More than a century after the Charleston Jewish congregation modernized worship to reach young parishioners, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim's temple is still adapting to serve its members and the community.

The historic synagogue will undergo a $1 million renovation beginning this summer as congregants aim to preserve the character of the house of worship, while also making it more accessible for the elderly and disabled. It's part of the synagogue's larger efforts to remain relevant in an age where historic houses of worship on the peninsula are declining in membership due to changing demographics.

Reform Judaism took shape in Germany in the late 18th century when European Jews began to abandon long-observed religious practices in attempt to assimilate in society.

The movement reached the United States and members of KKBE, founded as a Sephardic Orthodox Jewish congregation in 1749, began to push for changes in the temple's worship style. At the time, Jewish men and women sat segregated with females worshipping in the balcony, and six-hour-long services lacked musical instruments, sticking to Jewish laws instituted in the first century that outlawed the use of the instruments on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

The large marble tablet above the entrance doors proclaim the Sh'ma (Deut. 6:4) at the historic Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue. 

Members also were fined if they didn't show up for worship.

A group of men petitioned that the congregation modernize, to include shorter Hebrew rituals, English translation of prayers and a sermon in English. The progressive Jews also asked temple leadership to install an organ in the synagogue.

One of the goals was to reach young Jews who were not engaged in worship services characterized by long Hebrew rituals, said Anita Rosenberg, a synagogue historian.

"They were afraid we were losing our youth," Rosenberg said.

In 1824, a dispute led to a split, and some KKBE members created the Reformed Society of Israelites in 1824, the first American Reform Jewish religious group in the United States.

KKBE committed to Reform Judaism in 1841 and, shortly afterward, men and women sat side by side in pews, and organ tunes and the English language had been incorporated into worship services.

Today, Reform Judaism makes up the largest sect of Judaism in the United States.

KKBE's current building on Hasell Street, built in 1840, points to the faith's history. An 1840-era chancel lamp holding the eternal flame referenced in the Old Testament book of Exodus hangs in the sanctuary. An ark positioned in the bimah, a platform from which the Torah and Prophets are read, holds scrolls saved from Holocaust-era European synagogues.

Parts of the synagogue itself, which has weathered several natural disasters including the Great Earthquake of 1886, have become outdated and worn over time. Plaster peels from the temple's dome-like ceiling and there's nothing surrounding the bimah to accommodate those in wheelchairs.

Renovations, which will last mid-July through February, will include restoration of the ceiling and walls, and installation of a wheelchair lift behind the vestry with a ramp and handrails added at the bimah. New video and audio systems will be enhanced to stream services online, and other improvements will be installed for hearing-impaired worshippers. 

"Access is one of our key goals," said KKBE President Jeff Weinman.

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

The interior of the current Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue was built in 1840 and 1841 and the bimah was moved in 1879 from the center of the room to its current location in front of the ark.

KKBE will remain open during the renovation and tourists will see a video about the sanctuary in place of a sanctuary tour. Members will attend services in the synagogue's social hall.

In addition to modernizing its sanctuary, KKBE also is striving to be more relevant by offering ministries that resonate with youths, similar to what the 42 progressive Jews did in the 19th century.

The synagogue is one of the founding members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry, a collection of houses of worship that advocate for changes in policy regarding racial integration, criminal justice, housing affordability and other issues.

Acknowledging that Charleston's early Jews owned slaves, KKBE members plan to honor the enslaved, who likely built the current temple, in February after renovations are complete.  

The temple's religious school features 150 youths, many who have lobbied on topics like climate change during trips with synagogue leaders to Washington, D.C.

Like other places of worship on the peninsula, many of the nearly 500 families that attend KKBE live in places like Summerville and Mount Pleasant. In response, the synagogue has hosted services on beaches and in parks.

Rabbis noted that social justice and inclusive ministries will be critical part of the congregation's future.

"It's the key to relevance," said Rabbi Stephanie Alexander.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.

Rickey Dennis covers North Charleston and faith & values for the Post and Courier.

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