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The Chosen People in the Holy City: Three and a quarter centuries of Jewish life in Charleston

March 4, 2020

Part VIII: The Reformed Society of Israelites of Charleston: The first expression of Reform Judaism in the United States

 

The previous article in this series closed by touching on the beginnings of Reform Judaism in the United States, which happened here in Charleston just shy of 200 years ago. This occurred at the high point of Charleston’s role as the largest and most important Jewish community in the U.S., in the mid-1820’s. We will continue with this subject in the present article.

 

On December 23, 1824, a petition was presented to the parnas (president) and adjunta (governing board) of the synagogue in Charleston, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), calling for changes in the synagogue’s form of worship. This form of worship was in keeping with the Sephardic traditions of Orthodox Judaism, which had been followed in Charleston since the founding of KKBE in 1749. This was the ritual of the Jews from Spain and Portugal, who were the majority of the first Jews to settle in North America and the West Indies. All of the synagogues in the New World up to the end of the 18th century adhered to Sephardic traditions.

 

The petition in December 1824 for changes in KKBE’s mode of worship took place following a meeting a month earlier of about a dozen men in Charleston who assembled into what they called a “Convention of Israelites.” During the next month others augmented their numbers. On behalf of this group, the petition calling for changes was drawn up. Abraham Moise II wrote the petition. Dr. Barnett Elzas, a Reform rabbi who served KKBE from 1894 to 1910, and who was the first person to study extensively South Carolina Jewish history, described this petition as “sensible, moderate, and dignified.” However, the changes called for in the petition are described by a more recent scholar as “among the most radical within the Jewish faith during the first half of the 19th century.” (James Willliam Hagy, This Happy Land: The Jews of Colonial and Antebellum Charleston). 

 

In seeking these changes, the petitioners stated, they were unwilling to “place before their children examples which are only calculated to darken the mind and withhold from the rising generation the more rational means of worshipping the true God.” The petition concluded by saying that “we wish to worship God not as slaves of bigotry and priestcraft, but as the enlightened descendants of that chosen race.” Although the petitioners called for making their desired changes “with harmony and good fellowship,” referring to their relatives and neighbors who wanted to uphold traditional modes of worship of ancient standing as “slaves of bigotry and priestcraft” was hardly calculated to achieve the innovations for which they called. Hagy’s work aptly describes the petition as “highly inflammatory.” 

 

When the petition was considered by the parnas and adjunta, the secretary read this document to them. The parnas declared that the manner in which the changes were proposed was in violation of the KKBE constitution of 1820 and that no discussion was therefore appropriate. Rule 1 of the KKBE constitution of 1820 established that services at KKBE would follow the “Minhag Sephardim [Sephardic ritual] as always practiced in this city [i.e., Charleston].” Further, Rule 14 of the same constitution set out that changes to the constitution could be proposed by the parnas and adjunta or by a petition of two-thirds of the voting members, excluding the adjunta. The people presenting the petition for changes were nowhere close in numbers to two-thirds of the voting members of KKBE.

A majority of the 47 petitioners were not even members of KKBE. When the parnas and the adjunta met to consider the petition, the parnas noted that Rule 14 of the KKBE constitution controlled the procedure for changes such as those contained in the petition, and if Rule 14 was followed, the adjunta would consider the petition. The secretary of KKBE, H.M. Hertz, returned the petition to the group calling for changes on January 10, 1825. Although Dr. Elzas suggested in his book, The Jews of South Carolina, that the adjunta dismissed the petition in a peremptory manner, a recent scholar who like Dr. Elzas, is a Reform rabbi, has stated that the adjunta politely advised the petitioners that their desired changes could not be entertained. The adjunta was composed of men who were successful and established in the community, and they undoubtedly understood the significance of the petition.

 

What were the changes that the petitioners wanted? It should be noted that one of the changes requested, a regular sermon in the vernacular, is today an established feature in traditional Orthodox synagogues. Indeed, Orthodox synagogues in the U.S. began moving in this direction just a couple of years after the petition was presented to the adjunta of KKBE. Beginning in the late 1820s, Issac Leeser, the hazzan (reader) of KKBE’s sister Sephardic synagogue in Philadelphia, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (KKMI), began preaching on a frequent, if not weekly, basis. It is highly unlikely that Leeser was prompted to begin preaching because of the events in Charleston. Leeser’s entire career was devoted to strengthening and improving Jewish life in the U.S.

 

Among the other changes called for by the petitioners in Charleston was shortening the Saturday morning service, reducing the amount of Hebrew in the service and replacing it with English (services in Orthodox synagogues are predominately in Hebrew, although some prayers, such as the prayer for the government, are in the vernacular), and dispensing with the practice in KKBE at that time of making certain congregational announcements in Spanish or Portuguese. The synagogues following the ritual of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, such as KKBE at this time, traditionally made certain announcements in the languages of the Iberian peninsula, as a link with their past. The Spanish and Portuguese synagogues in England and Holland continue this practice to this day. 

In the history of the development of Reform Judaism, what were described as “minor” or “moderate” changes were typically followed by more sweeping and radical changes. The adjunta of KKBE was undoubtedly aware of this. Once the proponents of Reform realized that the leadership of KKBE was not going the make the changes that they wanted, they wasted little time in establishing a new organization to put their ideas into practice. Just six days after their petition was returned to them, they created the Reformed Society of Israelites. The Reformed Society was incorporated by the South Carolina legislature on December 20, 1825.

 

The Reformed Society established a form of worship that was extremely radical at the time. Instrumental music was used. The use of instrumental music is prohibited in Orthodox synagogues out of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and as a form of labor forbidden on the Sabbath. The members of the Reformed Society also prayed with bare heads. This was an extremely radical innovation in Jewish worship. Praying with covered heads is an ancient hallmark of Jewish practice. In the only description of a Jewish wedding in the U.S. from the 1700s, Benjamin Rush, a prominent Philadelphia physician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a guest at a Jewish wedding in that city. In his description of the ceremony, he noted the alacrity with which the men at the wedding reached for their hats when the time came for prayers. 

 

The Reformers also dispensed with the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Maimonides, the basis of traditional Jewish belief, and replaced it with ten principles of their own creation. The great majority of the service was in English, and included hymns in English.

 

The Reformed Society of Israelites has been commonly identified with Isaac Harby, a well-known figure in Charleston at this time. Harby, who was in his 30s during these events, was a playwright, newspaper editor and educator. Mention has been made in a previous article in this series of the Hebrew Orphan Society, which was founded in Charleston in 1801, and is still in existence. Harby taught the children supported by the Hebrew Orphan Society. Harby is also remembered for his letter to James Monroe, the secretary of state at the time, in 1816. Criticizing the decision to remove Mordecai M. Noah, a well-known Jewish figure in antebellum America, as consul to Tunis because the locals objected to his Jewishness, Harby famously wrote that American Jews were not merely a tolerated sect, but “a portion of the people” like all other religious groups in the country.

 

Harby has been described as the leader of the Reformed Society, but several other individuals were at least as important in the group’s activities. Mention should certainly be made of Abraham Moise II and David Nunes Carvalho, for example. The brother of Emanuel Nunes Carvalho, who served as hazzan of KKBE from 1811 to 1814, David was perhaps the most learned of the group in terms of Jewish knowledge. The members of the Reformed Society for the most part were not men of significant Jewish learning. David’s son, Solomon Nunes Carvalho, was a well-known individual in his own right, and will be mentioned in future articles in this series.

 

The Reformed Society of Israelites ceased to be active after eight years, although it may have continued its existence as society for a longer period than that. Some of its members returned to KKBE. Future articles in this series will show that KKBE ultimately adopted Reform Judaism, but at a much slower pace than most Reform congregations and much more gradually than the Reformed Society of Israelites. In the next article, we will conclude the discussion of the Reformed Society of Israelites, and will also focus on some prominent Jews in antebellum Charleston and mention some who made new lives elsewhere.

 

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 kaplanjeffrey943@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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