Although Charleston is a city that has long been dominated by white Protestants, across nearly four centuries of existence it has been home to people expressing a wide range of religious commitments. Among them, almost from the beginning, have been Jews of varying stripes, who navigated complex and shifting relationships to God, the Hebrew Bible, Jewish law, and the global Jewish community within the particular context of this Lowcountry port city.
Accepted as white citizens and granted freedom of worship, many of Charleston’s Jews came to closely resemble their white Christian neighbors. Embracing the tenets of Reform Judaism, they too listened to organs and English language sermons in their house of worship, built domestic lives concordant with local cultural and racial norms, and participated fully in the city’s civic and political life. What’s more, their interactions, relationships, and even families extended more and more beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community. And yet, there were always Jews who resisted acculturation in various ways, praying in Hebrew in gender-segregated sanctuaries, limiting their consumption to kosher meat, insisting on the importance of marrying fellow Jews, and/or longing for a return to Zion.
Even as different individuals and families combined change and tradition in unique configurations, most continued to worship the God of Israel, to live and die in ways informed by Jewish customs, to express solidarity with other Jews, and occasionally to feel the sting of the prejudice that these forms of difference could inspire. Their religious lives were fundamentally shaped by this ongoing tension between white citizenship and Jewish distinctiveness, which was negotiated not only in synagogues, but in private homes and in public debate. These dynamics first emerged as the colonies became independent from England, and they became firmly established in the long nineteenth century. They also persist to the present day, even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, the Civil Rights movement, and the continuing development of both Charleston and its Jewish community.
Today, Jews continue to live, worship, and participate in public life in Charleston. They reside throughout the Charleston area and the two synagogues on the peninsula – KKBE and Brith Sholom-Beth Israel, which united in 1955 – have been joined by two more in nearby West Ashley, plus an outpost of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement in Mount Pleasant. Jews continue to participate in local politics and philanthropy and even celebrate holidays in public space. In November and December, the city’s Christmas décor is joined by Chanukah decoration and Jews gather annually at the city’s central square to light a menorah at sundown. The College of Charleston is also home to the Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center, a thriving center of academic and cultural programs, events, and resources. Through the Lowcountry Digital Library, there are thousands of archival documents from the Jewish Heritage Collection that focus primarily on the history of Jews in Charleston and the Lowcountry. Reflecting Jews’ long, interwoven history in the region, Jewish materials are also present throughout many of the region’s archival collections.
Although the idea that Charleston is a “Holy City” likely originated as an ironic joke, it circulates widely today because of the very real significance of religion within the landscape of the city. It might also offer a starting point for thinking more broadly and critically about religion in Charleston. If it is in earnest a “Holy City,” it is not only because of its distinctive Christian church spires. Rather, we might think of Charleston as a dense web of overlapping spaces, made holy through diverse religious imaginations acting in constant dialogue with the concrete and messy realities of life in this muggy but alluring place.