The living and the dead

Anita Rosenberg (right), chairwoman of the restoration project committee, and Randi Serrins, a committee member, consult on the grounds of the historic Coming Street Cemetery.

When party revelers who’d jumped the wall of the historic Coming Street Cemetery damaged 33 headstones in March 2009, the vandalism emphasized the graveyard’s delicate state and historical value, heightening the concern for it among Charleston’s Jewish community.

This compact resting place dates to the first half of the 1700s. Congregation Beth Elohim, now Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, purchased it in 1764 from Isaac DaCosta, an early Jewish settler. The oldest known grave is that of Moses D. Cohen, the first ritual leader of the synagogue. He died in 1762.

The Coming Street Cemetery is the oldest surviving Colonial Jewish burial ground in the South. And it’s still in use: at least five more people will be buried there, anyone whose genealogy traces back to the early congregants.

Anita Moise Rosenberg and her husband, Ira, are two with numerous ancestors buried in the graveyard. Anita Rosenberg is chairwoman of the cemetery restoration project and vice president of administration at KKBE.

The vandalism was the work of students who’d climbed over the wall to party and then got carried away. It was heartbreaking, she says. It was an attack not only on the dead and their families, but on history itself.

The cemetery has undergone repairs over the years, including a major restoration effort in the early 1960s, spearheaded by KKBE member Thomas Tobias.

In the mid-1990s, another effort was planned at an estimated cost of $240,000, which was to include a careful survey and inventory, archaeological research and various repairs. But the work was not completed.

Today, in the wake of the recent vandalism, the synagogue reasserts its determination to restore and preserve the site. About $40,000 already has been collected from KKBE members, and new grant money has added about $11,000 to the cause.

The Henry and Sylvia Yaschik Foundation just awarded a $10,000 grant to help launch the latest restoration effort, and the Joanna Foundation provided $1,000 to spend on stabilizing the badly damaged northwest wall.

Much of the brick wall dates to the founding of the burial grounds before the Revolutionary War. Time, trees and construction nearby have compromised the wall. The northwest corner features a massive crack where the bricks have split apart several inches.

Rosenberg points out the luminaries of old Charleston, men who fought in all of the wars, esteemed rabbis, civic leaders. She has descended from many of them — the large Moise and Lazarus clans — and the emblems of their contributions are evident everywhere.

The carved anchor designates a successful merchant. The hands embossed on the surface of a grave cover represent the spiritual leader buried below. Plaques summarize entire lives. A cannon, pointed downward, signifies a wartime death. Here is Benjamin Franklin Moise; across the path rests Thomas Jefferson Moise.

“These were patriotic people,” Rosenberg says. “They wanted very much to be part of the community.”

When the DaCosta family wanted to buy land to bury their loved ones, they were required to look outside the city limits, beyond Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street).

This wasn’t the first Jewish cemetery in the Charleston area. Jews had been living here since 1695, according Thomas Tobias, who authored “Tombstones That Tell Stories: The Historic Coming Street Cemetery” in 1958, a text revised in 2000 by the late Solomon Breibart. Tobias’ ancestor, Abraham Tobias, established a small burial ground at his plantation near Hobcaw east of the Cooper years before.

A Jewish community is defined, in part, by its proximity to its dead, according to historian Theodore Rosengarten. For this reason, the long-standing concern for the Coming Street Cemetery is rooted not only in a sense of place and historical purpose, but in a sense of identity and cultural inheritance.

“Though Jews regard death as a more definitive break with life than Christians do, the dead to them are a more vital part of the community,” Rosengarten wrote in a 1995 essay. “In fact, the notion of a Jewish community is predicated on having a place to bury the dead. The Coming Street Cemetery thus possesses special value to people related by blood and culture to those buried here because the dead complete the social picture.”

But that common culture was breached in 1840, when, building a new synagogue to replace one destroyed by an 1838 fire, Beth Elohim installed an organ. Traditionalists walked out, forming Shearit Israel and purchasing land adjacent to the DaCosta tract for their burials. A wall was erected to separate the dead.

In 1843, a leader of the new congregation, David Lopez, lost his wife, Catherine, who had been born a Christian and never converted. She was, therefore, denied burial privileges in the cemetery, so Lopez bought a sliver of adjacent land for Catherine and the rest of his family.

In 1857, Shearit Israel added acreage to its cemetery holdings with the purchase of the Rikersville tract in the Neck Area of the peninsula, but the area was prone to flooding.

The Civil War wrought its destruction, and in 1866 a destitute Jewish community reunited congregations and cemeteries alike. The wall dividing reformers and traditionalists at the Coming Street site came down. By 1889, the dampened dead at Rikersville were moved to a new cemetery on Huguenin Avenue, built on land bought from the Washington Light Infantry.

Buried in the Coming Street graveyard are remarkable figures of Charleston. Michael Lazarus opened the Savannah River for steam navigation. His son, Joshua, introduced gas lighting to the city.

Penina Moise was a beloved poet and hymn writer whose legacy is well-known among today’s congregants of KKBE.

Joseph Levy was a veteran of the Cherokee War of 1760 and the first Jewish officer of the American Colonies. At least a dozen veterans of the Revolutionary War found their final resting places on Coming Street, including Francis Salvador, who was the first Jew elected to the legislative assembly and the first Jew to die in the war. He was killed in an ambush after warning his fellow frontiersmen of pending Indian attacks instigated by the British and their loyalist followers.

What Salvador did before the Revolutionary War was perhaps even more impressive. In cooperation with the DaCosta family, he arranged for 42 Jews from Western Europe to join the original settlers of Savannah in 1733. A few years later, when Spain attacked Georgia and collective memories of the Inquisition were stirred, most of Savannah’s Jews fled up the coast to Charleston.

Thus the first cohesive and lasting community of Jews was established in the Colonial South.

The cemetery accommodates six veterans of the War of 1812, two veterans of the Seminole Wars in Florida, 23 veterans of the Civil War (eight of whom were killed in action), six rabbis of the congregation and 18 past presidents of Beth Elohim.

Patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish community have a place there. Young children who died of yellow fever or some other ailment lay beneath miniature stones.

Columbus DaVega, a Medical College doctor who died in 1882, performed an appendectomy on his kitchen table, according to family lore. He operated a floating hospital during the Civil War and treated the wounded from both sides.

Most of these Jews had Sephardic origins and brought with them some of the refinement of Europe, according to Anita Rosenberg, whose traces her own family to 15th-century Spain.

Rosenberg grew up among gentry, she says. She heard no Yiddish spoken.

“I lived in a bubble. I never heard the word anti-Semitism. People say, ‘Where did you grow up?’ I say, ‘Camelot.’ ”

On the grounds of the cemetery last week, restoration committee members Rosenberg, Randi Serrins and Mary Radin talked about the history of the place and the efforts undertaken to keep it safe for future generations.

About $450,000 is needed to complete the project, they say. They have only begun to raise the funds.

As many as 800 people are buried here, but many of the graves are unknown, so part of the effort includes “ground truthing,” the use of sonar to identify burial plots.

But even the known graves don’t always yield accurate information.

In 1903, Rabbi Barnett Abraham Elzas made a complete inventory of the cemetery, documenting all of the information he managed to gather or discern in a book the restoration committee uses today. Recently, descendants of the Carvalho family, armed with documents, pointed out that Elzas mistakenly assigned the wrong parents to a deceased child.

This only proves the importance of formal historical research, Rosenberg says. “The problem with tombstones is they’re inscribed by people with what they thought.”

But people, alas, are imperfect.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook.com/aparkerwriter.