316 S Park Ave
Florence, SC 29501
Year Built: 1949
Architect: Union of American Hebrew Congregations
Years Active: 1912-Present
Early Jewish Settlers in Florence
Florence, South Carolina was founded in the mid-1850s, though the town did not start developing its urban fabric until 1858.1 The town was originally intended to serve as a crossroads for the three rail lines that were competing to serve the Pee Dee region at the time.2 Florence quickly rebounded after the Civil War, and, by 1870, the general population numbered approximately 700 residents.3 More than half of the population was comprised of employees of the railroad and their families.4 The first Jewish resident was Moritz Jacobi, a Danish immigrant who came to Florence in 1857.5 He established the first hotel in Florence in 1857, the Jacobi House.6
Jewish Organizations Begin to Form
By 1887, the Jewish community was large enough to form their first Jewish organization.7 Members established the Florence Hebrew Benevolent Association that same year, and their first order of business was obtaining a plot of land for a cemetery.8 David Sternberger, Harris Joseph, S. Elias, and J. DeJongh worked to file for the importation of their association, notify Jews living in neighboring towns, and establish the cemetery.9 By November 1887, the Hebrew Benevolent Association was able to purchase a lot from the Northeast Railroad Company for $50. Six-year-old Rebecca Sternberger of Darlington (David Sternberger’s niece) was the first to be buried in the cemetery in 1887.10
Prior to establishing their own synagogue and Sunday school, families had to travel to nearby towns, such as Darlington, Dillon, Marion, and Little Rock for services and Sunday school. It was especially hard for the young children of these families to find a religious education in Florence.11 A.A. Cohen proposed to the Benevolent Association that they should establish a Sunday School in Florence despite not having a congregation. His own daughters attended school in Darlington, where, in 1889, there were just over 50 Jewish residents.12 The concrete foundation for the Sunday school was laid on June 2, 1889, and Sunday school books and supplies were subsequently ordered.13
The cemetery served as the focal point of Florence’s Jewish community for the next three decades, as well as for some Jewish residents from the surrounding area.14 Well-known Jewish family names on the stones read: Blum, DeJongh, Fass, Goldstein, Goodstein, Hart, Hartz, Iseman, Rosenberg, Salmonsen, Schafer, Smith, Weinstein, and Witcover.15
At the turn of the 20th century, East European immigrants arrived in the United States in search of a better life and new opportunities. Florence, like many other towns in South Carolina, saw an influx in their Jewish populations during this time.
Congregation Beth Israel is Formed
The small Jewish community of Florence,which was primarily Orthodox, established the Beth Israel Congregation in September 1912.16 The Hebrew Benevolent Association, however, continued to operate as its own congregation. Congregation Beth Israel hired Rabbi Jacob Raisin from Charleston’s Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue in 1919 to lead services in Florence.17 He traveled to Florence once a month to lead services on Sundays, in addition to to Darlington, and did this for over twenty-five years.18 After Rabbi Raisin’s death in 1946, the congregation hired different rabbis from Charlotte, Columbia, and Sumter to lead services.19
As European immigrants continued to flock to the rural towns of South Carolina, the Jewish community of Florence grew. Many Jewish merchants came to the area with the hope of establishing themselves and their businesses. One success story to come out of this was Louis Greenberg, a Russian immigrant who came to Florence in 1910 by way of Philadelphia.20 When he arrived, there were about six Jewish families in Florence.21 He began by peddling dried goods out of his horse-drawn-cart, with his wife, who stayed behind, shipping stock to him from Philadelphia. Greenberg was eventually able to open his own storefront and became the only fur and hide merchant in the Pee Dee region.22 By World War I, he was able to expand his business to assist the war effort by selling scrap metal.23 Greenberg also had some rabbinical training, as well as a Torah. He took the initiative to organize Orthodox services in Florence in various rented rooms around town.24 He also served as an informal shochet, since there was no kosher butcher shop in town. He was particularly skilled in butchering chickens.25
The Two Congregations Merge
By the 1920s, the Jewish population in Florence stood at approximately 36 individuals, and they found that the community could not handle having two separate congregations.26 The small, separate Orthodox Jewish community had made their way to Florence between 1906 and 1922, but did not mix into the already-established religious community in Florence.27 Instead, the two groups co-existed within the Florence Jewish community as two separate congregations: Congregation Beth Israel and the Hebrew Benevolent Association. In 1922, a compromise was made between the Hebrew Benevolent Association and Beth Israel Congregation. The two organizations would merge, and Shabbat and the Sunday school would be led using the Reform tradition over Ziegler’s Drug Store, and the High Holidays services, which were held in Greenberg’s home, followed Orthodox tradition.28
That same year, thirteen women in the Jewish community came together to form the Beth Israel Ladies Aid Society.29 The group was affiliated with the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods and served as a philanthropic beacon in Florence. The Ladies also managed the Sunday School.30 The group later changed their name to the Beth Israel Sisterhood in 1928.31
Plans to Build a Synagogue
The congregation made plans to build a synagogue in 1927, but the project was delayed due to the Great Depression, World War II, and their lot being sold. The original lot was on East Elm Street, but had been sold to the City for the construction of Florence High School. Congregation member and local pharmacist, Dr. Michael M. Morse donated land on Park Avenue, which would become the new site of the building, which began construction in February 1949.32 In the meantime, the congregation met around town in a variety of buildings they rented out for services and events, such as the Rainwater Building, the YMCA (pre-World War II) and the Masonic Temple (post-World War II).33 All the while, the congregation president’s car trunk served as the storage space for the Torah and prayer books.34
The Union of American Hebrew Congregations provided the congregation with building blueprints for the synagogue. Congregation Beth Israel formed a “building project committee” led by Dr. S. Abe Greenberg and Isadore Stein, and Dr. Morse.35 They reached out to neighboring Jewish communities in Darlington, Hartsville, Marion, and Timmonsville for assistance with fundraising and construction, and by July of 1949, the synagogue was complete.36 The dedication ceremony took place in September and was led by Rabbi Philip Frankel from Charlotte.37 At this time, approximately 25 families were members of Congregation Beth Israel.38 Services were held on a weekly basis at the synagogue and were led by visiting rabbis from Sumter, Columbia, and Charlotte since the congregation was not financially able to support a full-time rabbi just yet.39
Following World War II, Florence flourished with the arrival of manufacturing companies, educational institutions, and an overall growth in its tourism market.40 The Jewish population in Florence also grew. Compared to 1937, when only 48 Jewish people lived in Florence, by 1960 it had increased to 160 persons, 285 people by 1970, and in 1984, approximately 350 Jewish people lived in the city.41
The Congregation’s Many Rabbis
Beth Israel Congregation hired their first full-time rabbi in 1952.42 Rabbi Tibor Fabian led weekly services at the synagogue and headed the Sunday school, though he only stayed with the congregation for a year. He was succeeded by Rabbi Morris Clarke in 1953.43 Clarke introduced a more “Reform” service to the congregation by including a choir.44 Rabbi Avery Jonah Grossfield then served the congregation from 1954 to 1958.45 He instituted adult education into the Sunday school, as well as b’nai mitzvah preparation and Hebrew classes.46 He performed the first Bar Mitzvah in the Temple.47
In 1958, the Men’s Club of Temple Beth Israel was established.48 They affiliated with the National Federation of Brotherhoods and became very active in the congregational community and the Jewish community at-large by hosting social activities for men.49 Their activities were similar to the Temple Beth Israel Sisterhood, formed in 1928. The two organizations saw how much their responsibilities overlapped so, in 1973, they merged. The two organizations became The Affiliates, where both men and women shared opportunities, leadership roles, and responsibilities.50 This co-ed merger was one of the first of its kind in the country and was so successful that the first two presidents, Frederick Levy and Patricia Lovit, presented together at a convention in Savannah.51 Until 2002, The Affiliates served as the most crucial source of financial aid to Temple Beth Israel.52
Following Rabbi Grossfield, the congregation was served by two student rabbis, Jay Krouse and Paul Kushner, who traveled to Florence from New York to lead services every other weekend and lead Sunday school.53 Following the student rabbis was a circuit-riding rabbi, Rabbi Gottesman, who traveled via bus around the Carolinas to different small-town congregations.54 The congregation hired Rabbi Charles B. Lesser as a full-time rabbi in 1961, who stayed until 1970.55
During Rabbi Lesser’s leadership, the congregation began planning for an expansion of the synagogue. The congregation purchased two houses near the Temple in 1967, and in 1968, they formed plans to remodel the original Temple building.56 The two houses were demolished to make room for a social hall and classrooms. A kitchen was also added to the synagogue structure.57 Construction lasted from September of 1969 to June of 1970.58 Rabbi Howard Folb had been hired by the congregation by this point and led the dedication ceremony for the synagogue’s new additions.59 In October, when the building was officially opened, Rabbi Folb was the first rabbi to lead High Holiday services in the new synagogue.60
Rabbi Folb served the community for another eleven years and was followed by Rabbi Sydney Strome, who was hired in 1981.61 Rabbi Lawrence N. Mahrer was then hired in 1986 and served as spiritual leader for Beth Israel until 1996.62 Rabbi Mark Kline was hired to be the congregation’s rabbi until June of 2003.63 After Rabbi Kline, another student rabbi, Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, led services at the synagogue every first and third weekend of the month from September 2003 to May 2004.66 Rabbi Alvin Sugarman served the congregation as a part-time rabbi in 2005 and he was succeeded by Rabbi Jeffrey Ronald. Rabbi Ronald stayed with the congregation as a full-time rabbi from 2005 to 2011. Today, Beth Israel Congregation serves the Jewish community of not only Florence, but also Darlington, Dillon, Kingstree, Marion, and Murrells Inlet, SC, and Laurinburg, NC.67 Two part-time rabbis share in the responsibility of serving Beth Israel, Rabbi Aaron Sherman and Rabbi Leah Doberne-Schor. The Sunday school is still in operation and provides the Jewish youth of these towns with a well-rounded Jewish education.68
The architecture of the Beth Israel synagogue is unique in that it uses a variety of popular styles from the early-to-mid 20th century to create the synagogue’s signature look. The building is one story tall and at least ten bays wide. The style is reminiscent of several “early modern” styles that would have been popular from 1900 to 1949 when construction was complete. These architectural styles, which the architect of the synagogue pulled from to create their design, include Prairie, Craftsman, and Ranch. The roof is a shingled cross-hipped roof for the main structure, paired with the iconic flat roof of the mid-century for the later additions built onto the synagogue. The sanctuary’s exterior is adorned with stained glass windows and a Star of David along with the synagogue’s name, Beth Israel Congregation, against a wooden board and batten siding. This natural siding is paired with raw brick siding, common in the Prairie style. The main entrance to the synagogue is made up of a double wooden door in the entryway in the center of the front elevation, with two large glass windows on either side. Toward the southwest corner of the front facade are two additions that were later added to the original structure, but blend into the main building by keeping both the style and symmetry of the building in mind. Both of these additions are sided with a mixture of wood and brick, and 2-over-1 windows on each corner of their facades.
1-5. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
6. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
7. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
8. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
9-12. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
13. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
14-26. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022..
27-28. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
29-31. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
32-37. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
38. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
39. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
40-46. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
47-54. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
55. “ISJL – South Carolina Florence Encyclopedia.” 2022. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2022.
56. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.
57-68. “Our History – Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC.” 2017. Beth Israel Congregation – Florence, SC. November 6, 2017.