Bluffton, South Carolina, is located in southern Beaufort County, almost equidistant from Hilton Head Island and Savannah, Georgia. Thee town dates from the early 1800s when Lowcountry rice and cotton planters seeking high ground and cool river breezes built residences in what was then called Devil’s Elbow Barony. Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, few Jews lived in the Bluffton area, but with the construction of new gated communities, the area’s population swelled, and so did the number of Jewish inhabitants.
The trend escalated when the Del Webb Corporation began building Sun City–Hilton Head in the early 1990s. A 5,600-acre community for active seniors, Sun City eventually will contain 8,500 homes and over 15,000 residents spread over parts of Beaufort and adjacent Jasper County. From the beginning, the Jewish population of Sun City has been significantly higher than the demographics of most rural areas. Today the Sun City portion of greater Bluffton is five percent Jewish, and this contingent has become an engine for spirited growth of the Jewish population in the area.
Until 2006 most of the Jews living in Bluffton traveled to one of the synagogues on nearby Hilton Head Island or in Savannah for religious services, while a few made the 30-mile drive to Beaufort. Then, four years ago, 17 people from Hilton Head and Bluffton met to discuss the possibility of forming a new congregation closer to home. Six couples put up some seed money, rented a church, and printed a small number of custom-designed siddurim, calculating that about 50 people would attend the first service of this newly formed, non-affliated eclectic congregation, Temple Oseh Shalom.
The inaugural service was conducted in June 2006 and, to the surprise of all, 165 Jews – mostly from Bluffton, with some from Hilton Head – showed up. In just four years, the congregation has ballooned to upwards of 500 members, 83 percent of whom live in Sun City, 8 percent in greater Bluffton, 7 percent on Hilton Head Island, 1.5 percent in Beaufort and Ridgeland, and .5 percent in other nearby communities. The new residents come from across the country, from the eastern seaboard to the west coast.
Among the temple’s original organizers was Rav Bob Wiener, who volunteered to serve temporarily as the group’s spiritual leader and who remained in that position until recently, when Rabbi Robert Seigel from Charleston was hired on a part-time basis to lead the congregation.