About 30 years ago, a group of Orthodox Jewish worshippers formed a minyan in the South Windermere neighborhood of West Ashley. The minyan, or quorum of 10 adult males, is the requirement for ritual prayer.
The group formed so it could avoid driving downtown and, therefore, keep the Sabbath. The other reason was demographic. Increasingly Jews were relocating to the suburbs, especially West Ashley. Property there was affordable, and the suburban lifestyle was attractive to young families.
About six years ago, another minyan was formed for the same reasons. The prayer group gathered at the Jewish Community Center at 1645 Raoul Wallenberg Blvd., near their homes and at a location that has become a focal point of Jewish life in Charleston.
In the years since, the gathering has grown, pulling some younger people away from Brith Sholom Beth Israel synagogue on Rutledge Avenue downtown and prompting the formation of a new Orthodox temple called Dor Tikvah.
“Suburban living is more appealing to families,” said B. Jay Novit, a 26-year-old member of Dor Tikvah. “Facts on the ground caused this to happen.”
The new synagogue’s name means “Generation of Hope,” and President Jonathan Zucker said he wants to emphasize the opportunities presented by the new enterprise, not dwell on the history of sometimes acrimonious disagreement over where and how Orthodox Jews should worship together.
For Zucker, Novit and others, Dor Tikvah is about building (and rebuilding) bridges. It’s about centralizing Jewish culture and expression, strengthening Orthodox families and bolstering Jewish identity.
“We’re trying to create excitement around tradition,” Zucker said.
Zucker, president of The InterTech Group, is married with two children. The death of his father, Jerry Zucker, in 2008 was “a shock to the system,” he said, and it provoked introspection about Jonathan’s ethnic and religious heritage and how he will affirm that heritage over the course of his life.
He is motivated, in part, by stark trends among American Jews. Broadly speaking, only the ultra-orthodox Hasidim is sustaining a cohesive religious and cultural identity and managing to increase the size of its population.
Most other Jews — members of Reform and Conservative congregations, the unaffiliated and the secular — are intermarrying and assimilating, causing some Jewish observers to worry about the future.
Before 1970, about 17 percent of American Jews married outside their religion. Since 2000, about half are married to non-Jews, according to the Jewish Federations of North America.
The vast majority of the 6.6 million Jews in the United States, representing about 2.1 percent of the total population, are not Orthodox. And the vast majority of Charleston’s 6,000 Jews are not Orthodox.
Zucker said he’s worried about “a complacency, an apathy toward religious organization membership,” and hoping to inspire local Jews to discover the benefits of religious and cultural solidarity.
Dor Tikvah’s members gather every day at the JCC, where they pay rent for use of the space. Sabbath services on Friday evening and Saturday draw about 60-70 adult worshippers. Lay leaders preside, and a full Torah portion is read every week.
In June, members voted to adopt a constitution. On July 9, they incorporated. Thanks to successful fundraising, the congregation started a formal search for a full-time rabbi last month, Zucker said.
A full schedule of worship and fellowship is planned for the High Holy Days, which begin with Rosh Hashana at sundown Sept. 16.
Ben Chase, a member of Dor Tikvah and former president of BSBI, said the initial trauma caused by the recent fracture is now relegated to the past, and hopefully healing can ensue. “The worst is behind us,” he said.
He was president of BSBI when Rabbi Ari Sytner joined in 2004. The young rabbi and his family represented the future of Orthodox Judaism in Charleston, and they sided with those advocating relocation to West Ashley, Chase said.
But not everyone wanted to move.
“I think the Dor Tikvah congregation fills a need for members to pray and learn near where they live,” Chase said.
Ben Chase’s mother, Leah Chase, who has supported the West Ashley advocates, said the challenges facing downtown urban houses of worship, and not only Jewish congregations, are threatening their survival.
“In many other cities, downtown synagogues are defunct because the next generation moved to suburbs,” she said. “That’s what’s happening in Charleston, yet we have people who resist us.”
Larry Haber, a member of BSBI who recently served as co-chairman of the rabbi search committee, said he regretted the split.
“I cannot speak for BSBI, I can only speak for myself,” he said. “For those who are glad to see it happen, it’s a spinoff; for those who are sorry to see it happen, it’s a breakaway.”
Haber said he understands and respects the choice Dor Tikvah congregants made to establish a new center of Orthodoxy in West Ashley. He acknowledged the Sabbath requirements that forbid driving and other activities.
But, he said, it’s unlikely that Charleston can support two distinct Orthodox synagogues long term, and he hopes the day will come when the two groups can reunite.
“I personally don’t necessarily think that there’s anything here that’s irreparable,” Haber said. “The core over there are good folks and mean to do good.”
The long-term solution probably is to set up various worship locations around the city that function under one authority, he said.
BSBI’s new rabbi, Moshe Davis, comes from just such a situation in Houston, Haber said. The United Orthodox Synagogue of Houston has multiple minyanim stretched across the city.
The Rutledge Avenue location is important to maintain because the synagogue, along with Ashley Hall School, anchors the neighborhood, Haber said. And it’s walking distance from the College of Charleston’s Jewish Studies Center, which hosts many public events.
What’s more, Jews live throughout the tri-county area, and many of the Orthodox would have to drive on the Sabbath no matter where the synagogue is located, he said. “I don’t care if they drive, just so we get them to come.”
Right now, Haber said, the split is painful, the wounds raw. But reconciliation is possible.
“Things change,” he said. “The day will come when we ask, ‘What are we fighting about?’ ”
Novit grew up in Charleston and had his bar mitzvah at BSBI. He counts himself among the young Jews who want to cultivate a strong religious identity and immerse themselves in ritual practice to preserve and grow traditional Judaism in America.
While a student at the College of Charleston, he got involved in the nascent Dor Tikvah congregation. “I felt a pull toward this amazing group of people,” he said.
He married within the faith in February 2010 and turns his focus on the Jewish Community Center in West Ashley as ground zero of Jewish life in the Lowcountry.
“Without the JCC’s assistance over past years, we would not be the synagogue we are today,” Novit said.
Judi Corsaro, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Charleston and Jewish Community Center, noted that the JCC location is host to a kosher food pantry, the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston Jewish Social Services, the federation and, now, a new Orthodox congregation.
“Our mission is to promote Jewish life for all Jewish members of the community,” Corsaro said. “We are thrilled to have anybody be part of the Jewish campus.”
The addition of Dor Tikvah, she said, contributes to the revitalization of the campus.
“In part, it’s because Jewish Charleston keeps changing,” she said. “It used to be east of the Cooper where a lot of Jewish families were moving.”
But now it’s all across the region, and especially in suburban West Ashley. “So West Ashley has become centrally located for everybody.”
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