The chosen people in the Holy City Three-and-a-quarter centuries of Jewish life in Charleston
Part V: Charleston’s Jews increase in numbers, dedicate a new synagogue and expand their profile
The end of the American Revolution saw a significant increase in the numbers of Charleston’s Jews. A study of the numbers of the Jews in the new republic in 1790, the year of the first census in the United States, concludes that there were only 1,500 Jews in the country at that time. The actual number may have been a bit higher than that, perhaps 2,000 or so. This study relied heavily on the returns of the 1790 census. However, the census takers missed a number of people. A number of Jews who are known from other sources to have been in Charleston in 1790 do not appear in the census records. The same applies to other locations. In addition, names appear in the census that may well have been Jewish, but cannot be confirmed as being Jews.
Though this study estimated the number of Jews in Charleston in 1790 at only 200, the actual figure was likely around 250. Even this small number comes to three percent or more of Charleston’s white population at this time, as was noted by James William Hagy in his book This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston. Slightly more than half of Charleston’s population in 1790 were people of color. The city of New York had the largest Jewish population at this time, according to this study, approximately 250 people. Again, given inaccuracies in the first census, that number was likely higher. What seems clear, in any event, is that the number of Jews in Charleston was close to New York’s numbers, if not equal to it. This means that the Jewish populations of New York and Charleston likely accounted for a quarter of the Jews in the United States in 1790.
Certainly, Charleston’s Jews were seen as an established community in 1790. In that year, South Carolina’s constitutional convention met in the new city of Columbia and the Jews in Charleston united to work for the election of delegates to this convention who were viewed as people of “integrity and liberal sentiments.” One person who was elected, Christopher Knight, felt very appreciative of the support he had received from Charleston’s Jews. He sent a letter to the vestry of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), Charleston’s synagogue, enclosing an order for 50 guineas, “to serve the poor or be of any use in any respect to the Congregation,” saying that he was “greatly obliged by the assistance I received from you and the members of your Congregation at the late election.”
Jacob Cohen, president of KKBE at the time, reported the donation to the vestry, who returned the funds to Knight. Cohen’s letter returning the order for 50 guineas to Christopher Knight, stated that the Jewish congregation could not “think of accepting it, as it may be suggested at some future period that the members of our community were to be bought.” The letter from Cohen to Knight emphasized that KKBE was “extremely obliged” to Knight for the “token of esteem,” and assured him that KKBE had “a deep sensibility of your good intentions.”
Our state’s constitution of 1790 provided for freedom of religion and allowed for the incorporation of synagogues. KKBE wasted no time in taking advantage of this, applying for incorporation on January 7, 1791. This was approved by the legislature the following month. In 1790, KKBE took the step of many other congregations of various denominations during this period, in writing George Washington and offering congratulations on his having taken the oath of office as our nation’s first president. This letter to Washington was signed by Jacob Cohen as president of KKBE.
Washington’s response concluded with the words “May the same temporal and eternal blessings which you implore for me, rest upon your congregation.” The same year, Charleston joined the Jewish congregations in Philadelphia, New York and Richmond in sending a joint letter of congratulations to Washington. His response to this joint letter is still maintained in the archives of Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel, Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue.
Several other events happened that strengthened Jewish life in Charleston in the period following the American Revolution. In 1784, the Hebrew Benevolent Society was established. Its original purpose was to ritually prepare the bodies of deceased persons for Jewish burial, a very important precept in Judaism. This society was initially under the control of KKBE, but over time its scope of benevolent activities increased and it became an independent organization. The Hebrew Benevolent Society’s expanded activities included providing financial and medical relief to the poor and it played a significant role during Charleston’s persistent outbreaks of yellow fever. It also developed a social aspect and members met at least annually for dinner and a report on the society’s good works. This practice continues to this day and the Hebrew Benevolent Society proudly exists today as the oldest Jewish charitable organization in the United States.
The following year, 1785, saw KKBE hiring its first full-time clergyman. KKBE’s first two people to officiate as hazzan (the person who chanted the service), or reader, were members of the congregation who primarily earned their living from other sources. Isaac Da Costa, KKBE’s first hazzan, was learned in Jewish matters, but was a well-known and successful merchant in Charleston, as noted in previous articles in this series. He was succeeded by Abraham Alexander, who volunteered his services, but earned his living from, among other things, serving as a clerk and auditor in the Custom House.
But in 1785 Abraham Azuby became hazzan, serving as a salaried employee of KKBE. Azuby was a native of Holland and grew up in Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, the mother congregation of all of the synagogues following the Sephardic ritual of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. His name, however, suggests an ancestral origin in Spanish Morocco, where his ancestors had probably settled following the expulsion from Spain in 1492. Azuby’s tenure as hazzan was very successful until his death in 1805. The Charleston city directory of 1796 describes him as “High Priest of the Jewish Synagogue.” His widow gratefully noted the generosity of the synagogue to her after the Rev. Azuby’s death when she wrote her will. In 1801, Jews in Charleston founded the Hebrew Orphan Society.
Like the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Hebrew Orphan Society exists to this day. There were not many Jewish orphans in Charleston, but the Hebrew Orphan Society provided assistance to widows and children of poor parents. It also assisted children of poor families with education. This society acquired an impressive building on Broad Street, which still stands. A plaque with a Hebrew inscription can still be seen on the outside of the third floor of this building, which bears the name of the society.
The number of Jews in Charleston in 1790 may only have been about 250, but this number increased significantly and rapidly. Perhaps in recognition of this, KKBE decided to build a new house of worship. Charleston’s synagogue solicited funds for building a new synagogue from local sources as well as from other Spanish and Portuguese congregations. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in New York, London and Barbados contributed to the construction of Charleston’s new synagogue. Members of KKBE laid cornerstones for their new synagogue in a ceremony in September 1792. Almost exactly two years later, on September 19, 1794, Charleston’s Jews dedicated their new synagogue in a ceremony to which various dignitaries and the general public were invited. Gov. Moultrie was among those attending the ceremony.
Although this synagogue was destroyed in the fire that ravaged Charleston in 1838, we are fortunate to have the synagogue’s appearance memorialized by paintings done by the well-known artist, inventor and adventurer Solomon Nunes Carvalho, who grew up in this synagogue. His uncle, Emanuel Nunes Carvalho, served as hazzan of KKBE from 1811-1814. Solomon Nunes Carvalho painted both the exterior and interior of KKBE’s 1794 synagogue from memory. Anyone who has visited other Spanish and Portuguese synagogues, such as those in London, Amsterdam, New York, Newport (R.I.), Barbados, Curacao and St. Thomas will be struck by how closely the interior of KKBE’s synagogue of 1794 resembled their interiors. This is no accident. Charleston was very much a part of the Spanish and Portuguese diaspora and its ritual and synagogue building in 1794 reflected this.
Charleston’s Jews were very attached to the Spanish and Portuguese ritual long after the Sephardic Jews in Charleston had become a minority, as was mentioned in a previous article. Among the features of the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues is that the seats do not face the eastern wall, in the direction of Jerusalem, as is usually the case in Ashkenazic synagogues. Rather, the seats are arrayed along the north and south walls facing each other, with the reading desk where the hazzan officiates in the center of the synagogue between the rows of seats. A careful perusal of the painting of the 1794 house of worship of KKBE will reveal that some of the seats on one side of the synagogue were covered by a canopy. This area was reserved for the officers and governing board of the synagogue; this is a venerable tradition of the old Spanish and Portuguese synagogues.
The number of Jews in Charleston in 1794, when KKBE dedicated its new synagogue, had increased to over 400, compared to 250 just four years previously. By 1800, the Jewish population in Charleston had increased to at least 500 and very possibly 600. An increasing number of these Jewish newcomers to Charleston were Ashkenazic Jews, not only from England, Germany and Holland, but from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. For example, Mordecai Cohen, who came to Charleston in approximately 1788, was an immigrant from Poland who rose to become the second-wealthiest person in the Palmetto State at one point. These recent immigrants seem to have acclimated themselves to Sephardic customs, unlike many of the Ashkenazi Jews in Charleston before the American Revolution.
It was not until the 1850s that a desire for Ashkenazic traditions manifested itself again in Charleston. Jews of Sephardic background continued to arrive in Charleston as well during this period, coming to a great extent from the West Indies, as well as the Sephardic communities of Bordeaux and Bayonne in southwestern France. The number of Jews in Charleston continued to grow after 1800. By 1820 if not before, Charleston had the largest Jewish population in the United States, perhaps 800 persons. They constituted five percent of Charleston’s white population. New York was a distant second in 1820, with about 550 Jews.
This was to shortly change.
In the next article, we will see how many Jews in Charleston moved elsewhere seeking better opportunities beginning in the 1820s and how Reform Judaism first made its appearance in Charleston.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.