When I travelled with my aunt and uncle in Europe, I noticed they always searched out synagogues. I found this rather strange as neither one was an observant religious shul- goer. He, a World Federalist, she, a Voice of Women( VOW) member, had humanistic leanings, rather than specific Jewish ones. Yet, culturally, they seemed to be concerned with yiddishkeit and ancestral roots. Interesting, as he was the son of a British ha’ sun( cantor) , and her mother, a community leader in raising money for Jewish causes, even selling bricks to build the old Mount Sinai Hospital on Yorkville in Toronto. Besides just historical, their fascination had to do with discovering Jewish migration , and as I am now passed their ages when I accompanied them so many years ago, barely out of my teens, I find myself emulating their search, comprehending their motivation and wanting to piece together my own Identity as a Jew.
We are in Charleston and my American cousin suggests we make our way to Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim( KKBE) , the oldest synagogue, as well as the founding Reform Jewish Congregation in the United States. He tells me his son Josh was Bar mitzvahed in this unique landmark. So although we are only in Charleston for a day and a half, we decide the synagogue is first on our list of “ what to see”.
Fortunately our hotel, the Dewberry, is close to Calhoun, and remarkably the Synagogue on Hasell Street is less than two blocks walking. The outside of the building is in deed impressive with its huge menorahs and its colonnade of massive white pillars. There is a large marble tablet above the doors that proclaims the Sh’ma( Deuteronomy 6:4)and we ring to be let in. Larry opens the door for us. He is about to dash off, as he is a member, not a tour guide, running some errands. Although he obviously has business to attend to, he kindly locates a key to the sanctuary so we can spend a few minutes there.
He provides us with a pamphlet that answers some of our queries, stating the first reference to a Jew in the English settlement of Charleston occurred in 1695. By 1749, a sufficient number of Jews attracted by freedoms of religion who had come to South Carolina, previously gathering to pray in one another’s homes, organized Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and within fifteen years, the building is erected. Most likely survivors of the Spanish Inquisition, this Sephardic Orthodox Congregation in 1824 petitioned to change the liturgy to a briefer Hebrew version.
The more progressive element of the congregation who had wanted but were denied an English service (also in 1824) eventually persuaded the rest of their group to install an organ: this was the first time a synagogue had introduced instrumental music into worship. In 1973, KKBE joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the Union for Reform Judaism.
The design and construction of the present synagogue emulates the form of a Greek temple and is consistent with other religious architecture in Charleston circa 1830, coinciding with the beginning of the Reform Judaism movement that had its roots in Germany. In 1790, President George Washington had congratulated the congregants and wrote,
…May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation…
According to Larry’s pamphlet, the great Charleston fire of 1838 destroyed the first cupolated Georgian synagogue building , but was replaced in 1840 on the original site of the first. The second great Charleston fire occurred in 1861. The synagogue was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
Standing in the grand, airy sanctuary we note the white cupola above our heads. Two tiered ,the original separating women, with that impressive organ and beautiful bima, the feeling of the sanctuary is light- filled and awe- inspiring. The ark is crafted from Santo Domingo mahogany. Above it are carved these words,” Know Before Whom Thou Standest.” Two Corinthian columns stand at each side of the ark, continuing the underlying Greek theme. Beautiful glass windows represent symbols from the Bible and date from 1886.
In the Barbara Pearlstine social hall , Larry points out several works of art by a well known Charleston artist William Halsey, son of a congregant. The mural depicts the city’s destroying fire along with two menorahs, one with six and one with seven branches, to represent the synagogue’s original orthodox status and now the present day reform one. A second Halsey mural portrays the revolutionary patriot and legislator Francis Salvador who hailed from England, arriving in South Carolina in 1773. Salvador was the well educated son of an aristocratic Sephardic family, the Marrano name of “Salvador “was taken in response to the Inquisition which either tortured and murdered Jews or forced their conversion, although many practiced in hiding.
A diorama also illustrates Salvador’s scalping and demise on horseback by Cherokee Indians. More than twenty members of the congregation fought in the American Revolution. Larry is obviously very proud of these artworks that proclaim the early congregants’ contribution to the country :Francis Salvador as the first identified Jew to be elected to an American legislative body and the first to die for the cause of American liberty. Another wall steel sculpture, again by a synagogue member, William Hirsch, interprets the prophets of consolation and admonition.
We journey on to Savannah,Georgia and we are privileged to spend more than an hour at Congregation Mickve Israel dating from 1773. Here the chief docent, Jules, relates the origins of the synagogue. He narrates the story that dates back to the Inquisition in Portugal of Dr. Samuel Nunez in 1733, who ministering to the king, hides his Jewish background. When it is revealed he is still practicing his Jewish faith and traditions in private, Nunez arranges for a day at the shore to be the means of escape to London. He, his family and friends are welcomed by the Bevis Marks Congregation in England .Later, forty- one Jews , both Sephardic and Ashkenazi from German shetls , arrive by ship, the William and Sarah, to the Georgian colony. These Jewish settlers brought with them a safer Torah, one of the oldest Torah scrolls in existence in America, as well as a circumcision kit.
In 1741, the War of Jenkins Ear causes the congregants to worry that the Spanish might reclaim Britain’s outpost here. Fortunately the former Portuguese-conversion Jews regain their security and freedoms in Savannah when the Spanish are unsuccessful in their takeover.
We sit in the sanctuary as Jules narrates the historical background. Our eyes search out the original Gothic chairs, in deed, the Gothic revival architecture layout is reminiscent of stately churches, its ceilings pointed and arching many, many feet above our heads. The supporting columns are also in the Corinthian style, melding with the pointed arches of the Gothic style. The stained glass windows as well feature symbols associated with Judaism such as the spread fingers of the Kohenim, olives, menorahs, an ark, a lion, a crown with entwined grapevines as backdrop: no human bodies as dictated in the Ten Commandments. At the very back, two more windows coalesce in the Art Nouveau style contributing to the softened light created by the other windows.
Jules takes us to the ark and opens its doors. The congregation is very proud of their Torahs, our docent highlights The Slany Torah, one of 1564 Czech Memorial Torahs confiscated and saved in Prague during the Nazi occupation, 1939-1945. Before World War II, there were about 350 synagogues in the Czech Republic. On Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, the Nazis destroyed 50 synagogues along the Sudetenland border region.
Creating a storehouse of goods confiscated during World War II in Prague, the Nazis collected artifacts. Although believed that Hitler was intending a museum to the extinct race of Jews, Leo Pavlat in a journal article,1. says the museum’s collection had been in place from 1906 and in 1939, all ready holding 760 items representative of Prague and Bohemia.
Yet the narrative goes that in 1942, several prominent Prague Jews persuaded the Nazis to allow artifacts from abandoned and destroyed synagogues to be stored in Prague, where a museum would be opened. Of the more than 100,000 artifacts , there were 1,800 Torah scrolls, labeled ,indexed, and given a provenance. According to the narrative, all of the Jews who participated in this project would be deported to Terezin or Auschwitz, with only two surviving. One Torah collected during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia is now on permanent loan at Congregation Mike Israel and used weekly at services. The Torah is inscribed with its provenance, “This Scroll came from Slany and was written in 1890.” It came to Savannah in 1968.
A condition for custodianship of a Czech Torah is that it must be maintained in perfect condition, used regularly and returned if a synagogue is re-established in that town. In 1458, Jews were officially expelled from Slany , more Jews removed during WWII, and unfortunately in the present day population of about 15,000, no Jew remains.
Jules turns on a tape, and we listen to Hebrew chanting. I’m caught off guard and feel tears collect in my eyes. Later my husband contributes that he thinks it is the synagogue that unites Jews, perhaps more than Israel, for in these places, we all sing the same songs, have studied the same ancient prayers, stand before the ark, familiar and welcomed by our traditions, uniting us as Jews. He is moved as well. I concur that we both feel we are a continuing strand that has unwound across continents, yet part of a tapestry that persists in holding us together- no matter where on earth we might find a welcoming synagogue: a living legacy that rekindles our proud sense of being Jewish.
Upstairs in the museum, there are the two deerskin Torahs described by Jules in that journey by the intrepid Dr. Nunez. Here too are reproductions of letters to the congregation by every American president, beginning with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe on to Roosevelt, Obama, etc.2.
In 1997, a recipe for charoset, a Passover mixture of fruits and nuts essential to the reading of the Haggadah was found from the congregation, dating to 1794. 3.
We have a plane to catch but notice more people are arriving, drawn to this synagogue, as if to rekindle and nourish their Jewish souls, a symbolic coming home and coming together of Jews spread across the diaspora.
1. The Jewish Museum in Prague during the Second World War European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 124-130.
2. George Washington to Savannah, Georgia, Hebrew Congregation, May, 1790, George Washington Papers at The Library of Congress. Accessed November 22, 2011 in Wikipedia.
3. Nathan, Joan (April 16, 1997). “Retracing Jewish Steps, Through Haroseth”. The New York Times.