It was born more than two centuries ago, the brainchild of a group of post-Revolutionary War Jewish men wanting to help the city’s struggling orphans and widows.
Since then, the Hebrew Orphan Society has grown and morphed so that it now comprises 36 of Charleston’s most prominent Jewish residents who still band together to address local needs. Today is their annual business meeting, and in coming weeks, they will install a new president and celebrate the 213th anniversary.
“It’s an honorary organization for people who want to be more than honorary,” said Eileen Chepenik, Trident Literacy Association executive director and a society member.
The Hebrew Orphan Society’s founders, many of them successful merchants, organized in 1801 to provide for the city’s widows, orphans and children of indigent parents.
At the time, Charleston’s Jewish community was the nation’s largest. Many of the city’s 100 or so Jewish families enjoyed its post-Revolutionary prosperity and wanted to help others in need.
In 1833, the society purchased the building at 88 Broad St. to use for meetings and education, among other needs.
The building was not widely used as an orphanage aside from a brief time before the Civil War. Instead, society members placed orphans in private homes and then donated clothes, education and money to them, according to “The Hebrew Orphan Society of Charleston, S.C.,” a historical sketch by Thomas J. Tobias.
In 1931, society members sold the building, which had been used as a Civil War hospital.
Then came a time of change when the philanthropic group added more members and opened membership to women.
The society expanded to 36 lifetime members. The number is significant because it refers to the Hebrew word chai, which means “life” or “living” and whose letters add up to 18 (and 36 is a multiple of 18).
Today’s members include such prominent Jewish residents as Anita Zucker, Henry Freudenberg, Martin Perlmutter, Edwin Pearlstine, David Cohen and Joe Sokol. Six of the 36 are women.
“It’s an honor,” said Billy Olasov, one of the society’s committee chairmen. There is no requirement for members to donate resources, but membership “illustrates their desire to help this community in one way or another.”
Today, the society provides scholarships to low-income South Carolina students and grants to various secular and Jewish nonprofit groups.
The Hebrew Orphan Society holds its annual meeting today.
On Dec. 10, members will install President-elect Dr. Alan Nussbaum who replaces current President Dr. Haskell Ellison.
The society also recently selected two new members in recognition of their achievements and work in the community based on the Jewish concept of tzedakah, a commitment to helping the less fortunate and in preserving Jewish institutions.
Membership is lifelong, so new members only come on board after a death or someone moves away. The two openings follow the death of Maurice Fox and MUSC President Dr. Ray Greenberg’s move to Texas.
The new members are Holocaust survivor Joe Engel and Linda Cohen whose husband, David, also is a member.
Among other efforts, the society helps to fund medical needs in the community and provides grants to various secular and Jewish nonprofits. It also donates to Jewish educational institutions, including Addlestone Hebrew Academy.
For instance, the society awards 10 to 20 annual college scholarships worth a total of $50,000 or more each year thanks to a $500,000 gift from Dr. N. Edgar Miles in the 1990s.
“We always have had an emphasis on Jewish education,” said Dr. Bill Golod, the society’s secretary and treasurer.
Miles wanted to give back to Charleston’s Jewish community, which had helped him while growing up and attending college here until he became a doctor and settled in Alabama.
“His gift has been the basis of those scholarships since,” Olasov said.
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