My Wonderful Trip to Charleston, South Carolina
By Gail Katz
I was fortunate enough to join Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, Michigan, on a three-day experience in Charleston, South Carolina, exploring the history and founding of Reform Judaism. Charles Town, as it was called in the 17th century, welcomed Jews and the colony’s fundamental Constitution of 1669 granted freedom of worship to the Jews. The British colony of Charles Town greeted Jews with an outstretched arm, and Jews reached back in kind.
Their numbers were small at the beginning, but that would change drastically during the 18th century. We first visited the historic synagogue in Charleston, – the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim – which was founded in 1749 and is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in the United States. Before 1830 this congregation was a place of worship for Spanish and Portuguese Jews. It later adopted a reformed religious ritual and in 1824 the Reformed Society of the Israelites was founded, using the first Reform prayer book in America. The Charleston movement was based upon a similar movement that had taken place in Germany a few years before.
We also visited the Coming Street Cemetery, established in 1762, the oldest and largest Jewish burial ground in the South. This is the resting place of the wealthiest and largest Jewish community in colonial America. The cemetery contains some 600 marble and brownstone grave markers. Significant artistic markers denote the graves of prominent Charlestonians.
The highlight of the Charleston experience for me was the coming together of the 40 Temple Israel visitors with members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston where in June, 2015, a racist white man, Dylann Roof, opened fire on a Bible study group and killed 9 of the African American worshipers.
Al Miller, Gullah music expert and Emanuel congregant, presented a program of gospel/spiritual music as well as some selections from Porgy and Bess. Then Temple Israel visitors each read a piece about healing and forgiveness! I read the words written by the granddaughter of one of the victims. “Although my grandfather and the victims died at the hands of hate, everyone’s plea for your souls is proof that they lived and loved and their legacies will live and love. So hate won’t win and I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.” And then Bryant Frank, one of our Temple Israel members, played the guitar and sang a beautiful melody about “chesed” which means loving kindness in Hebrew and the words from Amazing Grace were also included! What a meaningful interfaith interaction in Charleston, South Carolina.
Included in our three day visit was a special Friday night Shabbat service led by Rabbi Jen Kaluzny with musical accompaniment by Bryant Frank, and a moving Havdalah service, the service that concludes the Sabbath and begins the work week. Here we as Jews faced our history that our ancestors in South Carolina owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy. We contemplated the thought about coming to terms with our American forefathers being slave owners when we were slaves in Egypt!! How can we accept their treatment of God’s creation? We recognized that the only answer was to work tirelessly to eradicate racial injustices and try to break down racial barriers. Because we are Jews, and we know the feeling of the slave, the stranger, it is our mandate to help all people cross the river into the Promised Land regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or whatever makes them who they are. We are to elevate all of God’s children.
And these words made this Charleston trip an incredibly memorable one!!