History of the Jews in Charleston, South Carolina
There is a long history of Jews in Charleston, South Carolina. The charter of the Carolina Colony, drawn up by John Locke in 1669, granted liberty of conscience to all settlers, expressly mentioning "Jews, heathens, and dissenters."
The earliest record of a Jew in Charleston occurs in 1695, when one is mentioned as acting as interpreter for Governor Archdale. It is not improbable, however, that individual Jews had settled there at an earlier date. In 1702 Jews appeared in numbers and voted at a general election. The Jewish community at Charleston received a substantial addition during the years 1740-41, when the illiberal policy of the trustees of Georgia induced both Jews and Christians to leave that colony and to flock to South Carolina.
By 1800 there were about 2,000 Jews in South Carolina (overwhelmingly Sephardic and settled in Charleston), which was more than in any other U.S. state at that time , and more than any other town, city, or place in North America. Charleston remained the unofficial capital of North American Jewry until about 1830 , when the increasing number of Ashkenazi German Jews emigrating to America largely settled in New Orleans, Richmond, Savannah, Baltimore, and the north-east (particularly in Philadelphia and New York City), eventually surpassing the mostly Sephardic Jewish community in Charleston.
South Carolina was the first place in the western world to elect a Jew to public office—Francis Salvador, elected prior to the Revolutionary War, became the first Jewish American killed in the Revolution. It was also the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the Americas.
The first synagogue established at Charleston was that of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, founded in 1750. Several of its founders had come from Georgia. Its first hazan or cantor was Isaac da Costa; and among its earliest members were the following: Joseph and Meshod Tobias, Moses Cohen, Abraham da Costa, Moses Pimenta, David de Olivera, Michael Lazarus, and Abraham Nuñez Cardozo. 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 St. The Jews of Charleston at an early date also established a Hebrew Benevolent Society, which still survives.
While the earliest congregation was composed mainly of Portuguese Jews, the German element soon became prominent. Even before 1786 the city possessed not only a Portuguese congregation (Sephardic), but a distinct German-Jewish (Ashkenazi) one as well. The Jewish community soon became very prosperous, and before the Revolution several Jews had acquired wealth and gained distinction. Among these was Moses Lindo, inspector-general and surveyor of indigo, drugs, and dyes for South Carolina.
In the War of Independence
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 majority did good service in the field, several as officers. The most prominent Jew at the outbreak of the war was Francis Salvador, who resided in Ninety-Six District, but was in constant communication with the leaders of the Revolutionary movement at Charleston. Salvador was a member of the South Carolina General Assembly and of the first and second Provincial Congresses, which met in that city. He was one of the leading patriots of the American South.
In 1779 a special corps of volunteer infantry was composed largely of Israelites who resided on King St in the city of Charleston. Among its Jewish members were David N. Cardozo, Jacob I. Cohen, and Joseph Solomon. This body subsequently fought under General Moultrie at the battle of Beaufort. Among others who served in the field may be mentioned Jacob de la Motta, Jacob de Leon, Marks Lazarus, the Cardozos, and Mordecai Sheftall, who was deputy commissary-general of issues for South Carolina and Georgia, but who must be considered as a resident of Savannah, Georgia rather than of Charleston. Major Benjamin Nones, a French Jew in Kazimierz Pułaski's regiment, distinguished himself during the siege of Charleston and won the praise of his commander for gallantry and daring. Mordecai Myers was also prominent at this period.
In 1790 the Jews of Charleston sent an address of congratulation to Washington upon his accession to the presidency, to which he replied in the most cordial terms.
In 1791 the congregation of Beth Elohim, then numbering fifty-three families, was incorporated by the legislature; and in 1794 its synagogue was consecrated in the presence of General William Moultrie and many of the chief dignitaries of the state.
Shortly after this period many Jews went to Charleston from New York, Virginia, and elsewhere, owing to the great field offered by the South for commercial enterprise and the fact that a large Jewish community was already living there. Until about 1830 or so Charleston had the largest Jewish population of any city in the United States.
During the early portion of the nineteenth century several Charleston Jews held high offices in the state. Among these may be mentioned: Myer Moses, member of the legislature in 1810, and one of the first commissioners of education; Abraham M. Seixas, a magistrate; and Lyon Levy, state treasurer.
Other prominent Charleston Jews during the early part of the nineteenth century were: Penina Moise, born in 1797, who became widely known as a writer of verse; and Mordecai Cohen, in whose memory the city of Charleston erected a tablet in the Orphan House in recognition of his benevolence.
At the outbreak of the American Civil War the Jewish community in Charleston joined their non-Jewish neighbors in the Confederate cause. Among the prominent soldiers of the Confederacy may be mentioned Gen. E. W. Moise and Dr. Marx E. Cohen. 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. Among those who have held high office, however, have been Gen. E. W. Moise, adjutant-general of the state of South Carolina from 1876 to 1880, Franklin J. Moses, Sr. (born Israel Franklin Moses), who became chief justice of the South Carolina supreme court in 1868, and his son Franklin J. Moses, Jr., governor of South Carolina from 1872-74.
As of 1902 Charleston had fewer than 2,000 Jews, a population smaller than 86 years earlier, in 1816.
Reform, Beth Elohim and the courts
The first Jewish Reform movement in the United States originated in Charleston. In 1824 a large number of the members of Congregation Beth Elohim petitioned its trustees to shorten the service and to introduce the English language. The petition was rejected, and as a result the petitioners resigned, and organized the Reform Society of Israelites. David Nuñez Carvalho was the first reader of the society; but the most influential man in the movement was Isaac Harby, a distinguished journalist and playwright, editor of "The "Quiver," The Charleston Mercury, and several other publications.
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 series of conflicts between Reform and Traditionalist elements in Beth Elohim resulted in a complicated dispute between the President, who favored Reform, and the Board of Trustees, which was controlled by the Traditionalists. The President refused to call the Board of Trustees to meet (as was required by the synagogue's constitution) because he knew they would admit new, traditionalist, members and obtain control of the congregation. The Board ignored him and met on their own, a move which the Reformers challenged in court. The resulting case, State v. Ancker, has become known as an early example of U.S. courts refusing to intervene in complex religious questions, but the decision is actually more complicated. Judge A.P. Butler, delivering the opinion for the South Carolina Court of Appeals, ruled that the Board had violated the synagogue's constitution by meeting without the President's approval. He ruled the admission of the new members was invalid. While some have claimed that the decision ignored the question of religious disagreement and focused on the legal question, the case's strong endorsement of progress and change in religious ceremony and observance seems to show that the Court's (or at least Butler's) sympathies lay with the reformers. The decision resulted in the formation of a new congregation by the more traditional members, known as "Shearith Israel," which, however, reunited with the old congregation in 1866.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
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