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A Brief History of BSBI

Compiled and Written by Jeffrey Kaplan, O"BM, BSBI Historian, Copyright 2018

The members of Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue (BSBI) are proud to be part of a congregation that has stood as a bastion of Orthodox Judaism in Charleston, South Carolina, one of America’s most historic and beautiful cities, for the past 165 years. Known throughout the Deep South for its unswerving commitment to the beliefs and values of our ancestors, BSBI is not only the oldest Orthodox Synagogue in the South, but can with great pride claim to be the oldest Ashkenazi Orthodox Synagogue in continuous existence in the United States.

BSBI Today

Today, over 165 years after its beginnings, BSBI offers everything necessary to maintain a community governed by Jewish law. Our beautiful and spacious synagogue is very spacious and has preserved several features from the old Berith Shalome Synagogue of 1874. These include the Aron Kodesh (Ark) with its Corinthian columns, the tablets of the Ten Commandments above the Aron Kodesh, and columns throughout the sanctuary supporting the women’s gallery.

Services are held every morning and evening 365 days a year. In addition, the Synagogue downtown on Rutledge Avenue, services are held every Shabbat and Festival at the Minyan House in the South Windermere neighborhood. The synagogue facility on Rutledge Avenue also includes a modern Mikvah, kosher kitchens, and the Solomon Social Hall for receptions and special occasion. BSBI provides kashrut supervision for several establishments. Burial preparations for any Jew regardless of affiliation are provided by the community's Chevra Kadisha. BSBI offers a wide range of adult education classes, and its activities also include an active Sisterhood and Men’s Club.

While BSBI has proudly upheld Orthodox Judaism since its beginnings, 165 years ago, it warmly welcomes all Jews without regard to their personal level of religious observance or background. Its membership includes descendants of the Congregation’s founding families and families who have lived in Charleston for generations, as well as newcomers to the city. What BSBI’s diverse membership shares in common is respect for the continuity of Jewish tradition and desire to grow as Jews. Members of the congregation have served as judges, on Charleston’s City Council, and in the South Carolina legislature. Congregants of BSBI can be found in a broad spectrum of professions, business and walks of life.

Our Beginnings

The beginnings of BSBI go back to 1852, when a group of recent Jewish immigrants to Charleston, primarily from Poland and Prussia, gathered for prayers according to the Ashkenazi traditions of Orthodox Judaism. Although there had been an Orthodox Synagogue in Charleston since 1749, it adhered to the Sephardi traditions of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. The founders of BSBI wanted to worship using the customs and pronunciation of Hebrew they had grown up with. These Ashkenazi immigrants coalesced into a more formal organization in 1854, when they organized a new congregation, called “Berith Shalome.” From this point on, congregational life steadily progressed. Berith Shalome elected its first board of officers the next year, in 1855. A number of descendants of these founding officers are members of BSBI today. The following year, 1856, saw several more milestones in the development of the young congregation. Land was acquired for a cemetery, the first of the three cemeteries now maintained by BSBI. The year 1856 also saw Berith Shalome’s members dedicating their first synagogue, and obtaining a charter of incorporation from the South Carolina legislature.

The Civil War began in 1861, when Confederate artillery batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. That same year, “in the year of the independence of the Confederate States of America,” as the deed recites, Berith Shalome acquired the land on which its synagogue was located.

Charleston was besieged and shelled by Union forces during the Civil War, and many people fled the city, Berith Shalome was the only one of Charleston’s three synagogues to keep its doors open during the War, and kosher meat as well as matzo on Passover were provided by the Synagogue during this trying period. A full complement of Berith Shalome’s members served the Confederate cause, and several Confederate veterans are buried in the congregation’s first cemetery.

Continued Growth and Milestones

Increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe and Germany settled in Charleston in the years following the Civil War, significantly increasing Berith Shalome’s membership. In 1874, a new and impressive Synagogue was dedicated by the congregation on the same site as its first house of worship. The dedication ceremonies were the occasion for community-wide celebrations, in which the members of the K.K. Beth Elohim, Charleston’s Reform Synagogue, joined the Orthodox members of Berith Shalome. Beth Elohim presented Berith Shalome with the Aron Kodesh (Ark) to mark the milestone of the new Synagogue. This Aron Kodesh with its magnificent white Corinthian columns still graces BSBI’s present sanctuary. Berith Shalome’s membership and stature continued to grow as the years progressed. By the end of the nineteenth century, the congregation was described as the “foremost Orthodox Synagogue in the South.”

Dissension and Progress in the Twentieth Century

Ever increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in Charleston as the nineteenth century yielded to the twentieth. Tension developed between these recent immigrants and native born or long established members of the congregation. In 1911, many of these recent immigrants established a new Orthodox Synagogue in Charlestown-Beth Israel. For the next four and a half decades, Orthodox Jews in Charleston were served by two Synagogues: the old “Berith Shalome,” which was now spelled “Brith Sholom,” and Beth Israel.

The decade of the 1940s was a significant one for Charleston’s Orthodox Jewish community. In 1947, a proposal was presented to the membership of Brith Sholom which would pave the way for the congregation abandoning Orthodoxy and affiliating with Conservative Judaism. This proposal was decisively defeated, but a significant portion of Brith Sholom’s members now left the congregation to create a new Conservative Synagogue, Emanu-El. The following year Beth Israel dedicated a spacious new synagogue on Rutledge Avenue. Over the next few years the members of both Orthodox Synagogues came to the realization that the issues of contention that had led to the creation of a second Orthodox congregation in Charleston were no longer significant; and that Charleston would be better served by a single unified Orthodox synagogue. In 1954, the centennial of Brith Sholom’s founding, the two Orthodox congregations again became one as Brith Sholom Beth Israel.

The year 1956 was a momentous one for Orthodox Judaism in Charleston. Having renovated the Synagogue on Rutledge Avenue that Beth Israel had opened in 1948, BSBI dedicated it in 1956 as the house of worship for the united congregation. That same year BSBI launched the Charleston Hebrew Institute, which had been organized in 1938, as an Orthodox day school. Now known as the Addlestone Hebrew Academy, the day school still served Charleston’s Jewish community.

Whether visiting Charleston or living here,
the doors of BSBI are open wide in welcome.

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