A premier destination for tourists, retirees, and high tech and manufacturing companies, the Lowcountry region has been developing by leaps and bounds, with subdivisions and industrial parks sprawling along every highway.
While some old Charleston Jewish families still occupy their pews in the synagogues, local congregations now include large numbers of transplants from the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and beyond, as well as a smattering of people from Israel, South Africa, and the former Soviet Union. The Jewish population (estimated in 2016 at 9,500 in the tri-county area) has crossed the rivers on both sides of the peninsula, first establishing a foothold west of the Ashley River in the early 1960s, and more recently popping up east of the Cooper River with the opening of Chabad of Charleston’s Center for Jewish Life in 2016.
The suburban exodus began in the decades after World War II, driven by the automobile, postwar prosperity, the GI Bill, and the desire for a yard and a garage. Jewish families living downtown began moving into the northwest section of Charleston. Some bought summer houses on Sullivan’s Island—so many that the beach community earned the nickname Solomon’s Island. Charleston’s first Conservative congregation was in fact “hatched” at meetings in the Sullivan’s Island beach houses of various members, notably that of Florence and Moses J. (“Mosey”) Mendelsohn. Emanu-El held its first Friday night services in a church at Fort Moultrie on the west end of the island in the summer of 1947. By the end of the year, the congregation had acquired its own house of worship, a former U.S. Army chapel rebuilt on a lot on Gordon Street in Charleston’s northwest neighborhood.
Another centrifugal force was Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of the nation’s public schools. The case, originating in Clarendon County, South Carolina, accelerated the flight from the peninsula of white Charlestonians who wanted to avoid sending their children to racially mixed schools.
In 1959, the Jewish Community Center (JCC), which had been situated downtown since the 1920s, acquired 25 acres off Millbrook Drive, renamed Raoul Wallenberg Boulevard in 1982. West Ashley, an area undergoing rapid suburban development, had become a new center of Jewish life. Eight years earlier, attorney Bill Ackerman had begun transforming a truck farm on the road to Folly Beach into a residential subdivision and shopping center called South Windermere, which became a neighborhood of choice for many Jewish families. According to a famous quip attributed to William B. “Bill” Regan, Mayor Joseph P. Riley’s chief legal adviser and Charleston’s corporation counsel from 1975 until 2003: “When Bill Ackerman raised his rod, the waters of the Ashley parted and the Jews walked to South Windermere.” Later, one of the main streets, Confederate Circle, would become known as The Bagel.
In 1965, Brith Sholom Beth Israel (BSBI) opened a minyan house in South Windermere for congregants who wanted to walk to shul and not have to cross the bridge on a long trek to the downtown synagogue. In 1964, the JCC sold its downtown building to an all-white segregation academy and, two years later, dedicated a new building on its West Ashley campus. In subsequent years, the JCC campus became home to the Charleston Jewish Federation, Sherman House for seniors, and Addlestone Hebrew Academy (AHA), successor to the Charleston Hebrew Institute.
In 1979, Emanu-El built a new sanctuary on Windsor Drive, west of the Ashley, following its congregants who had relocated more or less en masse from the northwest section of Charleston where the synagogue first stood.
Since the turn of the century, another sea change has altered the lay of the Jewish landscape. Following the national trend within Orthodoxy, a number of Jewish families (mostly living in West Ashley) wanted to become more “shomer shabbat”—to fully observe the traditional laws of the Sabbath, including the stricture against driving to synagogue. They needed a minyan (a quorum of ten men required for prayer services) within walking distance of their homes and began meeting first in private houses and then in the auditorium of the JCC. Negotiations to affiliate with BSBI were unsuccessful, and, in 2012, the West Ashley Minyan (WAM) formally reorganized as Congregation Dor Tikvah.
In 2013, Dor Tikvah hired its first rabbi, and, in 2015, it was one of two tenants remaining on the former JCC campus, the other being the kosher catering company Dining In. The congregation renovated the community center, transforming it into a handsome synagogue, while local donors funded the construction of a new, free-standing, state-of-the-art school next door for Addlestone Hebrew Academy. The Federation moved to new quarters, and the Community Center rebranded itself Charleston JCC “Without Walls” (WOW), communicating electronically and through social media, first producing and now supporting Jewish programming at various venues.
East of the Cooper River, the Center for Jewish Life inaugurated, in 2016, a 16,000-square-foot building on a shaded campus off Mathis Ferry Road in Mt. Pleasant. Affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, Rabbi Yossi Refson and Rebbetzin Sarah Refson arrived in town in 2007 and began hosting Sabbath dinners, educational programs, and social gatherings at their home. Nine years later, with local support, large and small, they expanded their activities and created flexible space for preschool classes, adult education, cooking, eating, and gatherings of all sorts.
On the peninsula, the historic Reform congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim has expanded its facilities to the limits of its urban lot on Hasell Street. The temple completed a major restoration of its 1840s-era sanctuary in 2020 and is now working on the restoration of its nearly-full pre–Revolutionary War cemetery on Coming Street. BSBI continues to worship in its Moorish synagogue on Rutledge Avenue and to support the minyan house in South Windermere.
Meanwhile, at the College of Charleston, the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program, founded in 1984, offers an array of Jewish social and intellectual activities and has attracted ever increasing numbers of Jewish students. As of 2019, these students were estimated to account for a robust eight percent of the undergraduate population. At the College’s Nathan and Marlene Addlestone Library, named for Jewish philanthropists and opened in 2005, the Jewish Heritage Collection has become a leading repository of archival material on southern Jewish life. In 2016, a kosher/vegetarian/vegan dining hall, Marty’s Place, was built as the anchor in the expansion of the Jewish Studies building. The eatery was named for the program’s visionary director, Dr. Martin Perlmutter, who was also founding director of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina, a statewide membership organization established in 1994 and housed physically and administratively within the Jewish Studies Program.
As of 2019, only two of the historic Jewish dry goods stores remained in business on King Street—Berlin’s at the corner of Broad, and Dumas at Society. The heyday of the Jewish retail merchant is past. As the value of real estate on upper King skyrockets, there has been a string of closings of Jewish-owned businesses, including longstanding furniture emporia Morris Sokol and Dixie Furniture; George’s Pawn Shop; Bluestein’s, leased to the Charleston School of Law; and Read Brothers, out of business and to be developed. While Jews are no longer concentrated in mercantile pursuits, some have found prominent positions in the city’s dynamic food and beverage industry. Hyman’s, a popular delicatessen and seafood restaurant, for instance, operates on the site of the family’s old dry goods store.
Today, occupations pursued by Charleston’s Jews are as varied as the population itself. The community’s Blue Book, a directory of “Jewish Residents of Greater Charleston” compiled every other year by KKBE, keeps up not just with names and addresses, but with changing demographics, institutional histories, and professional shifts. Passionate partners in all the major movements in the area, never static, always in flux, Jewish Charlestonians are inscribed in the landscape of the old port city with streets, parks, schools, and municipal buildings named for famous members of the tribe.