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A history of the jewish synagogue the tree of life in the city of columbia

When Columbia became the state capital in 1786, seven Jewish men from Charleston were among the first to buy town lots. Jews arrived in the British colony of Carolina with the first wave of European settlement. A new outpost in the mercantile traffic of the Atlantic basin, Carolina offered economic opportunities, as well as risks, and a degree of religious tolerance remarkable for the time. In 1696 Jews in Charleston allied with French Huguenots to safeguard their rights to trade and the next year to secure citizenship.

Expelled during the Inquisition at the end of the fifteenth century, the Sephardim from the Hebrew word for Spain dispersed around the globe and established themselves in capitals and port cities in northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and the West Indies.

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.

Those who could afford it owned slaves.

Columbia, SC

The affluent lived in finely furnished houses and traveled abroad. In 1824 a group of young, mostly American-born Jews 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.

In 1840 the reform faction prevailed.

History of Beth Shalom

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.

  1. By the end of the twentieth century, Jewish populations in most small towns across the South had dwindled, while suburban and resort congregations continued to grow.
  2. A new outpost in the mercantile traffic of the Atlantic basin, Carolina offered economic opportunities, as well as risks, and a degree of religious tolerance remarkable for the time. The affluent lived in finely furnished houses and traveled abroad.
  3. A brick wall separated the dead of the two congregations.

As early as 1852, a minyan, or prayer group, began meeting under the leadership of Rabbi Hirsch Zvi Levine, recently arrived from Poland. Southern Jews rallied to the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

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.

Immigrant men commonly started out as peddlers, then established small businesses. At one time some forty 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, certain 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, or degree of observance.

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. By 1945 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 the twentieth century, Jewish populations in most small towns across the South had dwindled, while suburban and resort congregations continued to grow. South Carolina mirrors the nation in the trend toward more traditional observance that characterizes all divisions of Judaism.

  1. The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston.
  2. The affluent lived in finely furnished houses and traveled abroad. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950.
  3. While schism in Beth Elohim divided traditionalists and reformers, a new group of immigrants introduced another brand of orthodoxy to Charleston.
  4. Rosengarten, Theodore, and Dale Rosengarten, eds.

The Addlestone Hebrew Academy in Charleston and Lubovitcher habads 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. Gergel, Belinda, and Richard Gergel. In Pursuit of the Tree of Life: Tree of Life, 1996. University of South Carolina Press, 1993. The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston.

Dedication of Columbia’s First Synagogue and Israelite Sunday School Historical Marker

University of Alabama Press, 1993. The Jews of Charleston: A History of an American Jewish Community. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950. University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Rosengarten, Theodore, and Dale Rosengarten, eds. A Portion of the People: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.