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The chosen people in the Holy City: Three-and-a-quarter centuries of Jewish life in Charleston

Part III: A Synagogue, Communal Life and Dissension

We saw in last month’s article that Charleston’s Jews began to increase in numbers in the 1730s and played an active role in the commercial life of Charles Town. A number of Jews who were shopkeepers advertised in the South Carolina Gazette beginning in this decade. Charleston’s Jews increased further in number in the 1740s. One of the sources for this increase came from Jews leaving Savannah. In 1740, James Oglethorpe, the governor of the recently established colony of Georgia, launched an attack on the Spanish colony of Florida and tried to take St. Augustine. When he failed in this attempt, many inhabitants of Savannah feared that the Spanish would retaliate by occupying Savannah. If Spain succeeded in conquering Savannah, the Inquisition would follow. The thought of living under the sway of the Inquisition struck terror in the hearts of Jews who had fled Spain and Portugal; their fear was justified. As late as the mid-1740s, someone was burned at the stake in Spain for the heresy of “Judaizing” — practicing Jewish rituals in secret. It was not until 1760 that the last people were burned at the stake in Portugal for “Judaizing.”

In 1775, Janet Schaw, a Scots woman visiting the West Indies and North Carolina, wrote of meeting someone on the Dutch island of St. Eustatia who had suffered so much by being tortured at the hands of the Inquisition in Spain that he hardly seemed to be a human being. It is therefore not surprising that the Jews left Savannah in the wake of Oglethorpe’s unsuccessful attack on Spanish Florida. By 1741 only one Jewish family remained in Savannah. It is also possible that some Jews came to Charles Town as a group from London in the 1730s or 1740s. There was a tradition among the early Jews of Charleston to this effect, although we cannot be certain today that this tradition was accurate.

What we do know is that in 1749 the Jews of Charleston believed that they were numerous enough to found a synagogue. In September 1749, at the conclusion of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregation of the House of God) was established. The term “Kahal Kadosh” (Holy Congregation) is a term that is used as part of the name of all of the synagogues established by the Sephardic Jews who originated or whose ancestors originated in Spain and Portugal. Although some people in Charleston believe the term “Kahal Kadosh” is unique to Charleston, this is incorrect. This term indicates that Charleston’s first synagogue was founded as a Sephardic congregation adhering to the ritual of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. It was also strictly Orthodox, faithfully observing Jewish law and tradition. The more liberal versions of Judaism that can be found today were not in existence at this time.

At this point it is appropriate to provide an overview of the ritual used when Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) was founded and how it differs from the Askenazic ritual. It is also worth saying something about the early Sephardic settlers who came to Charleston and other places in the New World. The differences between the Sephardic prayer book and the Ashkenazic prayer book are not that great. The basic prayer book is the same; there are slight differences in the wording and arrangement of prayers. On the High Holidays (Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur), the Sephardic ritual has certain prayers and hymns that are not found in the Ashkenazic prayer book and vice versa. Someone who is comfortable with one ritual would have no problem adapting to the other ritual. Where the two rituals differ significantly is the melodies and chants used to utter essentially the same prayers and the pronunciation of Hebrew.

The Jews who fled Spain and Portugal and their descendants are commonly known as the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, or simply, Portuguese Jews. As was mentioned in the first article in this series, many Jews had risen very high in the kingdoms of Iberia and the Spanish and Portuguese Jews had a strong sense of coming from a background of aristocracy or nobility. Their manner of worship reflected this. The services in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues to this day are very decorous and dignified. There is a great deal of elaborate ceremony in their services.

Although the Spanish and Portuguese ritual has not been followed in Charleston since the 19th century, as late as 1949, on the 200th anniversary of the founding of KKBE, there were people in the congregation who remembered congregants of Spanish and Portuguese descent as “stately and ceremonious.” In 1782, upon the drowning of Aaron Lopez of Newport, Rhode Island, who had fled the Portuguese Inquisition to become a prominent merchant, Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, had this to say about Lopez: “He did business with the greatest ease and clearness — always carried about with him a sweetness of behavior, a calm urbanity, an agreeable and unaffected politeness of manners …” The same words would apply to many of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who came to Charleston, such as Isaac Da Costa and Jacob Lopez D’Oliveira. The urbanity and culture of many of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews made them welcome in Charleston, where these traits were valued. As to Aaron Lopez, it should be noted that some of the Lopez family left Newport and settled in Charleston at the end of the 1700s. They became a well-known family in Charleston and will be referred to in future articles in this series.

When KKBE was organized, its first Haham (“Haham” is a Sephardic term of respect referring to a senior rabbi) was a man named Moses Cohen. Little is known of him otherwise except that he was a shopkeeper. It is doubtful that he was actually an ordained rabbi, but he was presumably very learned in matters of Jewish law. He died in 1762 and his tombstone is the oldest surviving Jewish tombstone in Charleston. Judging by the size of and inscription on his stone, he was greatly respected. Isaac Da Costa was the first hazzan, or reader of KKBE. His responsibility was to chant the services. As was mentioned in last month’s article, Da Costa was learned in Jewish matters and was respected for this not only in Charleston but in other cities in North America. Ezra Stiles mentioned conversing with Da Costa when the latter visited Newport. He was also a successful merchant. Joseph Tobias was the first parnas, or president, of KKBE. He came to Charleston in the 1730s and became a citizen in 1741, as noted in last month’s article.

Charleston’s Jews took other steps during this period to create a Jewish community. Not only was a new synagogue established, but procedures for congregational governance were established. A body called the “adjunta” was set up to manage affairs. The adjunta also chose officers for the congregation, who had the authority to create rules to manage the synagogue. The term adjunta was used in many of the other Spanish and Portuguese congregations. To this day, the terms “adjunta” and “adjuntos” are used by the oldest Jewish congregations in Philadelphia and Savannah. Another step taken was acquiring land for Jewish burial. A cemetery is usually the first thing a Jewish community establishes. Prayers can be said in private houses or buildings, even if there is no formal synagogue building, but land consecrated for Jewish burials is essential. Isaac Da Costa acquired land in 1754 on Coming Street for a Jewish burial place for his family. It seems that others besides his family were buried there, however, because Moses Cohen, KKBE’s first spiritual leader, was buried there in 1762. Da Costa conveyed this cemetery to the synagogue in 1764. This burial ground is a well-known landmark in Charleston today. Ten Jewish veterans of the Revolutionary War are buried there, as well as a number of Jewish veterans of the War Between the States.

Dissension began to rear its head among Charleston’s Jews not very long after KKBE was organized. Isaac Da Costa, who was the congregation’s first hazzan when it was founded in 1749, resigned his position, apparently in 1764, because of disagreements with some congregants. His resignation did not end the quarreling in the community. There is evidence to suggest that at least part of the dispute was based on differences between recently arrived Jews of Ashkenazic origin and Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been in Charleston longer. Such differences existed in other towns in the New World, as well.

In London and Amsterdam, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews tended to look down on Ashkenazic Jews and the two groups formed their own congregations. The number of Jews in the American Colonies was too small for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews to maintain separate synagogues and the Ashkenazic Jews usually deferred to their Sephardic brethren and prayed in the existing Sephardic synagogues, with lesser or greater degrees of enthusiasm about this situation. In Charleston, however, it seems that the Ashkenazic Jews asserted themselves more than in other towns and for at least a decade or so Charleston had two synagogues, one following Sephardic traditions and the other observing Ashkenazic customs. This situation persisted until after the conclusion of the American Revolution.

Ultimately, Charleston’s Jews reunited into one synagogue following the Spanish and Portuguese ritual. From that point on (the late 1700s), the Jews of Charleston became very attached to that ritual, whether their ancestry was Sephardic or Ashkenazic. As we will see, Charleston’s Jews upheld Sephardic traditions long after the Sephardic Jews became a minority in the city’s Jewish community.

We are now at the American Revolution. Next month we will see the contributions that Jews made to the cause of American independence, how Charleston’s Jews fared during this time and that like everywhere else, there were Jews who remained loyal to the Crown as well as Jewish patriots. This account will begin with the story of a remarkable figure in South Carolina’s history and American Jewish history: Francis Salvador, an aristocratic Jewish immigrant from England who is sometimes referred to as the “Jewish Paul Revere.”

Jeffrey Kaplan is a retired attorney who worked in Washington, D.C. before returning to Charleston. He has served as the archivist of Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (founded in 1740) and is the historian of BSBI Congregation here in Charleston, the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue. He teaches and lectures regularly and is also a storyteller. He may be reached by email at

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