To visit Charleston today is to step back in time to the period between the American Revolution and the American Civil War. During those years cosmopolitan Charleston was considered ‘America’s little London.’ Beautifully preserved, you can walk its streets and visit its historic homes. Charleston particularly boomed from 1790-1820. It was during that time that it had the largest Jewish community in America with approximately 500 Jews.
There was one congregation, named Beth Elohim. Of course it was ‘Spanish & Portuguese’ as were all of the other congregations in America at that time. Founded in the 18th century, it built a beautiful synagogue at the end of that century.
Unfortunately, it burnt down the during the Charleston fire of 1838. Beth Elohim then built their current synagogue. It was completed in 1841 and is a prominent and striking Federalist style building.
It was at this time that the congregation also began to reform its practices including the introduction of an organ. This prompted some members to break away and form a new Spanish & Portuguese congregation. They named it Shearith Israel just like their sister congregation in New York that bore that name. This new Shearith Israel continued until the 1860s when their synagogue was destroyed during the Civil War. They then rejoined Beth Elohim through a compromise agreement. However, after five years Beth Elohim moved decidedly Reform, yet Shearith Israel never returned. While Beth Elohim had originally constructed their synagogue with a balcony, they ultimately introduced mixed pews and the balcony was removed. The rear balcony remains.
I was shown around by Beth Elohim’s current president Anita Moise Rosenberg. I am grateful for her warm welcome and for the generous time she gave me. She is a descendant of early American Jewish families including the Moise, Lazeraus and Harby clans. Anita and Beth Elohim are incredibly proud of their early American and Spanish & Portuguese congregational roots. I hope that moving forward the historic Spanish & Portuguese congregations can identify opportunities for collaboration as we share so much special heritage.
(Charleston also has an Orthodox (Ashkenazi) congregation which dates back to the 1850s. It is called BSBI and is located in historic Charleston. There is another Orthodox congregation, Dor Tikvah, in the West Ashley suburbs. Their talented rabbis are my friends and colleagues Rabbi Moshe Davis (no relation to Jefferson!) and Rabbi Michael Davies (no relation to Moshe!). I had the pleasure to speak briefly at both congregations concerning Charleston’s early Jewish roots and their various connections to Shearith Israel in New York.)