It’s a serene and lovely place where hundreds of Sumter’s Jews are buried. A certain vibrancy buzzes in the warm air, for this burial ground is visibly active with use. People come and go, leave their stone markers and flowers, keep the car path that circumnavigates the gracious gazebo green-free.
Anita Rosenberg, visiting the town she spent half her childhood in, stops by the grave of her parents, Herbert and Virginia Rosefield, to pay her respects and remember the time when this city’s sole synagogue, Temple Sinai, was a thriving centerpiece of Jewish life, rich with tradition and history, filled with families and literally glowing with the light that filtered into the sanctuary through magnificent stained-glass windows.
Few people today are left to marvel at that warm light. Either they are buried in the cemetery or they have left this rural corner of South Carolina to pursue careers and raise families elsewhere. The congregation has dwindled to a handful of elderly worshippers, and the fate of Temple Sinai is sealed. It will close soon.
The full-time rabbis are all gone. The Sunday school is no more. There will be no new generation to carry on. The people in Charleston — at the Reform synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim and at the Jewish Federation — will act as executors of Temple Sinai’s estate. In the months to come, they will figure out what to do when the last observant Jew utters the last prayer and conjures the last memory in the old building. They will ensure that the comforts and grace of the centuries-old cemetery do not abandon the dead.
They will do so because of strong bonds between the two communities that date to the inception of the Colonies. They will do so because Southern Jewish life transcends any specific place.
Other Jewish communities — in Kingstree, Aiken, Orangeburg, Georgetown and Walterboro — have seen similar declines, even as Jewish populations in larger cities such as Charleston, Greenville and Columbia have grown.
All of these smaller rural communities in South Carolina and beyond share a similar story: A thriving merchant and professional class, with origins among the earliest Jewish settlers, provided plenty of reason for the sons to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. They inherited the trades, shops and professional careers practiced by the older generation. And they invited other Jews, new immigrants and extended family members living up North, to join in the bounty.
When towns grew, opportunities arose, and Jews were among those to seize them, often invited in to help bolster the urban business and professional classes. By the time World War II ended, Jewish populations in the state’s larger cities and towns were booming (relatively), and synagogues were teeming with worshippers, according to historian Dale Rosengarten, curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston.
While the rise of the Jewish community in small towns across the state was noteworthy, it was a phenomenon not unique to South Carolina, Rosengarten said. “It was national, it may not even have been regional,” she said.
In Sumter, a commercial crossroads, the postwar years were characterized by strong textile, manufacturing, biotech, retail and medical sectors.
Starting in the 18th century, the city drew many Jews from Charleston; the two communities are strongly connected even today.
Rosenberg’s grandfather had located there from Charleston to start a men’s hosiery mill. And she spent many of her earliest years attending services at Sumter’s Temple Sinai, where her father served as cantor.
Robert Moses, 91, remembers when the synagogue had a youth group, religious school and full-time rabbi. Its members were active in the city’s civic life. Moses, who worked in real estate, was president of the Rotary Club. One of the temple’s rabbis served as president of the YMCA. Moses’ brother, Richard P. Moses, was mayor of the town in the 1970s. His uncle, Herbert Moses, sat on City Council.
He said Sumter’s residents always have welcomed Jews, and intermarriage was common. “They loved us to death,” Moses quipped.
Roger Ackerman, 80, moved from a small town in North Carolina to Sumter with his family in 1965. Temple Sinai still was enjoying its postwar peak. Jewish families from nearby towns such as Summerton, Bishopville, Kingstree and Manning streamed into Sumter for weekend services, Ackerman said.
Perhaps 200 families once gathered at the synagogue then. Today, about 40 members are left, and most are in their 80s or 90s, the two men said.
Moses married a Catholic woman with whom he had five daughters. Three moved out of state; one lives in Charleston; the youngest, Elizabeth, is the only one who converted to Judaism. She was active in revitalizing Georgetown’s Jewish congregation, which has benefited from snowbirds and the tourist industry, and now works as a state park trooper in Union.
The decline of Sumter’s Jewish community can be attributed partially to the ease with which everyone got along, Moses said. “Jews were well-accepted by non-Jews, so assimilation was rampant,” he said.
Exacerbating the situation were rabbis who threw the baby out with the bath water, he added. They would not marry interfaith couples. They would deny non-Jews formal roles and responsibilities at the synagogue. “They turned their back on them.”
Ackerman has three children, all of whom have moved away. For a congregation to survive, someone must be there to receive the flame. “You’ve got to have young people,” he said.
A few years ago, those who remained at Temple Sinai began to discuss its imminent fate. It was a difficult topic, Moses and Ackerman said.
“This whole process is a very emotional thing for all of our members,” and especially for those who were born in Sumter, Ackerman said. “The congregation deserves a lot of credit. Some small congregations refuse to face reality.”
They already had been saving money, so they set up two endowments, managed by the Coastal Community Foundation, one for KKBE’s use with regard to the building, and one for the Charleston Jewish Federation, which will maintain the cemetery in perpetuity.
The Temple Sinai congregation contacted David Sarnat, then president of the Atlanta Jewish Federation and now president of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, to help them create something like a living will. Rosenberg, vice president of administration at KKBE, is acting as the Charleston-Sumter liaison.
For now, the synagogue will continue to operate — and prepare for the end.
“At what point do you say the temple is finished?” Moses asked.
The same dilemma is playing out in Walterboro, where 91-year-old Bernard Warshaw presides as patriarch of Temple Mount Sinai, the small synagogue near the center of town.
At its postwar peak, the Jewish population in Walterboro reached about 35 families. They would meet at the Masonic Hall to pray. In the late 1940s, it was decided that the community needed a synagogue, and in 1951 the cornerstone of Temple Mount Sinai was laid.
“We had a vibrant little temple,” said Warshaw’s wife, Ann. “We had a sisterhood, seders, holiday celebrations.”
Today, average attendance at a lay service is five. The temple seats about 100.
Warshaw, who attended The Citadel in Charleston with Robert Moses, joined the service and saw intense action in the European Theater. He fought his way up the Italian peninsula, participated in the Battle of the Bulge and eventually penetrated deep into Germany, reaching the Dachau concentration camp eight hours after it was liberated by the Americans. He opened two of the ovens himself. And he took a number of photographs of the bodies.
Remarkably, he emerged from the war physically unscathed, and in 1945 he joined the family business — Warshaw’s of Walterboro — a clothing store. The store was started by his parents, Murray and Dotty, 25 years earlier when they purchased it from Philip Bogoslow, and they maintained strong business ties to Charleston.
“Henry Berlin (the Charleston clothier) used to call us his country store,” Bernard Warshaw said.
On Jan. 1, 2000, when Warshaw was 80, he closed the store and retired from the clothing retail business. None of the Warshaws’ three daughters live in Walterboro, and only one lives nearby in Charleston.
At a recent Friday evening service, as a thunderstorm burst in the sky, Lewis Harris led prayers with his wife, Warshaw, the Siegel family and a couple of others in attendance. Afterward, Paul Siegel recalled when there were three or four Sunday school classes, when traveling rabbis cycled through Walterboro, when visitors appeared regularly in the pews.
The last big event was Joseph Siegel’s April 2010 bar mitzvah. Joseph traveled to KKBE for his Hebrew lessons.
Paul’s wife, Jayne Siegel, who was raised Methodist and who participates in both faith traditions, noted that synagogue membership isn’t the only one to decline in recent decades. Small-town churches, too, have seen congregations dwindle as people move away.
For now, the doors of the little temple will remain open. Walterboro’s Jews are not ready to face the problem their brothers and sisters in Sumter are dealing with, Warshaw said.
A robust and charismatic presence in the community, he is the force around which the town’s few remaining Jews gather, and he is not ready to let this distinctive social and religious component of Walterboro, this history that continues to be made, slip from his grasp.
“We (give) a lot of credit to Bernard Warshaw, not just here, but all around the state,” Paul Siegel said, for he is a primary source of Jewish pride and identity. “We are as strong as we believe.”
At Temple Sinai in Sumter, Moses and Ackerman cope with a combination of worry and peace. They know their beloved synagogue is in good hands, that KKBE will consider carefully the options and do the right thing.
But they know that none of the options are ideal: Perhaps the building will be sold to a church congregation. Perhaps it can be protected by the city or state as a historic site. Perhaps it will become a Jewish museum.
“We are deathly afraid it will be torn down,” Moses said.
Its 11 stained-glass windows, made in Germany more than 100 years ago, are magnificent testaments to what once was a flourishing community. Each is dedicated to a founding family — Schwartz, Levi, Moise, D’Ancona, Moses, Ryttenberg and others — names recognized by most of the town.
At the cemetery, the warm sun emphasizes the storm clouds accumulating to the south. Rosenberg leaves the grave of her parents knowing she will have many opportunities to return.
Too often, aging religious communities fail to make the necessary provisions to safeguard their property and history, said Judi Corsaro, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Charleston. But Ackerman and Moses and the rest of Sumter’s practicing Jews are visionaries. “They made some really hard decisions for their community,” Corsaro said.
Those buried in the graveyard, and those to die in the years to come, will have a secure resting place.
“It’s comforting to know that such an important cemetery, or burial ground, where your relatives are laid to rest, will always be taken care of,” Corsaro said. “We feel like it’s a privilege to be a part of this.”
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Robert Seigel of Charleston serves Temple Sinai in Sumter part-time, and sometimes assists in Walterboro, too. In previous editions of this story, Richard Moses was incorrectly referred to as father rather than brother.