James Dessaure

Synagogue Emanu-El sexton James Dessaure talks about the friendships he has made over his 40 years of service to the West Ashley Synagogue. Brad Nettles/Staff

He's not Jewish, but James Dessaure can share more about the historic Synagogue Emanu-El than many of its congregants. 

The Goose Creek resident, who attends a Baptist church in North Charleston, can explain Kosher dietary rules and knows there are 36 different types of light bulbs inside the synagogue.

"It's one of the most beautiful places I've seen," said Dessaure, sporting a black kippah as he examined the sanctuary that he's helped maintain for 40 years.

Serving as the synagogue's sexton, Dessaure has worked at Emanu-El as long as the building itself existed. Not only has he been there to witness the temple weather hurricanes, expand its facility and deal with membership decline, Dessaure has formed inseparable relationships with the congregants of the West Ashley synagogue.

On Tuesday, just days before the congregation would honor him and his wife, Evelyn, with a retirement celebration, Dessaure reflected on his experience.

Dessaure, 74, had been living in the Charleston area since his mid-30s when he came across a newspaper ad seeking to fill the temple's sexton position. 

The job was supposed to be temporary because Dessaure planned to quit as soon as he saved enough money to pay for a new washing machine. He had no idea he'd form lifelong relationships with its members and become a pillar in the historic house of worship. 

"Six months turned into 40 years," he said. 

James Dessaure

Synagogue Emanu-El sexton James Dessaure talks about the friendships he has made over his 40 years of service to the West Ashley Synagogue. Brad Nettles/Staff

Dessaure didn't know much about Judaism growing up. The closest connection he had to the faith was through his mother, who worked as a maid for a Jewish family in Eutawville. But now, having been employed by the synagogue more than half his life, he's grown to see the Jewish worshipers as family.

On Friday nights, he's activates lights on the yahrzeit boards, the memorial board that honors synagogue members on the anniversary of their deaths. Each time he lights a bulb, he takes time to remember the deceased worshipers, who he says were "like family."

"Some of them don't have (family members) who are still living," he said. "I always felt like I was the in-between."

Dessaure has been an integral part in ensuring that the building is still standing and remains comfortable for worshipers. In addition to wiping walls and cleaning floors, Dessaure has fixed broken air conditioning units and heating systems. He's also doubled as a cook, preparing meals for members to enjoy after Shabbat services. 

Dessaure has operated as the synagogue's in-house caterer and in-house maintenance professional. He said it's always been his nature to do more than what's required in a job.

None of the synagogue's prior sextons compare to Dessaure, said member Samuel Steinberg. They had regular maintenance issues that didn't seem to get resolved until Dessaure showed up.

"When James came to work here, it all kind of disappeared," Steinberg said.

Members applauded Dessaure's dedication and ability to fix appliances, calling it a God-given talent. His skills are mostly self taught. Dessaure didn't obtain a formal education beyond high school and often learned by watching colleagues in his former jobs.

His dedication to the temple has cost him. Between working at the synagogue and his full-time manufacturing job, Dessaure missed out on vacations and other weekend activities. He's even neglected his own health and once pushed off a surgery until after the Jewish Holy Days, when the temple would be less busy.

To express their gratitude over the years, members have thrown the Dessaure couple two appreciation services, one which included a cruise.

Like many houses of worship across the region, Emanu-El has grappled with the region's changes and growth. The congregation, which dates back to the mid-20th century when a conservative Jewish group broke away from an Orthodox congregation, moved from the peninsula to West Ashley to be near its younger membership.

Since then, the Conservative Jewish congregation, now located near the Ashley River off a bustling thoroughfare, has declined in membership from 475 to 370 families, said member Gloria Addelson. 

Dessaure said a similar trend has happened at his home church, Canaan Baptist, where, despite his obligations at the synagogue, he has remained active.

Though Christianity has Jewish roots, the two faiths differ today in theological beliefs and traditions. But despite cultural and religious differences between himself and the Jewish congregation, Dessaure says he's "always been a person who has respected other people's religion."

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.