenda disturbed southern Jews’ sense of well-being. In the heyday of Jim Crow, however, the primary targets of discrimination were blacks. Jews generally found themselves on the safe side of the racial divide. They demonstrated their loyalty to country and region in patriotic parades and party politics. When the United States entered World War II, Jewish southerners joined in the mobilization to fight the Japanese and Nazi foes.
As a result of the Holocaust in Europe, America’s place in world Jewry changed dramatically. By 1945 more than half of all Jewish people were living in the United States. In many ways, South Carolina was a microcosm of the nation. The class of Jewish merchants had begat a generation of lawyers, doctors, accountants, and college teachers, who shifted the Jewish economic niche away from retail business. With the rest of the white American mainstream, urban Jews abandoned the old neighborhoods and moved to the suburbs–a migration that coincided with the first stirrings of the civil rights movement and the rise of Conservative Judaism.
By the end of the twentieth century, Jewish populations in most small towns across the South had dwindled, while suburban and resort congregations continued to grow. South Carolina mirrors the nation in the trend toward more traditional observance that characterizes all divisions of Judaism. The Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston and Lubovitcher habads in Myrtle Beach and Columbia teach Hebrew and religious studies in day schools to an increasingly diverse student population, that includes newcomers from other parts of America, and from Russia and the Middle East as well.
Elzas, Barnett A. The Jews of South Carolina from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. 1905. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1972.
Gergel, Belinda, and Richard Gergel. In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia and the Tree of Life Congregation. Columbia, S.C.: Tree of Life, 1996.
Greenspoon, Leonard J. “Judaism in South Carolina.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
Hagy, James William. This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Jewish Heritage Collection. Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, Charleston.
Reznikoff, Charles. The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950.
Rosen, Robert N. The Jewish Confederates. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Rosengarten, Theodore, and Dale Rosengarten, eds. A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.