The congregation at Temple Sinai in Sumter is aging and shrinking. Only a handful of worshipers are left, barely enough to make a minyan, the quorum of 10 adults needed for collective prayer.

But the synagogue isn’t done yet, not by a long shot.

It will soon open the Temple Sinai Jewish History Center, a walk-through exhibit installed in the former social hall that’s likely to appeal to anyone interested in the story of Sumter’s remarkable Jewish community.

The history center is the brainchild of the temple’s aged custodians, Roger Ackerman and Jay Schwartz, who rallied their friends a few years ago when they could no longer ignore the harsh reality of a future in Sumter without observant Jews. For a while they wondered what to do.

Sell the building? Convert it into something else? And what about the Jewish cemetery up the road? What would become of that?

“We formed a committee to look into it,” Ackerman said. They engaged with David Sarnat at the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that helps waning Jewish congregations plan for the future. “We first tackled our cemetery.”

The committee got in touch with the Charleston Jewish Federation, which agreed to manage the historic burial ground.

“Next thing was to figure out what to do with the temple,” he said.

So they approached Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), Charleston’s Reform synagogue, which has ties to Sumter’s Jewish community, and received a warm response.

It was relatively easy for Temple Sinai to secure stewardship agreements with its Charleston partners, thanks to a significant trust fund managed by the Coastal Community Foundation, Ackerman said, declining to disclose its value. It means that the costs of maintaining the cemetery and synagogue would be covered in perpetuity.

Then, in 2012, an article about the decline of Jewish communities in rural South Carolina was published in The Post and Courier. “The congregation has dwindled to a handful of elderly worshipers, and the fate of Temple Sinai is sealed,” the article stated. “It will close soon.”

Ackerman said this reality, spelled out in such stark terms, was a shock, and not only to Sumter’s Jews. “Non-Jewish Sumter people approached us expressing concern,” he said. They wanted to help. But what would keep Jewish history alive in this corner of the state? And that’s when the idea to convert the social hall into a center of Jewish history first took hold.

But running a museum would take extra resources and staff, so the next challenge was to find a partner who could operate the institution and raise money. Ackerman and Schwartz knew where to turn.

Donors across the country contributed to the cause, and the staff of the Sumter County Museum, located less than two blocks from the temple, happily embraced the offer to collaborate. Two supporters established endowments to help fund the new project.

Temple reincarnation

The museum’s Executive Director Annie Rivers soon identified a design partner, Charleston-based HW Exhibits, which would create a walk-through display of content. Since 2015, the team has been busy at work constructing the ideas and materials. And now it’s ready for the public.

The Temple Sinai Jewish History Center officially opens at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 2, with a ribbon-cutting and public gathering. After the June 2 opening, the center will begin its normal operating schedule on Thursday, June 7. Initially, the hours of operation will be limited — 1-4 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday — but the center will accommodate school groups and private tours scheduled with museum staff.

“The county and the city have been behind us and willing to help in many ways,” said Elizabeth Moses, education and outreach coordinator at the Sumter County Museum. “A lot of people are expressing interest in being docents.”

If enough people volunteer as guides and overseers, and there proves to be substantial interest among the public, then those hours of operation could be extended.

The opening of the Jewish center is happening just as downtown Sumter is seeing some renewed development and activity. New restaurants have been popping up in the past few years, and a new hotel is open for business.

Ackerman said the center could lend fuel to Sumter’s modest revitalization.

“We think this is going to be quite a bonanza to our community,” he said. “It will be the only permanent Holocaust museum between Richmond and Atlanta.”

Moses, whose 97-year-old father Robert Moses is one of Temple Sinai’s remaining elder statesmen, said the walk-through presentation will feature photographs, audio excerpts, documents and objects, and will cover seven different subject areas:

  • An introduction to Judaism.
  • The story of Jewish emigration to South Carolina (the first came in the late 1600s).
  • The dispersement of Jews (mostly in Charleston) to small towns, including Sumter.
  • The civic and military involvement of Sumter’s Jews.
  • World War II and the Holocaust.
  • Sumter’s ties to the Holocaust (especially via survivor Abe Stern, a beloved figure in Sumter).
  • Finally, a summary of Temple Sinai today and how life at the synagogue has changed over the years.

Visitors will be led from the reimagined social hall into the sanctuary where they can view the holy ark and beautiful stained-glass windows for which the building is rightly famous.

The center also will include a Holocaust reflection area where children can join the Butterfly Project to remember the many young people killed by the Nazis and their collaborators during the war.

Rachel Bragg, project manager for HW Exhibits, said the project began with the relatively modest desire to share information about the Holocaust, but conversations over time led stakeholders to develop a broader narrative about Jewish life in the South.

“We started with an outline of the subject areas, then wrote way too much, then worked to edit it down over time,” Bragg said. Dale Rosengarten reviewed material about regional Jewish history; her husband Ted Rosengarten, who teaches Holocaust studies at the College of Charleston, reviewed materials about World War II.

Aesthetically, Bragg and her team transformed the social hall (“a big empty box”) into an exhibit whose columns with onion tops refer to the Moorish revival architecture of the temple building, and allude to the Sephardic origins of the Jewish community itself.

Preserving history

Many Jewish families settled in Sumter and other small towns throughout the South (and beyond), becoming shopkeepers who contributed significantly to the economic vitality of their communities. Generations were born in these places. Children and grandchildren inherited the businesses from their merchant elders. In the 1960s, everything began to change as young Jews left home to earn college degrees and find jobs as professionals. Few remained to oversee the family business.

“I would say there are many, many people in Sumter now who don’t know about Sumter’s Jewish history,” Moses said. “It’s very different from 30 years ago when Jewish businesses lined Main Street.”

Dale Rosengarten, director of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston and associate director of the Center for Southern Jewish Culture, consulted with HW Exhibits on the center’s text descriptions.

Sumter is not known for its tourist throngs, so attracting visitors will likely be a challenge, Rosengarten said. Nevertheless, the project is an unequivocal success story, and it serves as a model for others. The Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina will hold its next meeting in Sumter and organize a panel discussion about the Legacy project and what it can yield.

“It’s an absolute tour de force that they’ve pulled it off as a way of saving Temple Sinai,” she said. “They have revitalized the operation, and it’s a very nice addition to the community.”

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.