The Chosen People in the Holy City: Three and a quarter centuries of Jewish life in Charleston
Part VI: Charleston: The largest Jewish Community in the United States in the Early 19th Century
We saw in the most recent article in this series that Charleston was the largest Jewish community in the United States in 1820, likely numbering about 800 souls. New York’s Jewish community was a distant second at this time, numbering approximately 550. Philadelphia was third, with about 450 Jews. Charleston was probably the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in the country beginning in 1800 and peaking in about 1825 or so. The Jews in Charleston numbered at least 500 in the year 1800, with 600 people being a more likely figure. Although that sounds like a trifling figure by today’s perspective, its significance is clear when one considers that all of the Jews in the new American republic probably did not exceed 2,500 as the 18th century yielded to the 19th.This means that Charleston alone accounted for at least a fifth and probably closer to a quarter of all of the Jews in America in 1800. Just ten years earlier, in 1790, Charleston and New York combined had accounted for about a fourth of the Jews in America. By 1800, Charleston alone was the home of close to one out of every four Jews in the country.
Certainly, Charleston's Jews were aware of their significance at this time. As was mentioned previously, Charleston’s synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) was served by its first regularly salaried hazzan (reader), Abraham Azuby, from 1785 until his death in 1805. With Azuby’s death, KKBE approached the Mahamad (governing body) of London’s Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Bevis Marks, when seeking a replacement for the Rev. Azuby. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in the New World — the U.S., Canada and the West Indies — frequently looked to the Spanish and Portuguese congregations in England and Holland for clergymen and for guidance in maters of ritual and Jewish law. This practice continued well into the 20th century and continues today, to at least some extent.
In their letter to Bevis Marks, the vestry of KKBE pointed out that Charleston’s Jews “enjoy all of the blessings of freedom in common with our fellow citizens … by participating in all of the rights and blessings of this happy country.” Accordingly, Charleston was seeking a hazzan “of merit and classical education, who would reflect honour on himself and stamp an additional degree of dignity and respectability on our congregation.” Indeed, English Jews at the beginning of the 19th century could only dream of the rights enjoyed by America’s Jews at this time. It was not until 1858 that professing Jews could sit in Parliament in London without having to take a Christian oath.
In response to Charleston’s request, Bevis Marks sent out Benjamin Cohen D’Azevedo, a son of the haham (chief rabbi) of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in London. D’Azevedo arrived in Charleston in 1807. The leadership of Bevis Marks undoubtedly thought that they were bestowing a great honor on KKBE in Charleston by dispatching Mr. D’Azevedo. However, KKBE was decidedly underwhelmed by London’s choice for them and promptly reimbursed him and sent him back to England. The leadership of Bevis Marks was shocked and angered by the reaction of KKBE. In the words of a historian of Anglo-Jewish history, “the conduct of the Charleston community stung to the quick the Portuguese pride of the rulers of Bevis Marks, who resented it in no measured words...”
Visitors to Charleston during this period were also aware of the significance of Charleston’s Jewish community. When Lafayette made his triumphal visit to the U.S. to mark the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution, a Frenchman in his party commented on the prominence of Charleston’s Jews and remarked that in no other place in the U.S. were the Jews a significant element. He was also impressed by Charleston’s handsome synagogue. As early as the second decade of the 19th century, Jews could be found in the South Carolina Legislature (Myer Moses and Chapman Levy); Lyon Levy was state treasurer from 1817 to 1822.
One area in which Charleston’s Jews were particularly prominent was Freemasonry. The Supreme Council for the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry was founded on May 31, 1801 at Shepheard’s Tavern at the corner of Church and Broad streets in Charleston. The site is marked by a plaque today, that includes the names of 11 of the founders. Four of these founders were Jews — Emanuel De La Motta, Abraham Alexander, Moses C. Levy and Israel De Lieben. Abraham Alexander has been mentioned in previous articles in these series. A native of London, he officiated as KKBE’s second hazzan on a volunteer basis. He was a veteran of the Revolutionary War.
Although many of KKBE’s earliest records have been lost, we are fortunate to have a cash book of the synagogue for the year 1800. A perusal of this document offers eloquent testimony to the importance that Charleston’s Jews attached to Jewish communal life. In 1800, a community that likely numbered about 600 people counted 107 members and contributors. This group paid salaries to no less than five employees: a hazzan who chanted the services, a ritual slaughterer who kept the congregation supplied with kosher meat, a sexton, a congregational secretary and an inspector of kosher meat at the market.
In 1808 the records of KKBE show that funds were disbursed for the painting of a congregational ritual bath and in 1809 monies were paid for completion of the ritual bath. In 1810 the congregation paid for an oven to bake matzot, the unleavened bread eaten at Passover. There are numerous expenditures for funds to aid the poor and the sick. In short, KKBE was very much a traditional synagogue adhering to the doctrines and practices of Orthodox Judaism.
The 1820s, however, saw the beginnings of significant changes in the numbers of Jews in Charleston and in religious doctrines in the city’s Jewish community. Charleston began to decrease in economic importance, as cities such as New York and New Orleans grew in importance. It became common for Jews to leave Charleston and seek opportunities elsewhere. And the concept of a less Orthodox and less traditional form of Judaism reared its head in Charleston — the first Jewish community in the U.S. for this to happen. In the next article we will discuss these changes.
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.