By Symi Rom-Rymer
“Stand up and introduce yourselves,” invited the speaker on the Bima. “I want to know where y’all are from.” Unaccustomed to such warmth from strangers, Northerner that I am, I tentatively stood and was immediately rewarded with a welcoming smile. Fifteen minutes into Shabbat services at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), it was clear I’d left New York City far behind. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I am hardly the first Jew to find such a friendly greeting in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston is often called ‘The Holy City’ with good reason. Church steeples dot the skyline and Sunday mornings are alive with church bells. But its nickname also dates back to the Colonial era when it was one of the few cities that allowed most immigrants to worship freely, whatever their religious affiliation. Jews, like many others, flourished in the tolerant atmosphere. It may be hard to imagine that another American city could be as important to American Jewry as New York but until the Civil War, Charleston was the epicenter of Jewish life in North America. Like New York, the city’s first Jews were Sephardi, coming primarily from Portugal with German Jews following soon afterward. By 1800, Charleston boasted the largest Jewish population of anywhere in the United States. Only 40 years later, it became the birthplace of American Reform Judaism.
Following the Civil War, however, the fortunes of Charleston’s Jewish community, like those of Charleston itself, declined sharply and it lost the prestige it previously held. Jews that came to the United States in subsequent waves of Jewish immigration flocked to other cities and by 1902, Charleston had lost its unofficial status as the Jewish capital of the United States.
Charleston may no longer be the Jewish powerhouse it once was, but it is still home to a vibrant community with three synagogues. KKBE, the oldest Reform synagogue in the United States, is currently home to 500 families and recently hired its first female Rabbi, Stephanie Alexander. Following services, I had the opportunity to speak with Rabbi Alexander and she offered me a taste of what contemporary Jewish life is like in Charleston.
How does it feel to be the first female rabbi of KKBE?
People are either impressed or taken aback that I’m a women and that I’m young. I had one family say to me that I was breaking every stereotype. There was so much chatter about my coming to Charleston, and people would come up to me and say, ‘we hear such wonderful things about you.’ I would answer, ‘that’s funny, I’ve heard that I’m young and a woman!’ But I recognize it is an honor to be the first woman and I see it as such.
How integrated do you feel Jews are in Charleston?
They’re very well integrated. Everyone in Charleston is related to each other. You might bring up an issue or ask a question and because of who someone knows or who someone is related to, there is a vast network at your disposal. For example, I was contacted earlier this week by a family whose unborn baby was diagnosed with a heart condition. The father is a Reform Jew and wanted to be blessed by me. When the baby was 4 days old, the president of the synagogue brought to my attention that he was friends with the head of the pediatric department of the local hospital. He then personally watched over the family while they were in the hospital. People want to be mobilized to help; it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing.
Is KKBE’s congregation is continuing to grow?
Yes. We’re attracting people across the board: young families, retirees, and others in between. People, especially retirees who are looking for a warmer climate and a vibrant Jewish community, see that combination of factors in Charleston and at KKBE and want to move here. This is also the first place I’ve ever been where on any given Friday night or Saturday morning during the tourist season the numbers swell. Right now, we also have a number of people pursuing conversion. We had to close our most recent class at 50 people. I was very lucky to follow a rabbi who helped bring the congregation to new places and I definitely see exciting places where we can go.
Have you encountered any anti-Semitism in Charleston?
No. Although there is a lack of sensitivity or, I suppose one might say, willful ignorance of Jewish holidays in the schools that has definitely been a challenge. But, we haven’t had to deal with anti-Israeli sentiment which was more prevalent at my previous synagogue in Iowa.
What, if anything, makes Southern Judaism distinct?
Well, I don’t know of any other synagogue where the main course for Shabbat dinner is fried chicken!
The synagogue itself has great historical significance. How does that affect your relationship with it and with the congregation?
I love being the sanctuary on Shabbat morning with the light that pours into through the stained glass windows. The space feels eternal. It could be 1850 then. When I sing the Sh’ma, I sing the first part out loud and the response softly. I do that because when I lower my voice with my eyes closed, I feel I can hear the voices of other people who have been there and the generations to come. There are certain moments when it just happens and I can feel the presence of how my people have come through that space. When I hear the organ, I have the sense of grander that this is so much bigger than me and so much bigger than this place in time and I’m so honored to be a part of it.