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Charleston, South Carolina

Charleston is the oldest and second-largest city in the state of South Carolina. By the 19th century, Charleston was home to the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in North America.

Community History
Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue
Coming Street Cemetery

Community History

Jews began to settle in Charleston in 1695, 25 years after the English founded Carolina. Governor John Archdale, in a descriptive report on the colony, mentioned having a Spanish-speaking Jew as an interpreter in his dealing with captive Florida Indians. The early Jews were mostly Sephardim who came to Charleston from England by way of the Caribbean islands for the commercial opportunities available in a growing Atlantic seaport, and the religious freedom and personal rights offered and tolerated by the colony’s Lord Proprietors. They helped build the city’s colonial prosperity largely as shopkeepers, traders, and merchants. Among them was Moses Lindo, who helped develop the important indigo trade and was made "Surveyor and Inspector-General of Indigo" for the provinces.

Charleston Jewish community life began in 1749 when Jews were numerous enough to organize a formal congregation called Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God). Influenced by the Sephardi congregation Bevis Marks in London, Beth Elohim adopted its strict Sephardi ritual and governance. Its founding fathers were Joseph To-bias, president; Michael Lazarus, secretary; Moses Cohen, rabbi; and Isaac Da Costa, ḥazzan. The congregation, in 1764, purchased Isaac Da Costa’s family burial ground, established in 1754, as a congregational graveyard, now known as the Coming Street Cemetery, the South’s oldest surviving Jewish cemetery. The congregation was incorporated in 1791 and, in 1794, dedicated a new synagogue with a capacity of 500 people. The Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded in 1784, and the Hebrew Orphan Society, chartered in 1802, handled charitable activities. (Both are still active.) During the first decades of the 1800s, Charleston, with more than 700 Jews, had "the largest, most cultured, and wealthiest Jewish community in America," but it began a long decline in importance soon thereafter.

The Jews of Charleston became acculturated and were well-received by the general community, which to them became this happy land. They viewed themselves and were recognized as a portion of the people. During the American Revolution, more than a score of Charleston Jews served in the patriot forces, several as officers. Francis Salvador, a delegate to the revolutionary Provincial Congresses, which established independence from Great Britain in South Carolina (1775–1776), was the first Jew to hold elective public office in the New World. Killed and scalped by Tory-led Indians on August 1, 1776, he was the first Jew to die for American independence. In 1790, Beth Elohim wrote congratulations to George Washington on becoming the first president of the United States; Washington replied, "May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation."

Charleston Jews fought in every other war in which the United States was involved. In the Civil War, even though ambivalent about secession, they joined their South Carolina neighbors in the Confederate cause. The war left Charleston and its Jews decimated and impoverished. Noticeable recovery did not occur until the mid-20th century.

Jews were well integrated into the Charleston community. Jews were active Masons; Isaac Da Costa was a member of the first Masonic lodge in South Carolina and four others were among the 11 founders of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry (1802). Isaac Harby and Jacob N. Cardozo were newspaper editors; Penina Moise was a regular contributor of poems to Charleston newspapers; Joshua Lazarus headed the utility company, which introduced gas lighting to the city; Mordecai Cohen, a peddler, became at one time the second richest man in South Carolina and was noted for his philanthropies.

In 1854, the Ashkenazi congregation Berith Shalome was formed, one of the oldest in continuous existence in the United States; it merged in 1954 with Congregation Beth Israel (1911) to form present-day Brith Sholom Beth Israel. These congregations benefited from an influx of East European immigrants (1881–1920).

After World War II, industrial growth and port development, along with the expansion of military facilities, brought new prosperity to Charleston, which its Jewish citizens shared. Accompanying this was the growth of educational and medical institutions and tourism. Demographically, the Jewish population of metropolitan Charleston grew from about 2,000 in 1948, in a general population of about 175,000, to about 5,500 in 2004, in a general population of about 570,000. This resulted from the influx of Jews from other parts of the United States attracted by economic opportunities, a mild climate, and a good quality of life. The Jewish population once contained entirely in peninsular Charleston, is now spread over annexed suburbs and newly developed municipalities around the city. Jews were prominent in the area’s business, professional, and cultural life, but retail trade gave way to the professions – doctors, lawyers, educators, and many other occupations. Jews were active in civic clubs and charitable organizations and were often elected to public office.

There were three congregations with a combined membership of about 1,450 family units. Emanu-El Synagogue (1947), Conservative, and K.K. Beth Elohim, Reform, were the largest, each with about 550 units. Brith Shalom Beth Israel conducted a Hebrew day school, Addlestone Academy. There were six Jewish cemeteries, three of them still active, maintained by the congregations. The Charleston Jewish Federation, established as the United Jewish Appeal in 1949, raised money for local, national, and overseas causes, dealt with community relations, and published a monthly periodical. There was a Jewish Community Center and active local chapters of most national Jewish organizations. The College of Charleston’s Yaschik-Arnold Jewish Studies Program provided Jewish educational opportunities to the community, and the college’s Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library housed the Jewish Heritage Collection, preserving records of the Charleston Jewish community and its people.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, a National Historic Landmark, is the country’s second oldest synagogue and the oldest in continuous use. The American Reform Judaism movement originated at this site in 1824. The congregation of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim — meaning Holy Congregation House of God — was established in colonial Charleston in 1749, and is now the nation’s fourth-oldest Jewish community. The building reflects the history of Jewish worship in Charleston, as well as the high degree of religious tolerance within the Carolina colony.

The Beth Elohim congregation began as an Orthodox community, founded primarily by Sephardic immigrants (of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry). By the end of the 18th century, the Beth Elohim congregation had become the largest Jewish community in the nation, with a membership of 500. This synagogue was built in 1840, on the site of the congregation’s first synagogue destroyed in the Charleston fire of 1838. The building is an excellent example of the Greek Revival style, as its form, portico and rich ornamentation are adapted from classic Greek temples. Designed by New York architect Cyrus L. Warner, the temple was built by congregation member, David Lopez.

By 1841, the majority of the congregation was embracing Reform Judaism, and the first service held in the new temple reflected this ideology. The Reform Movement, an attempt to modernize synagogue worship and a reevaluation of Jewish theology, had its roots in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1810s, and quickly spread throughout central Europe and to the United States. Worship reform included choral singing, organ music, and the use of German instead of Hebrew for prayers and sermons. In 1824, 47 members of Beth Elohim petitioned the trustees to abridge the Hebrew rituals and conduct prayers and sermons in English. The denial of these requests resulted in a temporary split of the congregation, but, by 1833, a united Beth Elohim had nearly 200 members supporting the Reform Movement. After the burning of the first synagogue and the election of a new rabbi, the inaugural service of this synagogue held in 1841 contained modernized ritual and Beth Elohim formally became the first American Reform congregation. Today, the Synagogue still serves the Reform Judaism community. A small museum contains artifacts pertinent to the history of the congregation, such as a letter written to the congregation by George Washington.

Coming Street Cemetery

The Coming Street Cemetery, established in 1762, is the oldest Jewish burial ground in the South. Privately owned by Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, the cemetery contains some 600 marble and brownstone grave markers. Most of the markers date to the last half of the 18th century or the first half of the 19th century, and include box tombs, table-top tombs, obelisks, and columns. Many are significant examples of gravestone art, signed by locally prominent sculptors and stonecutters.

Stones of the Coming Street Cemetery
(NPS photograph)

Significant artistic markers denote the graves of prominent Charlestonians such as Joshua Lazarus (1791-1861), former president of the Beth Elohim Synagogue, and the Charleston Gas Light Company. Lazarus’s marker features a fluted column on a pedestal, surmounted by an urn. Marx E. Cohen, Jr. (1839-1865) was a Confederate soldier killed near the end of the Civil War, and his obelisk marker features a cannon below the State and Confederate flags in bas-relief. An elaborately detailed box tomb, described as a "stone canopy," memorializes Catherine Lopez (1814-1843), wife of David Lopez, builder of the Beth Elohim Synagogue. Lopez is buried in a family plot of land adjacent to the main cemetery that was later incorporated. At the time of her death, she was not permitted burial in the main cemetery because she had not converted to Judaism.

A stuccoed brick wall surrounds the Cemetery, portions of which are original. An important feature of the site, this brick wall has been a major factor in preserving the intact cemetery over the past two centuries. There are also remains of a wall that once divided the cemetery, reflecting a time in the mid-19th century when the Beth Elohim congregation was divided over a doctrinal dispute. By 1887, Beth Elohim established a new cemetery, and burials in the Coming Street Cemetery are now restricted to the few vacancies in the adjacent family plots. The appearance of the cemetery, or graveyard as it was called historically, has been little altered. Over time, some damage has occurred to individual gravestones from pollution, climate, severe weather, and vandalism.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
National Park Service.
National Park Service.