Finding Judaism in the Holy City

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Across the nineteenth century, Charleston Jews engaged in ongoing debates over how to worship their God. These debates were a result of ethnic differences among successive waves of Jewish immigrants as well as emerging disagreements over whether and how Judaism should adapt to modern conditions. Over the course of the long nineteenth century, their discussions and disagreements led to forms of religious innovation as well as new congregations.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution promised that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” and in South Carolina, the 1790 state constitution followed suit. This new legal arrangement enabled Carolinians to support the religious organization of their choice; members of KKBE received a charter from the state in 1791. However, the novel principle of religious voluntarism also meant that no one could be compelled to support a denomination or its congregation. Unlike in Europe, where local Jewish institutions enjoyed state support, synagogues had to rely on the goodwill and financial contributions of individual Jews. And whereas the dictates of Jewish law had taught Jews to think of religious identity as an inherent status acquired from their mother or through conversion, now it was equated with belief and worship, which was expressed through congregational membership. 

Israelitischer Temple, Hamburg, Germany, courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute. A page from Isaac Harby's prayer book relating an evening prayer and a sketch of the ouroboros symbol, Charleston, circa 1825, courtesy of Special Collections at College of Charleston Libraries.

(Top Image) Israelitischer Temple, home to one of the first Jewish Reform congregations, Hamburg, Germany, circa 1850s, courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute. (Bottom Image) A page from Isaac Harby's prayer book relating an evening prayer and a sketch of the ouroboros symbol, Charleston, circa 1825, courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections.

Many Charleston Jews did join, attend, and otherwise support KKBE and a range of other Jewish congregations. Indeed, the forces of American religious pluralism and internal Jewish diversity meant that KKBE was rarely the only place of Jewish worship in the city. Already in the 1780s there is evidence of a separate Jewish congregation for those of Portuguese descent, Beth Elohim Unve Shalom (House of God and Mansion of Peace). It was presumably founded in reaction to the growing influence within KKBE of central European Jews, known as Ashkenazim. The new congregation had acquired its own place of worship, but it proved short-lived. By 1794 a reunited KKBE – which had met in five different buildings in its first fifty years – built its first synagogue on Hasell Street, finally claiming a permanent foothold in the city.

While the synagogue was now built, debates among Charleston’s Jewish leaders about how worship inside the synagogue should take place remained unsettled. In 1824 a group of acculturated young men, led by local journalist and teacher Isaac Harby, authored a document proposing various reforms to the traditional worship services at KKBE, including the introduction of English-language sermons. They drew inspiration from contemporaneous Jewish reformers in Hamburg, Germany, as well as from the evangelical Christians, Unitarians, and Roman Catholics who surrounded them. When their appeal to modernize worship was rebuffed by the adjunta—the group of male leaders who oversaw the congregation—they began meeting separately as “the Reformed Society of Israelites,” even creating their own prayer book. The city’s declining fortunes soon led key leaders to depart the city, however, and the group was defunct by the 1830s.

In 1838, the KKBE synagogue burned to the ground along with much of its neighborhood. The construction of a new synagogue inspired another bitter struggle, this time over whether to install an organ. While the majority, including Prussian-born religious leader Gustavus Posnanski, approved of this reform, a group of orthodox members insisted that instrumental music on the Sabbath was a violation of Jewish law. They seceded to form a new congregation, Shearith Israel (Remnant of Israel, also transliterated as Shearith Israel), and entered a dramatic court battle with the mother congregation, but the reformers prevailed. The new building, replete with organ, was erected in the Greek Revival style, popular among a wide range of religious congregations in the United States. Shearit Israel would meet separately until 1866, when the pressures of the Civil War brought it back into the fold of KKBE. By this point, local Jews also had another option; in 1855 a group of Polish immigrants had begun worshiping on St. Philip Street in an orthodox congregation they named Brith Sholom (Covenant of Peace).

Even as KKBE weathered these various competitors, its members shaped the congregation in the image of their own shifting attitudes and actions regarding gender and race. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, for instance, women sat separately from men and were barred from active participation in worship, in keeping with orthodox Jewish practice. Yet women played important leadership roles elsewhere in the congregation. Hymns authored by poet Penina Moïse were used in congregational worship and Sally Lopez founded a Jewish Sunday School, only the second in the country. After the Civil War, Laura L. Wineman served as directress of the congregational choir, and Miss R. Ottelengui endeavored to play KKBE’s organ, although her efforts were rebuffed by an “opposing element.” Countless other women offered their time, skills, and money to support the congregation. Jewish women had largely stayed out of congregational affairs before the nineteenth century but now, following the example of Protestant churchwomen, Charleston’s Jewish sisters, daughters, and mothers enacted their own quiet set of religious reforms.

KKBE’s leaders and members had adapted Jewish worship to the norms of Charleston, a city filed with churches that was also a busy slave port. Reflecting a common practice in Charleston of temporary hiring out, or renting, of slave labor, the synagogue’s builders included two enslaved artisans named Kit and George. Charleston’s enslaved Black labor was regularly used by Charleston Jews, and yet KKBE’s 1820 constitution, which excluded new converts, further specified the exclusion of “people of color.” Nevertheless, an enslaved man named Billy Simon was regularly attending services by 1857. Simmons had apparently been converted by Jewish enslavers in Africa and he sat amongst white Jewish men in the sanctuary, “the most observant of those who go to the synagogue.” Congregational records also mention enslaved men named Henry, Merchant, and Marshall, who entered the Hasell Street synagogue as servants rather than as worshippers. On their own time these three men may have worshiped at one of Charleston’s Black congregations, like the Mother Emanuel AME Church, founded in 1817. They may also have attended–by choice or by force– churches that were created and controlled by their enslavers, which maintained varying levels of racial segregation. Although they avoided proselytizing and made an exception to worship with Billy Simon, Charleston’s Jews, like their white neighbors, both relied on enslaved Black labor and expressed some discomfort with the possibility of interracial spiritual communion.

(Left Image) Sketch of Billy Simon from a News and Courier article, 1903. Illustration taken from This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. (Right Image) Rule XXIII Khal Kadosh Beth Elohim 1820 Constitution.

(Left) Sketch of Billy Simon from a News and Courier article, 1903, illustration taken from This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. (Right) Rule XXIII Khal Kadosh Beth Elohim 1820 Constitution.

In the meantime, KKBE ceased to identify as Sephardic and embraced more components of what was now institutionalized as Reform Judaism, including family pews and egalitarian confirmation ceremonies. This reflected the preference of congregants, many of whom were the children of German-speaking immigrants who had arrived in Charleston in the decades surrounding the Civil War and come to enjoy considerable affluence and social status. They were led by men like Barnett Elzas (1894-1910) and Jacob Raisin (1915-1944), both graduates of Hebrew Union College, the Cincinnati-based American rabbinical seminary founded in 1875. Sitting in their elegant synagogue listening to erudite English sermons from men like Elzas and Raisin, members of KKBE practiced a form of Judaism that would not unduly divide them from white Christian Charlestonians. Jewish law discouraged accepting converts and forbade entering into marriage with non-Jews, and both practices remained controversial, even among modernizing Reform Jews. Neither practice was new in Charleston, however, and KKBE’s board embraced them. Living in a place where white women’s purity was of the utmost import and where interracial marriage was illegal, KKBE’s board accepted white women as converts to Judaism without fanfare and voted to accept as members “brethren who marry out of the faith.”

These developments occurred amidst a new wave of Jewish immigration to the city from Eastern Europe. Most of the new arrivals came from communities deeply committed to Jewish law, including Hebrew-language prayer and gender-segregated worship. In their quest to worship God and find community in their new city, they too created congregations. In 1886 those dissatisfied with the level of observance among more acculturated members of the orthodox Brith Sholom left to found Shari Emouna (Gates of Faith), which operated until 1897; in 1911 Eastern European immigrants founded Beth Israel (House of Israel), also known as the Kaluszyner Shul, (Kaluszyner Synagogue), after the hometown of many of its founders.

Between the 1780s and the 1910s, Charleston was home to six different congregations, which planted six different visions of Judaism in the Lowcountry soil. Each congregation was an effort by a new group of Jews—with varying levels of rabbinic guidance—to mediate between Jewish tradition and the Charleston environment. Congregations were both sites of community and sites of conflict— among congregants and between congregants and religious leaders. Each of the six congregations also helped Jews find meaningful forms of religious expression and claim a public place in the city both figuratively and, as they donated funds to construct new synagogues and walked the city streets to attend Saturday worship, quite literally.