Unique culture of Southern Jews

The three living generations of the Pearlstine/Lipov family, which have given generously to the community.

At one historic time, Charleston was the nation's hub of Jewish life and religious freedom, giving rise to a rich Jewish heritage that endures today.

Jewish history here has roots so deep, especially for a smallish Southern city, that one of its oldest families is donating $1.5 million to create a center for Southern Jewish culture at the College of Charleston.

"This is the exclamation point on so much Jewish history in South Carolina," said Susan Pearlstine, whose family donated the money and whose children form part of its seventh generation of Charlestonians. "It is to show respect for what Jews in South Carolina came to accomplish - and did accomplish."

The new center will be housed at the college's Sylvia Vlosky Yaschik Jewish Studies Center, home to the college's growing Jewish studies program.

Formally called The Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, the new center will emphasize Judaism's long and unique history here, woven as it is through the city's calamities and triumphs, and through families like the Pearlstines' own births, deaths and successes.

"Their lives are Southern Jewish history," said Martin Perlmutter, Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program director and a professor of Jewish studies and philosophy.

Jewish residents have settled in Charleston for more than 300 years, since long before the nation's founding.

Until 1820, Charleston was home to the country's largest Jewish population, surpassing even New York City.

The state changed the face of American Jewish life.

Reform Judaism was born here. The city is home to the oldest Hebrew Orphan Society, the oldest Hebrew Benevolent Society, the first temple sisterhood, the first Jew elected to public office in the western world and so on.

"It shows a level of acceptance here that we didn't have anywhere else," Perlmutter said.

Despite the city's admirable history of religious pluralism, its Jewish story isn't told enough, he said. And looking in from the outside, who would guess that a mostly Christian Southern city would harbor so many Jewish firsts?

That's why the Southern Jewish culture center will build on what no other program in the world can duplicate, given the college's location and the city's unique history.

"If we're going to be nationally significant, the place that will be is in Southern Jewish studies," Perlmutter said.

Due in large part to its Jewish studies program, more than 800 of the college's students are Jewish today. Most come from out of state but wind up staying here, renourishing the area's broader Jewish community.

"We love what the College of Charleston has brought to the community," said Jan Pearlstine Lipov, whose children also make up the seventh generation of Pearlstines in town. "They bring people from all over the world here."

Today, Jewish studies has four faculty positions, two endowed chairs and an academic major and minor. In recent years, it has added the Zucker/Goldberg Center for Holocaust Studies. And Perlmutter foresees an Israel studies center in its future.

It's also getting more physical space. An addition set to open in August 2015 will double the building's size and add a kosher dining hall, the only one in town.

Beyond that building, the college's Jewish Heritage Collection at the Addlestone Library already has amassed an archival record of the Southern Jewish history, spearheaded by Dale Rosengarten, curator of the library's Special Collections.

Now comes the Southern Jewish culture center.

"The secret is out. The South has an amazing Jewish history," Rosengarten said. "Now, thanks to the Pearlstine and Lipov families, we are creating a center that scholars have been waiting for."

Adam Mendelsohn agrees. The professor of Jewish Studies teaches Southern Jewish history and will direct the new center.

"The center will be a source of distinction for the College of Charleston: No other university has devoted the resources and attention to studying this fascinating subject," he said.

Take the Pearlstine family, which has been in Charleston for longer than most Jews have been anywhere in America.

"Not many cities in the world have seventh generations of a whole family," Perlmutter said. "They are a piece of Charleston's long and rich history."

Their story here began with Thomas Pearlstine, who emigrated from Poland with his son, I.M. Pearlstine, in the 1850s to escape violent anti-Semitism. His wife joined them later to raise a family whose story mirrors that of many new Americans seeking religious and cultural freedoms.

In the 1880s, the family moved to Charleston, beginning a more than century-long relationship with the Holy City.

Over time, the family expanded their grocery business, I.M. Pearlstine & Sons, and then operated Pearlstine Distributors Inc., one of the oldest and largest privately owned companies in South Carolina.

"We all were Charlestonians first and foremost," said Jane Pearlstine Meyerson, the senior living family member in town. "We all loved Charleston, and still do."

They went to Charleston's schools, fought America's wars, raised their children and built their business.

Milton Pearlstine was a founding member of the S.C. State Ports Authority. Edwin S. Pearlstine Jr. fought in WWI and became an advocate for veterans. Jane's husband, Gerald Meyerson, fought the Nazis in Europe during WWII. Her mother, Jeanette Felsenthal Pearlstine, was the first woman appointed to the Charleston County School Board back in the 1940s. And so on.

With so much success, they have given much back.

Lipov and Susan Pearlstine recalled their grandmother's favorite saying: "Charity is the price you pay for the space you occupy."

In keeping with "tzedakah," a Jewish commitment to giving, the Pearlstine family has donated $1 million to the Hollings Cancer Center. The Pearlstines also gave another $1 million to their synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, birthplace of American Reform Judaism and where the family has worshipped for all seven generations.

The list goes on, including the Hebrew Orphan Society, the Jewish Federation, the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge, Coastal Community Foundation and more.

"When you have a family like ours that has been steeped in Charleston history for so long, you ask yourself: What do you want your legacy in the community to be?" Lipov said.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.