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Our History

From our beginnings in 1749, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) has been at the spiritual heart of Jewish Charleston. Since 1840, we have served as the cornerstone of American Reform Jewish practice. The history of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is a heritage in which all American Jews can take pride. It is a story of faith, devotion, and perseverance in the American tradition of freedom of worship.

Charleston was founded in 1670, and the earliest known reference to a Jew in the English settlement is in a description dated 1695. Soon thereafter other Jews followed, attracted by the civil and religious liberty of South Carolina and the ample economic opportunity of the colony. These pioneers were sufficiently numerous by 1749 to organize the present congregation, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Holy Congregation House of God), and fifteen years later, to establish the now historic Coming Street Cemetery, the oldest surviving Jewish burial ground in the South.

When George Washington became President of the United States of America, there were six Jewish congregations in the new American Republic.  Three were located in Northern cities: Newport, Rhode Island's Yeshuat Israel (Touro), New York’s Shearith Israel, and Philadelphia’s Michveh Israel. Three were located in the South: Charleston, South Carolina’s Beth Elohim, Richmond, Virginia’s Beth Shalome, and Savannah, Georgia’s Mickve Israel. At first, prayers were recited in private quarters and, from 1775, in an improvised synagogue adjacent to the present-day grounds. In 1792, construction of the largest and most impressive synagogue in the United States commenced, and it was dedicated two years later. A member of the visiting Lafayette's entourage is reported to have described the building as "spacious and elegant." This handsome, cupolated Georgian synagogue was destroyed in the great Charleston fire of 1838 and replaced in 1840 by the structure in use today. The colonnaded building dedicated in early 1841, is often described as one of the country's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture. On this occasion, KKBE's Reverend Gustavus Poznanski was moved to say, "This synagogue is our Temple, this city our Jerusalem, and this happy land our Palestine."

KKBE is the second oldest synagogue building in the United States and the oldest in continuous use. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.

Birthplace of Reform Judaism

Charleston is acknowledged as the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States. In 1824, 47 congregants petitioned the Adjunta (the trustees) of the synagogue to change the Sephardic Orthodox liturgy. The petition, which asked for abridgement of the Hebrew ritual, English translation of the prayers, and a sermon in English, was denied. The disappointed liberal members thereupon resigned from the congregation and organized "The Reformed Society of Israelites". This independent society was led by Isaac Harby, Abraham Moise II, and David Nunes Carvalho. Many of the Society’s practices and principles have become part of today's Reform Judaism. After nine years, The Reformed Society rejoined the old congregation, and while the present synagogue was being built in 1840, an organ was installed. After construction, the first service in the new Temple introduced a liberalized ritual. KKBE was one of the earliest synagogues of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1873 (now Union for Reform Judaism, URJ), and we remain firmly and proudly committed to Reform Judaism.

Leadership

For almost two and a half centuries members of KKBE have been eminent leaders in the city, state and country. Among notable early congregants were Moses Lindo, who before the Revolution helped to develop the cultivation of Indigo (then South Carolina's second crop), and Joseph Levy, veteran of the Cherokee Wars of 1760-61 and probably the first Jewish military officer in America. Almost two dozen men of Beth Elohim served in the War of Independence, among them the brilliant young Francis Salvador, who as delegate to the South Carolina Provincial Congresses of 1775 and 1776, was the first Jew to serve in an American legislature. Killed shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Salvador was also the first Jew known to die in the Revolutionary War.

Members of the congregation founded Charleston's Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1784, the nation's oldest Jewish charitable organization, and in 1801 established the Hebrew Orphan Society, also the country's oldest (both still functioning today).  In 1838, the second oldest Jewish religious school in the United States was organized by members of the congregation, Sally Lopez and Penina Moise.

Other congregants pioneered in steamship navigation, introduced illuminating gas to Charleston, and numbered four of the eleven founders of the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry.

In 1790, President George Washington responded to a letter of congratulations to him by writing, "The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgment. May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation." A replica of this letter can be viewed in the KKBE Museum.

The Synagogue

This outstanding Greek Revival style building was constructed in 1840 by member David Lopez, along with at least two enslaved artisans, both trained carpenters, named Kit and George. The design was created by architects Tappan and Noble and work plans by C. L.Warner. It replaces a 1794 cupolated Georgian style structure destroyed by fire in 1838. In 1819, a wood fence to the south of the synagogue was replaced with the wrought iron and masonry one that graces Hasell Street today.  Also surviving are the bases of two menorahs (candelabras) on either side of the Bimah. The large marble tablet above the huge entrance doors proclaims the Sh'ma in Hebrew and an unusual English translation: "Hear O Israel the Lord Our God is the sole Eternal Being." In the foyer over the entrance to the sanctuary is the original dedication stone from the 1794 synagogue. When our current building was erected in 1840, a controversial organ was installed in the balcony at the rear of the sanctuary. Housing our four Torah scrolls is the massive hand-carved ark made of Santo Domingo mahogany. The stained-glass windows, which show Jewish religious symbols, date from 1888 and are replacements of windows destroyed in the earthquake of 1886. The interior of the synagogue, originally following a traditional Sephardic Orthodox arrangement, was altered first in 1879 with the installation of family pews and the removal of the pulpit to the front of the sanctuary. Then, in 1886, after the earthquake, balconies on both sides of the building were removed and the Bimah reconfigured. In 2003, the Congregation received the prestigious Carolopolis Award for exterior preservation.

Pearlstine Family Building

Adjacent to the Temple stands the building formerly called the Bicentennial Tabernacle, which was erected in 1948 during the 200th anniversary celebration of the congregation. This building replaced the temporary structure built after the 1838 fire. The Tabernacle was renovated and expanded in 2001-03 and renamed the Pearlstine Family building. The current building houses the Religious School, administrative offices, Chosen Treasures Judaica & Gift Shop, Museum, the spacious Barbara Pearlstine Social Hall, library, conference rooms, and the kitchen. Four of the original eight cornerstones are mounted over the entranceway into the Social Hall. Also in the Social Hall are two large murals painted by Charleston artist William Halsey, which portray founders and patriots of the congregation. Halsey’s mother was a member of KKBE and the murals were commissioned by Thomas J. Tobias and the Alexander family in 1950. At the rear wall are a pair of wrought iron sculptures of Biblical prophets by the late congregant Willard Hirsch.

The Heyman Building

The reconditioned and expanded 18th century residence to the rear of the Temple at 86 Hasell Street contains a youth lounge and supplemental meeting and classrooms.

Sat, September 21 2019 21 Elul 5779