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The Orthodox congregation Brith Sholom was founded in 1852, when a group of immigrants from Prussia and Poland decided that they wanted services conducted according to the Ashkenazi tradition. (A Sephardic synagogue was already in existence since 1749.)
In 1861, the Civil War broke out. Brith Sholom was the only one of the three synagogues in Charleston that kept its doors open throughout the war, providing the community with kosher meat as well as matzahs for Passover. Later, Brith Sholom united with a second Orthodox congregation, Beth Israel.
The fact that many Charleston residents, including Jews, once owned slaves was a theme that was discussed several times during the retreat. The scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Avraham Kivelevitz, spoke about the defense of slavery in the Bible and how this was reflected in the antebellum period; and Robert Rosen, a local lawyer and historian, expressed unabashed pride in the history of the Confederacy.
“We keep hearing that Jews owned slaves, but few people know that blacks owned slaves, too,” Rosen remarked. “In fact, there were many more black slaveowners than Jewish ones. For the most part, they were black women who owned garment businesses and needed extra laborers.”
There were many slaveowners in the North as well, and some of the biggest abolitionists were virulently anti-Semitic, he added.
Peppering his comments with humorous anecdotes, Rosen’s talk seemed to amuse his audience although some listeners were taken aback by his unapologetic view of Charleston’s troubled past.
“Robert Rosen is a compelling personality and a fascinating example of the non-apologist proud Southerner,” said Larry Krule, the founder of Davar, an Orthodox think tank in Teaneck, NJ.
But like many participants at the retreat, Krule and his wife, Susan Fader, said that the hosts and residents were much nicer than they had expected. “I was struck by their authenticity and friendliness,” he said.
Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and the author of the book “Orthodoxy in Charleston,” said the Jews of Charleston are proud of their cultural heritage and are very active in their community. During a Yom HaShoah ceremony that was held in the Reform temple Beth Elohim last year, all 600 seats were taken. “When you consider that there are only about 6,000 Jews in greater Charleston, it means that 10% of the Jews attended the memorial service. That’s rarely seen anywhere,” Gurock said.
“They do have one problem, though: how to maintain the talented young people,” he added. “They have a lovely Jewish day school but no high school, so after the eighth grade, they don’t see the kids again.” Haber says that played into the outreach to retirees: “That’s why we’re not going after people with 10-12 year old children.”
Susan and Stuart Kaufman, retired lawyers from Great Neck, N.Y., moved to Charleston last year, but not after scouting out other locations. “We wanted someplace warm,” Susan Kaufman said. They looked in North Carolina and Florida but couldn’t find a community that felt like a fit. They heard about a couple from their synagogue who had moved to Charleston, and were amazed to hear the city had three Orthodox minyans, so they decided to check it out.
“Our plane landed at 11 a.m. on Friday,” she said. “We walked around for hours downtown, and by six o’clock, I’d fallen in love with the city. Sunday we went out with a broker, and by Tuesday we’d already made an offer on a house.”
Most of the retreat participants don’t see it as a retirement destination…yet. “We were looking for adventure,” said Caroline Amdurer, from Monsey, N.Y., who attended with her husband, Lenny. “But actually, as soon as we arrived, we felt an immediate connection.” On the last morning before their flight back, Lenny was even asked to lead shacharit, the morning service.
“Hopefully, we’ll be back,” she said. “But next time, we’ll spend a month there.”