Exploring Jewish History in the Deep South

The exterior of the sanctuary of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) Congregation in Charleston, S.C.  The congregation was founded in 1749 and its current spiritual leader, Rabbi Stephanie Alexander, is a native St. Louisan. 

By Sarah Weinman, Special to the Jewish Light

Planning a southeastern vacation to cities such as Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., conjured up visions of palm trees, ocean views and sunny weather. But as I read about Charleston and Savannah, I discovered a new draw: their centuries-old Jewish histories.

Before I left St. Louis I scheduled a meeting with David Jaffee, former president of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) Congregation in Charleston, to find out more about the congregation, its history, and the history of Jews in this city.

Twenty-five years after Charleston was founded in 1670, the first Jews immigrated to the new city. “The colony of Carolina was considered a haven of religious tolerance,” explains Jaffee. “Jews could practice their religion freely. Also, major trade in a seaport town attracts immigrants.” Many Jews who settled in the Carolina colony were Sephardic and came from Spain, Portugal and the Caribbean islands.

In 1749, the 25 Jewish families living in Charleston founded KKBE. The synagogue provided long services in Hebrew and didn’t allow music. Its main source of fundraising consisted of fining congregants for certain “infractions” during services. If a wife talked to her husband, she was fined for talking and he for listening. If members left early or went to the bathroom, they were fined. Some members began to protest the fines; in addition, they requested shorter services and the integration of English. Thus, beginning in 1824, Charlestonian Jews helped bring about about the birth of American Reform Judaism.

“The desire for services in English indicated that people wanted to use their own vernacular,” Jaffee explains. “I think the American Reform movement started in Charleston because the culture here has an independent streak. South Carolina was an embracing colony, which welcomed everyone. It was also the first state to secede from the Union. It had an independently spirited population.”

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Jaffee can attest to that independent spirit. He was born and raised in Charleston and is married with three children. At 61, he recently finished serving his second term as president of KKBE. His duties included managing the temple’s endowment and overseeing restoration of the temple building and Coming Street Cemetery. He divided his duties into two categories: business (budget, personnel and setting policy) and ceremonial (artist-in-residence programs, retreats and bar and bat mitzvahs). Jaffee also dealt with occasional legal and disciplinary issues. “Our cemetery was vandalized a short while ago,” he says. “It had nothing to do with anti-Semitism; the vandals were drunk college students.”

Charleston’s modern Jewish community is as unique as its heritage. The synagogues in the city (two Orthodox, one Conservative and one Reform; there’s a Chabad House as well) collaborate on a lot of activities. Many people in the community are members of two or more congregations. The synagogues work together on building repairs and host events like comedy nights and play dates for kids, in order to get people from one congregation to interact with those in another. “These kinds of collaborations are unusual,” Jaffee explains.

Charleston has a population of approximately 600,000. One percent of the population is Jewish and is very active inJewish community life. Almost 2,000 people are affiliated with KKBE alone.

KKBE’s rabbi, Stephanie Alexander, plays a vital role in the cohesion of the community. A native St. Louisan, she attended seminary school in Cincinnati and New York. She worked with congregations in New York, Boston, and Dubuque before coming to Charleston in 2010.

“When we were searching for a rabbi, we looked at some of Stephanie’s sermons online and watched some videos of her services, which helped narrow down the search. She has great impact and charisma,” says Jaffee.

Another special aspect of Jewish life revolves around the College of Charleston. Founded in 1770, it has Jewish Greek houses, an enrollment of about 11,000 students with more than 800 Jewish students, and a very active Hillel and Jewish Studies Center. The Jewish Studies program at the college hosts a popular three-rabbi panel that discusses subjects like birth control and intermarriage. One rabbi is Orthodox, one Conservative, and one Reform. Open to the public, the panel always draws a standing-room-only crowd.

“The Jewish community also does interfaith work,” adds Jaffee. When the August 2011 earthquake centered in Virginia caused structural damage to Charleston’s Grace Episcopal Church, KKBE stepped up to help. “We offered our space for Easter services; there were four services that day to handle all the churchgoers. KKBE volunteers served as ushers. There’s lots of interfaith help here, which is indicative of embracing diversity. Carolina was a colony known for its religious tolerance. It still is.”

KKBE is located at 90 Hasell Street. If you visit Charleston and would like to tour the synagogue, e-mail KKBE at [email protected] or call 843-723-1090. You can find more information about the synagogue at www.kkbe.org.