New Southern Jewish culture center at the College of Charleston to highlight city's unique history
At one historic time, Charleston was the nation's hub of Jewish life and religious freedom, giving rise to a rich Jewish heritage that endures today.
Jewish timeline in Charleston
As the College of Charleston launches the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, experts Adam Mendelsohn and Dale Rosengarten compiled this timeline of Charleston's rich Jewish history for The Post and Courier.
1669: Carolina's Fundamental Constitutions offers freedom of worship to "Jews, Heathens, and other Dissenters from the purity of the Christian Religion."
1697: Simon Valentine joins three other "aliens of the Jewish nation" and 60 French Protestants in a petition to the Colonial governor for naturalization.
1749: Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim formed.
1774: Francis Salvador is elected to the First Provincial Congress of South Carolina. Salvador becomes the first professing Jew in America to serve in a legislative assembly.
1784: Hebrew Benevolent Society, still in existence today, is organized.
1791: KKBE petitions for incorporation and, in 1794, completes construction of the first synagogue in Charleston. For the next 30 years, the city is home to the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in the U.S.
1801: Hebrew Orphan Society, still in existence, is organized.
1824: Forty-seven men petition KKBE's adjunta to modernize the traditional worship service. Rebuffed, they create the "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit," the first sustained program of religious reform among Jews in America. It survives until 1833, when most members affiliate again with KKBE.
1838: Sally Lopez establishes a Sunday school, the second in the U.S., for KKBE. The synagogue is destroyed by a devastating fire that burns much of downtown Charleston.
1840: David Lopez rebuilds KKBE's sanctuary. The congregation votes by a bare majority to install an organ to provide music, resulting in the secession of the traditionalists, who form congregation Shearit Israel.
1854: Orthodox Congregation Brith Sholom is organized, initially under the leadership of Hirsch Zvi Margolis Levine, an ordained rabbi from Lithuania.
1861: Moses Cohen Mordecai's steam-sail ship, The Isabel, carries federal forces off Fort Sumter in the opening volley of the Civil War. Franklin J. Moses Jr. is among men who raise the Confederate flag over the fort. After the war, Moses joins the Radical Republicans and serves as governor of South Carolina between 1872 and 1874, becoming the state's most notorious scalawag.
1866: Unable to sustain separate congregations in the Civil War aftermath, Shearit Israel and KKBE negotiate a merger.
1895: Charleston Council of Jewish Women is founded.
1910: Charleston Hebrew School is organized by Brith Sholom.
1911: Recent immigrants, including many from Kaluszyn, Poland, found Beth Israel. Locally known as the Little Shul, the Kalushiner Shul or the Greener Shul, Beth Israel meets several blocks north of Brith Sholom on St. Philip Street.
1923: Hebrew School and Jewish Community Center open at 58 George St.
1947: Conservative congregation Emanu-El breaks from Brith Sholom.
1948: Beth Israel dedicates a new synagogue on Rutledge Avenue.
1954: Brith Sholom and Beth Israel merge to become Brith Sholom Beth Israel. Two years later, the "Big Shul" moves into the "Little Shul" on Rutledge Avenue.
1956: Hebrew Institute becomes a day school now called Addlestone Hebrew Academy.
1966: JCC dedicates new building on what is now Raoul Wallenberg Boulevard in West Ashley.
1979: Emanu-El dedicates a new synagogue in West Ashley.
1984: The College of Charleston initiates a Jewish Studies Program thanks to a gift from Henry and Sylvia Yaschik, matched by Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold.
1994: Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina is organized, administered by the Jewish Studies Program. The Jewish Heritage Collection established at the College of Charleston library.
1998: Holocaust Memorial on Marion Square dedicated.
2002: Construction begins on the Sylvia Yaschik Jewish Studies Center at the College of Charleston.
2012: Breakaway group from BSBI becomes new Orthodox congregation, Dor Tikvah.
2014: Dor Tikvah installs its first rabbi, Michael Davies; The College of Charleston receives $1.5 million gift from the Pearlstine/Lipov family for a new Center for Southern Jewish Culture.
Jewish history here has roots so deep, especially for a smallish Southern city, that one of its oldest families is donating $1.5 million to create a center for Southern Jewish culture at the College of Charleston.
"This is the exclamation point on so much Jewish history in South Carolina," said Susan Pearlstine, whose family donated the money and whose children form part of its seventh generation of Charlestonians. "It is to show respect for what Jews in South Carolina came to accomplish - and did accomplish."
The new center will be housed at the college's Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center, home to the college's growing Jewish studies program.
Formally called The Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, the new center will emphasize Judaism's long and unique history here, woven as it is through the city's calamities and triumphs, and through families like the Pearlstines' own births, deaths and successes.
"Their lives are Southern Jewish history," said Martin Perlmutter, Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program director and a professor of Jewish studies and philosophy.
Unique story to tell
Jewish residents have settled in Charleston for more than 300 years, since long before the nation's founding.
Unique story to tell
Until 1820, Charleston was home to the country's largest Jewish population, surpassing even New York City.
The state changed the face of American Jewish life.
Reform Judaism was born here. The city is home to the oldest Hebrew Orphan Society, the oldest Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first temple sisterhood, the first Jew elected to public office in the western world and so on.
"It shows a level of acceptance here that we didn't have anywhere else," Perlmutter said.
Despite the city's admirable history of religious pluralism, its Jewish story isn't told enough, he said. And looking in from the outside, who would guess that a mostly Christian Southern city would harbor so many Jewish firsts?
That's why the Southern Jewish culture center will build on what no other program in the world can duplicate, given the college's location and the city's unique history.
"If we're going to be nationally significant, the place that will be is in Southern Jewish studies," Perlmutter said.
Due in large part to its Jewish studies program, more than 800 of the college's students are Jewish today. Most come from out of state but wind up staying here, renourishing the area's broader Jewish community.
"We love what the College of Charleston has brought to the community," said Jan Pearlstine Lipov, whose children also make up the seventh generation of Pearlstines in town. "They bring people from all over the world here."
Today, Jewish studies has four faculty positions, two endowed chairs and an academic major and minor. In recent years, it has added the Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Studies. And Perlmutter foresees an Israel studies center in its future.
It's also getting more physical space. An addition set to open in August 2015 will double the building's size and add a kosher dining hall, the only one in town.
Beyond that building, the college's Jewish Heritage Collection at the Addlestone Library already has amassed an archival record of the Southern Jewish history, spearheaded by Dale Rosengarten, curator of the library's Special Collections.
Now comes the Southern Jewish culture center.
"The secret is out. The South has an amazing Jewish history," Rosengarten said. "Now, thanks to the Pearlstine and Lipov families, we are creating a center that scholars have been waiting for."
Adam Mendelsohn agrees. The professor of Jewish Studies teaches Southern Jewish history and will direct the new center.
"The center will be a source of distinction for the College of Charleston: No other university has devoted the resources and attention to studying this fascinating subject," he said.
Take the Pearlstine family, which has been in Charleston for longer than most Jews have been anywhere in America.
"Not many cities in the world have seventh generations of a whole family," Perlmutter said. "They are a piece of Charleston's long and rich history."
Their story here began with Thomas Pearlstine, who emigrated from Poland with his son, I.M. Pearlstine, in the 1850s to escape violent anti-Semitism. His wife joined them later to raise a family whose story mirrors that of many new Americans seeking religious and cultural freedoms.
In the 1880s, the family moved to Charleston, beginning a more than century-long relationship with the Holy City.
Over time, the family expanded their grocery business, I.M. Pearlstine & Sons, and then operated Pearlstine Distributors Inc., one of the oldest and largest privately owned companies in South Carolina.
"We all were Charlestonians first and foremost," said Jane Pearlstine Meyerson, the senior living family member in town. "We all loved Charleston, and still do."
They went to Charleston's schools, fought America's wars, raised their children and built their business.
Milton Pearlstine was a founding member of the S.C. State Ports Authority. Edwin S. Pearlstine Jr. fought in WWI and became an advocate for veterans. Jane's husband, Gerald Meyerson, fought the Nazis in Europe during WWII. Her mother, Jeanette Felsenthal Pearlstine, was the first woman appointed to the Charleston County School Board back in the 1940s. And so on.
With so much success, they have given much back.
Lipov and Susan Pearlstine recalled their grandmother's favorite saying: "Charity is the price you pay for the space you occupy."
In keeping with "tzedakah," a Jewish commitment to giving, the Pearlstine family has donated $1 million to the Hollings Cancer Center. The Pearlstines also gave another $1 million to their synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, birthplace of American Reform Judaism and where the family has worshipped for all seven generations.
The list goes on, including the Hebrew Orphan Society, the Jewish Federation, the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge, Coastal Community Foundation and more.
"When you have a family like ours that has been steeped in Charleston history for so long, you ask yourself: What do you want your legacy in the community to be?" Lipov said.
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