Shalom Life | December 03, 2014

Shalom, South Carolina: A Jewish Culture Guide

Until 1820, Charleston was home to the country’s largest Jewish population, even surpassing New York City, which we now know today as being the epicentre for Jewish culture in America.

By: Sara Torvik

Published: November 11th, 2014 in Culture » Society » News

Shalom, South Carolina: A Jewish Culture Guide

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, South Carolina


In the small southern state of South Carolina, the city of Charleston boasts a longstanding and vibrant Jewish community. Jewish residents have lived in the city for more than 300 years, since long before the United States was even founded as a country. And until 1820, Charleston was home to the country’s largest Jewish population, even surpassing New York City, which we now know today as being the epicentre for Jewish culture in America.

The city is home to many “firsts” in Jewish history in America. The first Reformed movement originated there. It also boasts everything from oldest Hebrew Orphan Society, the oldest Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first temple sisterhood, the first Jew elected to public office in the western world.

Going back to the very beginning, the history of Jews in Charleston was related to the charter of the Carolina Colony, written by John Locke in 1669, which granted liberty of conscience to all settlers, and noted in particular, "Jews, heathens, and dissenters." The Sephardic Jews who found there way to South Carolina from London and the Netherlands after the expulsion from Spain and Portugal were among the early settlers in the city, and comprised most of its Jewish community into the early 1800s.

College of Charleston

In 1774, South Carolina elected America’s first ever Jewish person into public office, Francis Salvador. Salvador was a young English planter in the colony of South Carolina from the Sephardic Jewish community of London when he was chosen for the Provincial Congress. Unfortunately his position of leadership did not last long, as he had joined the independence cause and in 1776 and was the first Jew to be killed in the war, fighting with the militia on the South Carolina frontier against Loyalists and their Cherokee allies. But his short-lived career was still a huge step forward for Jews in America, particularly since at the time, Jews legally could not hold office nor vote, but despite that fact no colonists objected when Salvador was elected.

Charleston was also the birthplace of the Reformed movement in the United States. 1824 was the year that a large number of the members of Congregation Beth Elohim petitioned its trustees to shorten the service and to introduce the English language. The petition was rejected, but the petitioners did not give up and instead resigned and organized the Reform Society of Israelites. By 1840 a major split had occurred in Beth Elohim, which many historians view as the start of the American Reformed movement.

Congregation Beth Elohim

In Charleston today, the people there are still proud of their strong Jewish roots. Earlier in 2014, one of the city’s oldest families donated $1.5 million to create a center for Southern Jewish culture at the College of Charleston. Susan Pearlstine, who’s family donated the money, spoke about the donation by saying, "This is the exclamation point on so much Jewish history in South Carolina. It is to show respect for what Jews in South Carolina came to accomplish - and did accomplish."

The College of Charleston itself boasts about 800 Jewish students currently in attendance, largely due to it’s renowned Jewish studies program. Many of the students end up coming to the city from out of state, but end up staying longterm, regaining a new sense of pride in their culture as a result of the college program and the city’s broader Jewish community. This is definitely something that speaks to how strongly the city still values the Jewish people and their many notable contributions.

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