Not many Orthodox rabbis, especially not ones immersed in Jewish hubs of the Northeast, raise their hands to serve small communities such as the Lowcountry, where a kosher deli is harder to find than a snowball or skyscraper.
But Rabbi Michael Davies did.
At 31, he was installed last week as the first rabbi of Dor Tikvah, a new modern Orthodox synagogue in West Ashley.
His installation brings to five the number of rabbis in town leading Jewish entities, remarkable given the area's Jewish population barely numbers 7,000, most of whom aren't even affiliated with a synagogue.
It's partly why since his arrival, Davies has set out a spiritual welcome mat that invites the faithful to come worship, even those who don't adhere to what some perceive as the Orthodox movement's rules, rules, rules.
Davies emphasizes the beauty of his tradition but recognizes reality.
Most Orthodox Jews drive on Shabbat, a day of rest and spiritual renewal. Some barely observe Shabbat in the first place.
Perhaps more importantly: Judaism in America faces real challenges. Most Jews are marrying non-Jews, and the percentage who identify as Jewish has declined sharply in recent decades, studies show.
So, if perceptions of rigidity keep people from stepping through Dor Tikvah's doors, Davies asks one thing: Simply bring a willingness to grow spiritually.
What began as the West Ashley minyan (a quorum of 10 adult males required for ritual prayer) incorporated as Dor Tikvah in 2012. The name means "Generation of Hope."
The group split off from the historic Brith Sholom Beth Israel in downtown Charleston partly to form an Orthodox house of worship closer to where many Jewish residents today live.
BSBI sits in the city's history-swathed downtown within walking distance of the College of Charleston's Jewish studies program.
However, downtown property values and other factors have prompted many Jewish residents, especially young families, to opt for the suburbs. The result is a thriving Jewish community in West Ashley.
It's a major reason why Dor Tikvah chose to plant itself at the Jewish Community Center, which also hosts under its West Ashley roof the Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston Jewish Social Services, the Charleston Jewish Federation, a kosher food pantry and, now, an Orthodox congregation.
"It's definitely a strength of where we are," Dor Tikvah President Jonathan Zucker says.
Six months after arriving in Charleston, Davies echoes the excitement of building a congregation amid the suburban hub of Jewish life.
"There's this sense of a new energy," Davies says.
He and his wife, Ora, teach at Addlestone. Their children, who are 4 and 2, attend its preschool and have made friends at Dor Tikvah, home to 50 family units, including many children.
"We have a real focus on kids in our congregation. It's amazing to see their energy and life," Davies says. "They are the future."
Another key to the future? What Davies calls his "opt-in" approach. As in, you opt to go to a synagogue. It's not an obligation. It's not a box to check off a spiritual to-do list.
It's taking the next step on a journey that starts in different places for different people.
For instance, Dor Tikvah just bought 20 trans-literary prayer books so people wouldn't be "intimidated that this is an all-Hebrew service," he says.
He also invites people with questions - why not drive on Shabbat? - to ask him. It's why he wanted to come to a smaller synagogue with breathing room to talk, to bond, to answer those questions.
For instance, the synagogue does, in keeping with Orthodox tradition, separate men and women during services. However, he notes, the divider goes down the center so that men and women sit in equal proximity to the rabbi.
But if people are still put off by the divider, Davies encourages them to come ask the question. And let him explain "why it's crucial to real connectivity during the service."
"I want to have an ongoing relationship with whoever walks into our doors, so we have to start that conversation," Davies says. "I can't promise all of the answers or that they will like the answers. But I am hopeful that something resonates with them, or that we will work through it together. Whatever comes can only be good."
Dor Tikvah's members include a range of observance levels. Only about 15 percent don't drive on the sabbath.
"In some communities, they close the parking lot and definitely give you a look if you're driving," Zucker says.
Here, the welcome mat remains regardless.
"It's nice to know the rabbi has his eye on opportunities to really reach people and help them establish their own journey," Zucker adds. "We believe there is tremendous opportunity to reach people and help them recognize the greatness of our tradition."
Growing in faith
Eight years ago, while he was a rabbinical student, Davies visited Charleston with a friend who invited him for the High Holiday season.
A local family invited him into their home. He felt that welcome mat laid out for him and formed relationships that endure today.
"I was really taken with the hospitality," he recalls.
As a new rabbi, he took his first post in Oakland, Calif. He and Ora married, then spent their honeymoon on a cross-country road trip from New York to San Francisco.
Both grew up in families heavily involved in their Jewish communities. Davies hails from New Jersey where he attended Jewish schools.
He went to Israel for his gap year, which turned into two years, after which he returned only at his father's insistence.
It was time to pick a career. So, Davies went to accounting school and landed a job.
Trouble was, Davies is a people person. With a broad smile and friendly brown eyes, he's the personification of that welcome mat.
Davies applied to a rabbinic program. He found himself back in Israel for two years studying at Yeshiva University's Jerusalem satellite, free to focus on his studying and spiritual growth.
One day someone from Yeshiva's placement office asked, who's interested in serving beyond New York's tri-state area?
Few hands raised. One was his.
"Send me wherever you want," he said, "and I'll love it."
Welcome to Charleston
During an early interview with his future congregation, someone mentioned the lack of Jewish infrastructure in town.
The rest is telltale Davies.
Sure, Oakland has a larger Jewish population. But it's dispersed, and most Jews there aren't observant, so it was still hard to find kosher food.
One of his first stops here was at a Publix with a whole kosher section. So he had a starting point.
Davies simply comes across as a half-full kind of guy, one who reinforces an upbeat, interactive teaching style with a fondness for singing and guitar.
Along with teaching at Addlestone's middle school, "Rabbi Davies has been gracious in sharing his love of Jewish music with our students of all ages, which has truly added to the warmth and spirit of our school," says Ariela Davies, Addlestone's Judaic coordinator and wife of BSBI's Rabbi Moshe Davis.
That effect is why Zucker says he feels great hope for the future. Others seem to agree.
"His warmth, scholarship and ability to listen bode well for the future of Dor Tikvah and the larger Charleston community," says Martin Perlmutter, director of the College of Charleston's Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program and a professor of Jewish studies and philosophy. "I look forward to learning from him."
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.
Rabbi Michael Davies (right) has a lively discussion with 14-year-old Aaron Levine during Torah Study at Addelstone Hebrew Academy last week.×
Notice about comments: