Charleston Jews

Tensions and schism's in one of America's first large Jewish communities

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Reprinted with permission from Sephardim in the Americas: Studies in Culture and History (The University of Alabama Press). 

A friendly rivalry has existed between Savannah and Charleston as to which is the older Jewish community. Savan­nah can date its origins as an organized Jewish settlement to 1733, its congregation to 1735. However, periodic losses of population led to lapses and revivals. Charleston can date its first Jew of record to 1695, when the governor used an unnamed Jew as interpreter to a delega­tion of Spanish-speaking Indians. Two years later, four Jewish names, one undecipherable, were appended to a petition. The others were Abraham Avila and Jacob Mendes, Sephardim; and Simon Valentine, an Ashkenazi and a nephew of New York's Asser Levy.

First Synagogue

Avila and Valentine lived out their lives in Charleston, but few Jews joined them. It was not until 1749 that 10 heads of family, led by Joseph Tobias, were available to form a minyan, the quorum need­ed for the congregation they named Beth Elohim ("House of God"). Of the founding families, six were Sephardic, four Ashkenazic, including Mordecai and Levi Sheftall, both of whom were temporary residents from Savannah.

The Sephardic majority, evidently determined to dominate deci­sion-making, accorded their best-informed layman, Moses Cohen, the honorific titles Hacham v'Abh Beth Din ("chief rabbi and chief of the ecclesiastical court"). Isaac da Costa, a leading merchant, functioned as hazzan [cantor]. It was he who purchased ground for a cemetery in 1762. Two years later he deeded it to the congregation, but named as trustees the leaders and membership of Sephardic congregations in London, "King's Town, Jamaica," and "Bridgetown, Barbados." In the deed a dash separates these from the three North American con­gregations, also named with their mixture of Ashkenazic and Sephardic leaders.

Charleston's Jewish growth was interrupted by the Revolution. In 1780, the British captured the city, and Da Costa joined other Jewish patriots in Philadelphia. In his absence, the congregation's leadership was assumed by Ashkenazim. When peace was declared in 1783, Da Costa returned to Charleston. He died within a few months, and his remains were interred in a separate cemetery at Hampstead, subse­quently described in the local press as belonging to "the Portuguese Congregation of this City, called "Beth Elohim Unveh Shallom."

A split had developed, but the two groups seem to have reunited sometime between 1791, when the Ashkenazim determined to abandon their rented facility and build their first synagogue building, and 1794, when it was dedicated. The agreement seems to have included abandoning the separate Sephardic cemetery, but this led to further friction and compromise, for Sephardic burials continued there until 1847.

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.