230 Screven St.
Georgetown, SC 29440
Year Built: 1949
Years Active: 1904-Present
Early Jewish Community in Georgetown
Georgetown, South Carolina, was founded in the 1720s on the Sampit River. The colonists who had settled there in the Parish of Prince George Winyah wished to save their time and money by building their own port to export goods directly from Winyah as opposed to Charleston.1 In 1738, George Town was established as an official port of entry, and its economy became based on rice and, later, indigo.2 There is evidence that Jewish families settled in as early as the 1760s in Georgetown. The Cohen brothers, Abraham and Solomon, both Sephardic Jews, moved from Charleston to Georgetown in the early 1760s. Around the same time, Mordecai Myers also arrived from Charleston.3 The Cohen brothers became successful merchants in Georgetown and were heavily involved in public affairs. Abraham joined the Masons and founded the Georgetown Fire Co. and the Georgetown Library Society. Solomon was a member of the Library Society as well as the Winyah Light Dragoons. He also became an intendant, and a tax collector, and was elected as the mayor of Georgetown in 1818.4 Both brothers served as postmasters for the town and joined the Winyah Indigo Society.
The Jewish Community During the Civil War
The small, but growing Jewish community of Georgetown established a Jewish cemetery in 1772, though they did not form their own formal congregation until 1904.5 By 1800, the Jewish population in Georgetown had grown to approximately 80 Jews, which made up 10% of the town’s white population. This established Georgetown as the “second oldest and second largest Jewish community in South Carolina after Charleston.”6 The Georgetown and Charleston Jewish communities remained connected, however, and Georgetown Jews would often travel to Charleston to participate in services. Several family names of Georgetown Jews appear in the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim records in Charleston.7 These names included members of the Aronson, Emanuel, Emsden, Hart, Henry, Joseph, Lopez, Moses, Sampson, Sasportas, Solomon, Solomons, and Woolf families.8 The Jewish population was well-integrated into Georgetown’s society and served as merchants, lawyers, bank directors, pharmacists, physicians, auctioneers, and port agents. They were also involved in local government.9 Jews in Georgetown participated in the slave trade and, like many other citizens of the town, owned enslaved people who worked in their businesses. For example, Solomon Cohen, Jr. owned 20 slaves. While some Jews of Georgetown were adamantly opposed to slavery, the local Jewish community overwhelmingly supported the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out. Five Georgetown Jews joined the Confederate Army, fought, and died in the Civil War, and were buried in the Georgetown Jewish cemetery.10 Following the Civil War, the Jewish population dropped to 54 individuals.11
A Growing Community
After the Civil War, however, and, during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Eastern European Jews started to immigrate to the United States in search of better economic opportunities and refuge from the growing violent hostility towards Jews. While most moved to northern states, many saw prospects for their businesses in the rural south. Heiman Kaminski was just one of these Eastern European immigrants who settled in Georgetown and became a pillar of the Jewish community. Kaminski emigrated from Prussia in 1854 and, after fighting in the Confederate Army, decided to open a dry goods store with his brother-in-law Sol Emanuel and a third partner.12 Kaminski soon made a name for himself by expanding his empire into the businesses of medical supplies, hardware, boat supplies, and shipping.13 Front Street was the heart of the business district and was lined with Jewish-owned shops. Many of these other stores bore the names of Breslauer, Brilles, Dundas, Flaum, Fogel, Gladstone, Isear, Moses, Ringel, Rosen, Schenk, Schneider, and Weinberg, selling a myriad of goods.14 Despite being an integral part of society in Georgetown, during this time, the Jewish families in town did not invest in further developing Jewish organizations for the community.15
Congregation Beth Elohim
In 1904, the Jewish community, made up of 65 Jews, finally came together to organize Congregation Beth Elohim, with plans to form a Sunday School and a Bible Class. Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim played an integral role in Georgetown’s congregation and is even considered to be KKBE’s sister congregation. Before Georgetown was able to acquire its own rabbi, Charleston agreed to lend them Rabbi Elzas every other Sunday.16 One of the congregation’s earliest members, Esther Gladstone Rubin, who was a child at the time, did not remember there being any official activity in the Georgetown congregation until 1917, when Charleston’s Rabbi Jacob S. Raisin was able to help the congregation resurrect itself. Georgetown’s Beth Elohim did not officially incorporate until 1921.17 Even then, they still lacked a rabbi.18
Services at Beth Elohim generally followed the Reform minhag. However, because it was the only congregation in town, it attempted to accommodate all denominations and traditions in order to create an inclusive space for the Jewish community.19 Without a physical synagogue of their own, services were led by lay leaders in the Winyah Indigo Society Hall, as were Sunday school classes.20 Charleston maintained a close relationship with Georgetown’s Jewish community and helped them establish their own Sisterhood in 1938.21
The Jewish community did not construct a synagogue until after World War II. Construction of the temple, classrooms, social hall, and kitchen was completed in 1949 and dedicated in 1950. Rabbi Allan Tarshish, Rabbi Raisin’s successor in Charleston, led the dedication ceremony in the presence of 50 Georgetown Beth Elohim congregants.22
One native of Georgetown, Alwyn Goldstein, described the Jews of Georgetown as “liberal,” and noted that very few families kept kosher.23 The relationship between the Jews and non-Jews of Georgetown was positive and “close-knit,” and being Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant meant little when it came to neighbors supporting neighbors.24
Beth Elohim Today
Beth Elohim’s membership peaked in the 1950s, and since then, the size of the Jewish community has since decreased. As children of the congregants grew older, they moved away from Georgetown.25 By the 1990s, there were only about a dozen congregants, and Goldstein served as the “unofficial rabbi” for Beth Elohim and hosted fifteen-minute services each week.26 By 2003, the membership had dropped to just five members. Those members were descendants of the founding families, which the congregation affectionately called the “Elders.” In addition to Goldstein, Debbie Abrams, Rita Fogel, Myer Rosen, and Philip Schneider consistently made it a point to hold Friday night services and kept the congregation alive.27 Despite their best efforts, things were beginning to look bleak for Congregation Beth Elohim, and they had even given one of their Torahs away and were about to sell the building when Georgetown resident, Elizabeth Moses (1964-2018)–a former member of the JHSSC and employee of the Jewish Heritage Collection and the Jewish Studies Department at the College of Charleston– assisted the congregation in recruiting new members.28 Membership rose to 47 by 2004.29 Today, there are 43 families who maintain an active membership in Congregation Beth Elohim, with Shabbat services being held every Friday evening, followed by an Oneg every other Friday.30
The Beth Elohim synagogue in Georgetown is a two-story brick structure, built in the Romanesque style. The synagogue was completed in 1949. The front facade of the synagogue is a simple, three-bay wide central structure, with an extended wing on either side to create a symmetrical building. The roof of the synagogue is a flemish Dutch gable roof, and there are no windows or decorations adorning the second story. The front door is situated in the middle of the central structure, surrounded by a rounded archway. The characteristics synonymous with Romanesque are often rounded, with vaulted ceilings, which makes it the opposite of the Gothic style. Flanking the front door on either side are small, single-pane rectangular windows, one side each. There is also one window each on both of the wings.
1-26. “ISJL – South Carolina Georgetown Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
27. “About Us.” 2015. Temple Beth Elohim. 2015. https://www.templebethelohim.net/about-us.html.
28. Legacy. 2018. “Elizabeth Moses Obituary (1964 – 2018) – Sumter, SC – Georgetown Times.” Legacy.com. Legacy. July 23, 2018. https://obits.postandcourier.com/us/obituaries/georgetowntimes/name/elizabeth-moses-obituary?pid=197939179.
29-30. “About Us.” 2015. Temple Beth Elohim. 2015. https://www.templebethelohim.net/about-us.html.