Jews arrived in the British colony of Carolina in the early days of European settlement. A new outpost in the mercantile traffic of the Atlantic basin, Carolina offered economic opportunities and a degree of religious tolerance remarkable for the time. The colony's Fundamental Constitutions of 1669, drafted by philosopher and physician John Locke, who was secretary to one of the eight Lords Proprietors, 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 Protestants 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 15th century, the Sephardim 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 Sephardi 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 Ashkenazi, 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 goals 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 Sephardi 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 Jewish men, mostly American-born, 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. But 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 new synagogue – a Greek revival temple that replaced the original structure, which had burned in the great fire of 1838 – 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 – the newcomers gave the city's Jewish population a more foreign appearance than before. As early as 1852, these eastern European Jews began meeting under the leadership of Rabbi Hirsch Zvi Levine, recently
As the southern states began seceding from the Union in 1860 and 1861, Jews rallied to the Confederate cause. 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 of Reconstruction, some South Carolinians of Jewish descent, including the notorious "scalawag" governor, Franklin J. Moses, Jr., supported the Radical Republicans' drive to build a new society. However, most backed the Redeemers' crusade to restore white rule. Jewish women such as Octavia Harby Moses and Phoebe Yates Levy Pember were prominent in memorializing the "Lost Cause." In the shared experience of defeat, Jewish Confederates demonstrated their fierce sense of belonging.
Beginning in the 1880s, East European migration to America brought about a dramatic increase in the nation's Jewish population. Charleston's Jewish population, which had remained flat for decades at around 700, 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 40 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, some 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, and degree of observance.
The revival of the Ku Klux Klan 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 radically. Now 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 20th century, Jewish populations in most small towns across the South had dwindled, while suburban and resort congregations were continuing to grow. South Carolina's Jews remained prominent in political life. Solomon Blatt, of Barnwell, served for 30 years in the state legislature, ending his final term as Speaker of the House in 1970. Numerous other Jewish lawmakers have filled seats in both houses, and, since World War II, more than a dozen Jews have been elected as mayors of South Carolina towns and cities.
South Carolina mirrors the nation in the drift toward more traditional observance – a trend in all divisions of Judaism. The Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston and Lubavitcher Chabads 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.
As of 2013, South Carolina's Jewish population was approximately 13,570 people.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved. S. Breibart, Explorations in Charleston's Jewish History (2005); B.A. Elzas, The Jews of South Carolina, From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1905, reprint, 1972); "The Diary of Joseph Lyons (1833–35)," a new and unabridged transcript edited, annotated, and introduced by M. Ferrara, H. Greene, D. Rosengarten, and S. Wyssen, in: American Jewish History, 91:3 (Sept. 2003); B. Gergel and R. Gergel, In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: A History of the Early Jews of Columbia and the Tree of Life Congregation (1996); J.S. Gurock, Orthodoxy in Charleston: Brith Sholom Beth Israel & American Jewish History (2004); J.W. Hagy, This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston (1993); Jewish Heritage Collection. Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, Charleston, South Carolina. For excerpts from the JHC oral history archives, see www.cofc.edu/~jhc; C. Reznikoff and U.Z. Engelman, The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community (1950); R.N. Rosen, The Jewish Confederates (2000); T. Rosengarten and D. Rosengarten (eds.), A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life (2002). See on-line version of the exhibition "A Portion of the People" at www.lib.unc.edu/apop.