Charleston synagogue hopes to raise six figures for cemetery work

Randi Serrins ( center ) took a group on a tour of the Coming Street cemetery Sunday,.Officials with KKBE arranged the tour to encourage financial support for the cemetery's preservation. Leroy Burnell/Staff 4/17/2016

One of the South’s most historic Jewish sites faces a new threat from an unlikely source: tree roots.

The Coming Street cemetery is one of Charleston’s National Historic Landmarks and is considered one of the nation’s earliest and most significant Jewish burial grounds,

And it needs help.

Like any old cemetery, maintaining the landscaping and grave markers is challenging, but this cemetery has another issue, too.

Its 12-foot walls that separate it from the sidewalk and surrounding homes are crumbling — a victim of age, development and a misguided beautification effort decades ago. Repairing them ultimately could cost as much as $2 million.

That’s why officials with Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the synagogue affiliated with the cemetery, opened its gates Sunday afternoon and gave a tour to a few dozen people who could help with preservation here.

Many in the group were members of the city’s Jewish community, including members of the Hebrew Benevolent Society, Hebrew Orphanage Society and Charleston Jewish Federation, most indicated they had not stepped foot inside before.

Randi Serrins, co-chair of KKBE’s cemetery committee, was one of the tour guides.

“We don’t have an endowment for the cemetery,” she said, “so it’s fair to say we’re constantly scrambling for money.”

The synagogue already has hired a structural engineer to survey the walls, and it has worked with contractor Meadors Construction to seek the city’s Board of Architectural Review’s permission for fixing them.

Fillmore Wilson of Meadors said the walls essentially need to be taken down and rebuilt. The BAR has said the work must reuse the same brick, even on the inside.

But Wilson said the cemetery’s unique location poses the greatest challenge.

“All of the walls abut multiple properties, and they’re all zero lot lines,” he says. Meanwhile, the density of graves and tombstones make it difficult to find space to work and store materials.

“It’s staggeringly expensive. Not because taking the wall apart and replacing it is so difficult. It’s just the logistics,” he said. “It’s such a difficult place to work.”

The cemetery already has talked to the city’s Board of Architectural Review to line up its permission for the work.

The first phase will involve rebuilding about 100 feet of wall perpendicular to Coming Street —at the cemetery’s northwest corner.

“That one is in danger of collapsing,” Wilson said. “They have several other ones that are precarious.”

The first phase of the work is expected to cost $225,000, and the synagogue has raised only about $70,000 so far.

Once the financing is in place, the cemetery’s caretakers hope to start work on the most damaged wall sections, as they continue to raise awareness and support to secure the rest. “It could take another 20 years,” Serrins said.

Those on Sunday’s tour didn’t just learn about the challenges facing the cemetery but about its past glory.

The Coming Street Cemetery covers about three-fourths of an acre and dates back more than 250 years: It’s the South’s oldest surviving Jewish burial ground and is the resting place for veterans who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the War of 1812.

It remained the city’s primary Jewish cemetery until a new one was established in 1887 on Huguenin Avenue. The cemetery is still active, although only a few plots have any room left.

Anita Rosenberg, president of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, noted that today’s Coming Street Cemetery actually is a combination of three separate burial sites, including KKBE’s and a once separate cemetery of Jews who split off because they were less interested in reform, as well as the Lopez family plot, which contains its most ornate grave.

The group wound its way past graves marked by broken columns, weeping willows and obelisks, as well as past a small section of brick wall that Meadors workers erected for the city’s official review.

Several graves were topped with small stones — the Jewish equivalent of leaving flowers after visiting. The group also walked past a mature magnolia and brick walls riddled with cracks, undulations and missing mortar.

And they walked past a fresh stump the size of a breakfast table —all that remains of what had been downtown Charleston’s largest elm tree. The cemetery’s curators tried to remove it three years ago without success, but the city finally approved its removal only after damage from last October’s storms revealed its deteriorating condition.

“They can’t get root grinding equipment through the gate, so we just have to wait for it to rot,” Serrins said.

The cemetery’s walls are its mixed blessing. Once inside, they provide a sense of tranquility and security from the city all around.

On the other hand, the walls not only need maintenance, but they also can keep the cemetery off the minds of many. While KKBE volunteers provide tours upon request, others can only grab a glimpse through one of two narrow gates along Coming Street.

Ava Kleinman, vice president of the Charleston Jewish Federation, was among those who took Sunday’s tour. While she had visited it about four times before, she seemed as impressed as others who were seeing it for the first time.

“It’s ironic that you come to a cemetery, and history comes alive,” Kleinman said. “You always learn something new.”

Reach Robert Behre at (843) 937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.