Adath Yeshurun

154 Greenville St NW
Aiken, SC 29801

Year Built: 1925

Architect: Unknown

Years Active: 1921-Present


Architectural Overview

Congregation History

Early Jewish Settlement
Aiken, SC was established in 1835, shortly after the completion of a railroad that connected the town to Charleston.1 The town earned the reputation of being a retreat town for those along the east coast with health issues, earning the nickname, “the Garden of Eden.”2 Eastern European Jews began to relocate to Aiken in search of a healthier environment in the 1890s.3 This chain migration was initiated by Harris L. Polier, along with his wife and his brother Morris, who came from the Northeast in the early 1890s.4 The Polier brothers opened a dry goods store, which encouraged their brother-in-law, Benedict “B.M.” Surasky, to join them.  B.M. arrived in the mid-1890s on the counsel of his doctor.5 From there, he made his way by peddling, using an English-Russian dictionary to communicate with potential customers, until the Poliers gave him a manager position in one of their stores.

The Suraskys were among several members of their extended family who settled in Aiken.6 Four more Surasky brothers and a sister immigrated from Knyszyn, Poland to join B.M. in what he called “paradise.”7 Sarah Anna Polier Surasky, B.M. ‘s wife, who also arrived from Poland, objected to the lack of religious observance in the Polier family. They had stopped keeping kosher and abandoned many other Jewish traditions. As the matriarch, she insisted on obersiving kosher laws and took it upon herself to travel to Augusta, GA frequently to stock up on kosher products.8

Aiken’s Happyville
In the early years of the 20th century, the state of South Carolina created the Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Immigration.9 Their goal was to attract “desirable” European immigrants, mainly Russians, to take up farming under the “South Carolina, The Garden of America” campaign.10 This movement caught the attention of Charles Weintraub, a socialist, who then purchased Sheffield Plantation in Montmorenci, near Aiken.11 He, along with ten Jewish families, moved there in December 1905, determined to establish their own socialist farming colony.12 Their “Incorporative Farming Association” charter, also known as “Happyville” (1905-1908), stated that their intention was to “raise stock, grow cotton, fruits and vegetables, gin cotton, cut timber, saw lumber, and grind grain.”13 In 1906, fifteen more Jews joined their group.14

Adath Yeshurun Congregation
In January of 1913, the Polier and Surasky brothers and M. Poliakoff, as trustees of the “Sons of Israel,” purchased land for a Jewish burial ground. The first to be buried in the Sons of Israel Cemetery was Ralph Panitz.15

Both Sarah Anne and B.M., a former rabbinic student in Poland, were central figures in forming a congregation in Aiken. When they were just starting out, B.M. served as a lay leader, cantor, and rabbi during informal  services held in congregants’ homes or in the Masonic Hall above one of their stores.16  The Adath Yeshurun congregation was founded in 1921 with about two dozen families.17 The synagogue was built in 1925 and in 1930, a downstairs hall was added.18 The congregation aligned with the Orthodox tradition and services were led in Hebrew, with men and women sitting separately.19 B.M. served as the congregation’s lay leader until his death in 1934. After that, his son-in-law, Nathan Persky, a graduate of a Polish seminary, assumed his duties.20 The congregation never had a full-time rabbi, but some remember two men hired by the congregation in its early years. First, there was a shochet who conducted services and taught Hebrew to the children of the congregation. Following him was Rabbi Jacob Silber, though it is unknown when he was hired or how long he stayed.21 Throughout the congregation’s history, they mostly relied on lay leaders for services and education.22 For High Holiday services, Aiken Jews traveled to nearby Augusta, where they would attend Orthodox or Reform synagogues, even after Adath Yeshurun had been established, seeking a more formal service led by a rabbi.23 Often, Rabbi Karesh from Columbia would officiate rites of passage, such as marriage or circumcision for Adath Yeshurun. Rabbi Polikoff from August and Rabbi Axelman from Charleston would also visit Aiken to provide services for special events.24

By the late 1930s, Aiken’s total population had reached 7,000, though the Jewish population only counted for 100 of those individuals.25 There was a Sunday school which held classes in Adath Yeshuyrun’s basement.26 In addition to the Ladies Aid Society, which was reorganized in 1938 as a local chapter of the Hadassah Sisterhood, Aiken Jews joined several civic groups in Aiken. They were members of the Masons and the Rotary Club, involved in the Chamber of Commerce, supported the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and the Boy Scouts.27

Post-WWII Jewish Life
When the Savannah River Plant, which processed plutonium for hydrogen bombs, was built in the 1950s Aiken’s population almost doubled from what it was in the 1930s with the influx of Northeastern transplants.28 The congregation’s membership also saw a boost from the increase in Jewish workers at DuPont and Allied Chemical.29

In the late 1960s and early 70s, the congregation began to shift from Orthodox practices to Conservative Judaism.30 After the death of their Orthodox lay leader Nathan Persky in 1965, men and women began to sit with each other during services, and women, though in a limited capacity, began to take on roles traditionally ascribed to Jewish men in the synagogue.31 As time went on, local industry began to falter and younger generations moved away. Filling the synagogue for Friday night services proved to be difficult.32 Sunday school classes were also dwindling.33

The congregation began inviting rabbinical students from New York to conduct High Holy Day services, as they still do today, but the difficulty of engaging mostly-Reform rabbinic students from Hebrew Union College showed the congregation that a Conservative affiliation was unrealistic.34 They could not fulfill the organization’s requirements, such as maintaining a kosher kitchen within the synagogue and so, Adath Yeshurun became affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, though they still use a Conservative prayer book.35

Adath Yeshurun Today
Today, the Adath Yeshurun congregation is comprised by approximately 60 families.36 The average age has risen in the congregation as young families move in search of jobs. The congregation is hopeful they may see a rise in membership once again, should another plant open.37 As a congregation, Adath Yeshurun celebrates their Centennial Anniversary in 2021, and a Centennial Exhibit titled “A Source of Light” is set to take place at the Aiken County Historical Museum in March 2022.38

Architectural Description
The Adath yeshurun synagogue in Aiken, SC is a two-story Neoclassical Revival style brick structure, built in 1925. The roof is a metal seam hipped roof, and the pediment on the west facade of the building is a centered gable. There is a small roof overhang at the bottom of the pediment to create a portico over the front entrance of the synagogue. The portico is supported by two fluted Doric columns on either side of the raised landing and “Adath Yeshurun Synagogue” is inscribed on the frieze. The front door of the building is in the center of the facade, and beside it are two 6-over-6 stained glass single-sash windows with white wooden sills and mullions. The wooden double front door is bordered by white, fluted Doric pilasters on either side and a white pediment above it, with a metal Star of David in the center of the pediment. The first story sits on top of a raised basement, and the front entrance’s landing leads down to the sidewalk via 10 sandstone steps. The steps are bordered by waist-high brick walls capped with sandstone to act as a railing.

Architectural Overview

Click/hover on photo for caption.


Interior Shots

1-35.  “ISJL – South Carolina Aiken Encyclopedia.” 2021. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2021.
36.  “Congregation Of Adath Yeshurun, Aiken, SC – Home”. 2021. Adathyeshurunofaiken.Org.
37.  “ISJL – South Carolina Aiken Encyclopedia.” 2021. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2021.
38.  A Source of Light. 2021. “A Source of Light.” A Source of Light. 2021.

Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina



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