Sunday, June 2, 2019

Inside Charleston's Historic KKBE Synagogue

A place of worship with its own gift shop and museum. I have seen that only once before: Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The gift shop and museum are just two of the many unique qualities that struck me about Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE for short) synagogue at 90 Hasell Street in Charleston.

Another one is how the synagogue's columned entrance does not face the street. This is due to the Jewish custom that synagogues must face east toward Jerusalem. While a lovely layout amid trees and other greenery, it did pose a challenge to photograph.  You can back up only so far before hitting a wall. So what you see (right) is the widest shot I could get. No big deal but, again, a unique feature of this very unique place.

Anita Moise Rosenberg (left) and Randi Serrins
I was at KKBE to meet with Anita Moise Rosenberg and Randi Serrins.  They are longtime members and leaders there who also conduct tours of the synagogue and its Coming Street Cemetery a few blocks away.

I met these dynamic ladies a few months ago at that cemetery when they gave a tour to my College of Charleston "Beyond the Grave" class.

One of the reasons I wanted to meet with Rosenberg and Serrins was to see and photograph inside the synagogue.

Impressive it was and is!  I have just launched a new book project. The working title is "The Churchyards of Charleston: Funerary Art At Its Finest."

I want to include KKBE and its Coming Street Cemetery in the book, even though it is different from the Christian churchyards downtown.

Jewish customs do not allow graveyards to be next to synagogues. But KKBE's cemetery is just as important and historic as the churchyards at St. Philip's and Circular Congregation.

I am pleased that Rosenberg and Serrins are OK with me including KKBE and Coming Street Cemetery in my book.
These are some of the photographs I took that will likely be used in the book.  They kindly allowed me to see the Torah Ark, which is the large wooden ornamental closet at the back of the Bimah (Christians call this the altar) that you see in the photo on the left. It contains the synagogues Torah scrolls.  How lovely they are!  

Torah is defined as the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first five books of the Hebrew scripture.  

Not long after the founding of Charles Town in 1670 Jews began to immigrate from Europe.  They were attracted by promises of unprecedented freedoms. "This was the first place in the world where Jews could practice worship freely, own land and property, and hold elective office," Rosenberg said. 

By the early 1800s, one in four Jews in America lived in Charleston. And these "Port City Jews" were the largest and wealthiest Jewish population in North America. 

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim would be founded in 1749. Before that Jews would gather and worship in each other's homes.  Pictured above is KKBE's first structure, built in 1794. It was the largest synagogue building in North America.  But a huge fire in 1838 destroyed the wooden structure and other large portions of Charleston.  

By 1840 the synagogue was rebuilt in the Greek Revival style by congregant David Lopez Jr. (who is buried at Coming Street Cemetery).  The synagogue is somewhat hidden from the street but does get mentions when the carriage tours pass by.  

What the guides' often say, and this is another KKBE distinction, is how it is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in America.  Rosenberg and Serrins explained that in 1824 47 KKBE men petitioned for several changes that were different from traditional Jewish Orthodox practices "so that the religion would be more appealing to young people," Serrins said.  

Up to that point, men and women had to sit separately during services, there was no music, the service was in Hebrew and it would last three to six hours.  The reforms didn't sit well with many at KKBE but they would eventually be adopted.  

"Since its earliest days, Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times," states this online source

This synagogue and its people pack an extraordinary amount of history. So it is very fitting that KKBE has its own museum. 

The museum is free and open to the public.  There is a fee for guided tours of the synagogue and all the facilities here.  A fine gift shop is available also. 

Thank you Anita Moise Rosenberg and Randi Serrins for opening my eyes to this Charleston treasure.  For more information go to KKBE's website. And for more on the Coming Street Cemetery go here.  

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