The colony of South Carolina was originally governed under an elaborate charter drawn up in 1669 by the English philosopher John Locke. This charter granted liberty of conscience to all settlers, expressly mentioning “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.”
The first official mention of Jews in Charleston occurs in 1695, when one is mentioned as acting as interpreter for Governor Archdale. In 1702 Jews appeared in the records as having voted at a general election. The Jewish community at Charleston received a substantial addition during the years 1740-41 when both Jews and Christians left the less hospitable colony of Georgia and flocked to South Carolina.
By 1800 there were about 2,000 Jews in South Carolina mostly Sephardic Jews who settled in Charleston. This was the largest concentration of Jews in North America. Charleston remained the unofficial capital of North American Jewry until about 1830.
During the American Revolutionary War the Jews of Charleston distinguished themselves by their patriotism, and many instances of devotion to the cause of independence are recorded.
The first synagogue established at Charleston was the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1750. Several of its founders had come from Georgia. The Beth Elohim congregation is still in existence. Its first synagogue was a small building on Union Street. Its present edifice is situated on Hasell Street.
In the 1840s there was a major split in Congregation Beth Elohim, one which many historians of American Jewish history see as the beginning of the American Reform movement. The conflict began after the introduction of an organ into the synagogue when it was rebuilt following a fire in 1840. The present Congregation Beth Elohim is a reform synagogue.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War the Jewish community in Charleston joined their non-Jewish neighbors in the Confederate cause. Since the U.S. Civil War the Jews of Charleston have been less prominent, owing partly to losses resulting from the struggle, and partly to the fact that the city is no longer the commercial center it formerly was.
As of 1902 Charleston had fewer than 2,000 Jews, a population smaller than 86 years earlier, in 1816.
Charleston is just one of the many Jewish communities described in Dr. Saul Landa’s book A Timeless People. This book is the culmination of a four-year odyssey, visiting eighteen communities, traveling tens of thousands of miles, taking thousands of photographs, reviewing thousands of archival images to bring the historical Jewish communities of the U.S. to life.
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