Southern Jewish history soon will no longer remain a discipline limited to a few institutions in the South.
Thanks to a $144,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a recently formed stronghold of the Jewish experience in this neck of the American woods, the College of Charleston’s Center for Southern Jewish Culture, will organize a two-week intensive training seminar that will draw 25 professors and instructors in higher education to the Holy City next summer.
The educators will come from across the country. They will immerse themselves in regional Jewish history, visit important sites such as the Coming Street Cemetery and Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue, tour the city, attend special events and take a road trip to the Beaufort area. The goal is to provide these teachers with critical information about the Jewish experience in the South that they can incorporate in their own lessons.
The grant, part of the NEH’s Summer Seminars and Institutes for College and University Teachers program, is one of 10 awarded this year, amounting to a total of $1.4 million. It supports short-term programs of intensive study of topics in the humanities.
Shari Rabin, director of the Center for Southern Jewish Culture, is co-coordinator of the Charleston seminar with Dale Rosengarten, founding director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library and curator of Special Collections, and Michael R. Cohen, chair of Jewish Studies at Tulane University.
Rabin said that Southern Jewish history has gained currency in recent years, leading ultimately to the founding in 2014 of the center she directs. But organizations not ensconced in an academic setting, such as the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute for Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Miss., and the Southern Jewish Historical Society based in Marietta, Ga., have set the stage for a more rigorous approach to studying the Jewish experience in the South.
That history is rich. The first Jews arrived in Charleston in 1695. Jews fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Jews helped establish a strong merchant class throughout the South and beyond, strengthening local economies and adding vitality to small Southern towns.
Some Jews owned slaves and defended the Confederate cause; others regretted the old status quo. Some Jews sympathized with the agenda of the abolitionists and the civil rights movement, others remained silent or fought against change. Jews have enjoyed privilege in the South, and they have been targeted by anti-Semites.
Charleston is birthplace of the Reform Movement in the United States. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue (KKBE) in 1824 was the first this side of the Atlantic to embrace the new way of expressing Jewish identity. By the early 19th century, Charleston's Jewish community was the largest in the United States.
The area also has a Conservative synagogue (Emanu-El), two Orthodox synagogues (Dor Tikvah and Brith Sholom Beth Israel), and an active and growing Chabad community based in Mount Pleasant.
Rabin said the purpose of the two-week summer seminar is, in part, to help enhance what other academics already are studying and teaching.
“It’s basically a summer school for college professors on how to teach Southern Jewish history,” she said.
The summer scholars will learn about Jewish migration to the South, the role Jews played in economic and political life, regional attitudes toward Jews, and the interactions between Southern Jews and their Christian neighbors.
Rabin, Rosengarten and Cohen will be joined by six other instructors. They will share research, arrange field trips, discuss teaching methods and organize culinary events. They will focus on the Reconstruction period, which, Rabin said, deserves more academic scrutiny.
“There’s nothing like this in this field,” she said.
Rosengarten said news that the center has received the NEH grant was gratifying.
“I feel like we’ve worked really hard for it,” she said. “We started out back in 1995. The goal was to put South Carolina on the map of Jewish America. And we did it with ‘A Portion of the People.’ People realized, ‘Oh, there are Jews in South Carolina!’ ”
"A Portion of the People" was an multifaceted 2002 exhibition and book project that presented 300 years of Jewish life in the South.
Over the years, the field has grown, thanks to the Southern Jewish Historical Society and other groups, Rosengarten said.
“We’ve sort of ridden that wave to a certain extent, but we of course have also created that wave,” she said. “We’ve been working steadily for 25 years.”