A Brief History of BSBI, Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue
Compiled and Written by Jeffrey Kaplan, BSBI Historian, Copyright 2010
It was nearly 160 years ago that the first steps were taken toward the establishment of what is today Brith Sholom Beth Israel (BSBI), the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue, as well as the oldest Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue in continuous existence in the United States. Throughout all these years, BSBI has stood as a bastion of Orthodox Judaism in Charleston, South Carolina, one of America’s most beautiful and historic cities.
The beginnings of BSBI go back to 1852, when a group of recent Jewish immigrants to Charleston, primarily from Poland, Lithuania and Prussia gathered for prayers according to the Ashkenazi traditions of Orthodox Judaism. Although there had been an Orthodox synagogue in Charleston since 1749, the year that Charleston’s first synagogue was established, the existing Orthodox synagogue in Charleston 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 just two years later, in 1854, when they organized a new congregation, called “Berith Shalome.”
Congregational life steadily progressed over the next few years. Berith Shalome elected its first board of officers 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 three now maintained by the congregation. 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 War Between the States began in Charleston in 1861, when Confederate artillery batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Charleston was besieged and shelled by Union forces during much of the 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.
Berith Shalome’s membership grew steadily in the years following the War between the States, as increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe and Germany settled in Charleston. In 1874, a new and impressive synagogue was dedicated by Berith Shalome’s members on the same site as its first house of worship. The dedication ceremonies were the occasion for community-wide celebrations, in which members of Charleston’s Reform congregation, Beth Elohim, joined the Orthodox members of Berith Shalome. Beth Elohim presented Berith Shalome with a new 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.”
The twentieth century saw both dissension and progress for Berith Shalome. As increasing numbers of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe came to Charleston in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, tension developed between these recent immigrants and native born or long established members of Berith Shalome. In 1911, many of these recent immigrants established a new Orthodox synagogue in Charleston–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. In 1947, the members of Brith Sholom were presented with a proposal that would have paved the way for the congregation abandoning Orthodoxy and affiliating with Conservative Judaism. This proposal was defeated, but a significant portion of Brith Sholom’s membership now left the congregation to create a new Conservative Synagogue, Emanu-El.
In the wake of this event, the members of both of Charleston’s Orthodox synagogues came to the realization that the issues of contention that had led to the formation of a second Orthodox synagogue in Charleston were no longer significant, and that Charleston would be better served by a single unified Orthodox synagogue. This became a reality in 1954, the centennial of Brith Sholom’s founding, as Brith Sholom and Beth Israel again became one as Brith Sholom Beth Israel. In 1956, the united congregation dedicated its present synagogue on Rutledge Avenue, after renovating the sanctuary that Beth Israel had dedicated on the same site in 1948.
Today, nearly 160 years after its beginnings, BSBI continues to hold fast to the beliefs and values of our ancestors, and offers everything necessary to maintain a community adhering to Jewish law. Its beautiful and spacious synagogue can accommodate over 600 people, 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 the columns throughout the sanctuary supporting the women’s gallery. Services are held every morning and evening 365 days a year.
In addition to services at the downtown synagogue on Rutledge Avenue, services are held every Shabbat and Festival at the Minyan House in the South Windermere neighborhood. BSBI provides kashrut certification to a number of establishments, including a Bed and Breakfast Guest House.
While BSBI has proudly upheld Orthodox Judaism since its beginnings nearly 160 years ago, it warmly welcomes all Jews without regard to their personal level of religious observance or background. What BSBI’s diverse membership shares in common is respect for the continuity of Jewish tradition and a desire to grow as Jews. At the same time, BSBI is very much a part of the greater community, and its members have served as judges, on Charleston’s City Council, and in the South Carolina legislature.
Whether visiting Charleston or living here, the doors of BSBI are open wide in welcome.