City’s History Includes Birthplace of U.S. Reform

City’s History Includes Birthplace of U.S. Reform

By Jeffrey R. Orenstein |

Charleston has a long Jewish history, dating to at least 1695, and Jews have and continue to make an indelible mark upon this charming Southern city.

The 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina granted religious liberty to all settlers and expressly noted “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.” The immigration of Sephardic Jews from London and Holland and the Spanish invasion of Georgia in 1733 caused many Jews to move to Charleston out of fear of another Inquisition, and by 1800, South Carolina had the largest Jewish population of any state, numbering about 2,000.

Charleston’s Embassy Suites Historic District is the original site of The Citadel.
Charleston’s Embassy Suites Historic District is the original site of The Citadel.

South Carolina was the first place in America to elect a Jew to public office: Francis Salvador, who was elected in 1774 and 1775 to the Provincial Congress. He also was the first Jewish American killed in the Revolutionary War in 1776.

Charleston Jews mostly supported the American War of Independence and were largely allied with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Charleston’s first synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, dates from 1749 and still exists. It outgrew its small building on Union Street and now has a beautiful building at 90 Hasell St. in the historic district. An 1840s split in this congregation led to Orthodox Jews splitting off and the development of Reform Judaism in the United States. The congregation reunited in 1866.

The Hebrew Benevolent Society, formed by early Charleston Jews, also still operates.

Sephardic-dominated Charleston remained the center of North American Jewry until the 1830s, when German Jews immigrating to America largely settled in New Orleans, Richmond, Savannah, Baltimore and large Northeastern cities.

Post-World War II industrial growth, port development and military expansion brought prosperity to Charleston, including its Jews.

Demographically, the Jewish population of metropolitan Charleston grew from about 2,000 in 1948 to today’s approximately 14,000, mostly in three neighborhoods (each with its own eruv): Downtown Charleston, West Ashley and South Windemere.

Current details of places of worship, kosher food availability and more can be found at Charleston’s Virtual Jewish Community Center at

read more: