1501 Lyttleton St
Camden, SC 29020
Year Built: 1903
Years Active: 1921-Present
Early Jewish Community
Camden was founded in 1768 with the establishment of a court, making it the oldest inland town in the state of South Carolina. By 1785, Camden constituted an organized township.1 The first mention of Jewish residents in Camden first appeared in the historical record in the late 1780s, when Joseph Kershaw, a prominent businessman, bequeathed a plot of land to the Jewish community to build a synagogue and establish a cemetery. The unnamed beneficiaries, however, never claimed the land.2 By 1790, seven Jewish families were living in Camden, including the Levy, DeLeon, DePass, Sarzedas, Lyon, Barrett, and Davega families.3
Chapman Levy (1787-1849), son of Sarah Moses Levy, became a successful lawyer, businessman, and politician. He owned a plantation, ran a brickyard, was active in masonry, which was dependent upon the labor of thirty-one enslaved people, “the largest number held by a Jew in South Carolina in the early 1800s.”4 Twenty of the enslaved individuals worked in his brickyard near Columbia Canal.5 He was a militia captain in the War of 1812 and served in both the State House and the Senate for Kershaw County.6
Postbellum Jewish Communal Growth
Despite such an early Jewish presence in antebellum Camden, formal Jewish organizations were not established until 1877.7 Camden’s small Jewish population as well as its close proximity to Columbia, which became the state capital in 1786, likely precluded the need for an institutional presence.8 It is also possible that waning Jewish observance and assimilation into surrounding society were contributing factors.9
By the late 1870s, the Jewish population in Camden had grown to eighty individuals, and members of the community began to establish a number of religious and philanthropic institutions. A Hebrew Benevolent Association was established in 1877 — the same year community members purchased land for a cemetery — by the Arnstein, Bamberg, Baruch, Baum, Block, Eben, Hoffstadt, Jacobson, Khan, Katz, Rich, Rosenberg, Simons, Smith, Strauss, Tobias, Williams, and Wittkowsky families.10 The organization’s objectives, aside from promoting Judaism, was to “visit the sick, relieve the distress, and bury the dead.”11 The Association performed charitable acts not limited to the Camden area. Members donated money to support the prosecution of a man accused of murdering a Jew in Abbeville. After the 1886 earthquake in Charleston, SC, the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Camdent sent aid to the Jewish victims and assisted in the reconstruction of the Brith Sholom Beth Israel Orthodox synagogue. Their philanthropy even went as far as Georgia when they assisted in building and sustaining a Jewish orphanage in Atlanta.12 The Hebrew Benevolent Association opened a Sunday School in 1880, under the leadership of Isabelle Baruch. They were able to secure Mary Williams, a teacher from Charleston, as the instructor.13
Prior to the establishment of an official synagogue, Camden Jews gathered for services in a room above a store, presumably Baum’s store on the corner of Broad and Rutledge Street. J.M. Williams served as lay reader for High Holy Day services, and he remained in this role until his death in 1833.14 In 1880, it would appear that congregation Gemilath Chasodim provided the funds for construction of a synagogue.15 The congregation identified as Orthodox, but they did not strictly adhere to the Orthodox tradition, including prescribed gender divisions. For example, in 1878, after some debate and upon Simon Baruch’s assertion, the first female, Mrs. Benjamen was admitted to the previously all-male Hebrew Benevolent Association.16 In 1882, members held a meeting to discuss joining the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The outcome of this meeting is unknown, however, the first Reform services led by Rabbi Harry Merfled from Columbia were not held until 1915.17
Interwar Jewish Life in Camden, SC
The Association finally settled on a plan for a synagogue in 1921.18 They purchased a former Catholic church and established Temple Beth El. They added a Torah Arc, as well as a Star of David and the name of the synagogue at the entrance. For nearly a decade, the congregation was served by Rabbi F. Hirsch from Sumter.19 For many years thereafter, Sumter rabbis would travel to Camden to lead services on Sundays.20
Students began attending Temple Beth El’s Sunday school in 1880. Though it was not always in operation, Camden’s Jewish children could still receive an education by going to Sumter for confirmation classes at Temple Sinai.21 Some of Camden’s boys were even bar mitzvahed there.22
Camden’s Jewish population peaked during the interwar period at just over 100 individuals.23 In the 1920s, the Hebrew Benevolent Association was replaced by a separate Hebrew Men’s Club and the Temple Beth El Sisterhood.24 Together, they performed the Hebrew Benevolent Association’s various philanthropic activities.25
Over the years, Jewish residents enjoyed a high degree of acceptance and integration with non-Jewish residents of Camden. Jewish residents recall feeling “no different from their Christian friends.”26 Bernard Baruch noted in his memoir that he felt that Judaism did not set his family apart from the Christian families in Camden. Instead, he saw an aura of “mutual respect” between the two religions.27
Postwar Jewish Life
The Jewish population in Camden began to decline after War World II. In 1937, approximately 67 Jews lived in Camden; by the mid-century, membership at Temple Beth El had decreased to 25.28 Sumter Rabbis Aaron Levy and Avshalom Magidovitch led Sunday services, and congregation members Jay Tanzer, Bernard Baum, and Leon Scholsburg served as lay readers.29 Despite these low numbers, the congregation raised enough money to build a social hall.30 In 1960, the hall was constructed behind the synagogue and became a venue for Sunday school classes and social events. Though they now had a school in Camden, some children continued to travel to Sumter and Columbia.31 Young Jewish residents reported being unfamiliar with traditional Orthodox practice, such as keeping Kosher, but they still celebrated all of the major Jewish holidays, further evidence that Temple Beth El had gravitated toward Reform Judaism.32
Presently, Temple Beth El has a membership of approximately 13 “paying” members, which includes four, two-person families, and the other five individuals. Though, this number does not match Camden’s Jewish population size.33 Three families financially support the synagogue, but do not attend services. While some Jews are not actively practicing, others prefer to attend services elsewhere. Because of the small number of congregants, weekly services are no longer practical and the congregation cannot support a resident rabbi. In the meantime, the congregation continues to maintain the synagogue building and the cemetery.34
Temple Beth El in Camden, SC is a one-story, stucco’d, Spanish-Mission style building, constructed in 1903. The synagogue features a scalloped parapet wall on the east facade, typical to the Spanish-Mission style, that joins the shingle front-gable roof. The entryway also features a front-gable roof that juts out from the center of the east facade. This gable meets another, smaller scalloped parapet wall that matches the larger one. At the top-center of this parapet is a metal Star of David, and below that, above the round archway, is a metal sign that reads: Temple Beth El. The double-front door is through this rounded arch, and there are two sandstone steps leading to the main walkway.
Originally, Temple Beth El was St. Mary’s Catholic Church until the Hebrew Benevolent Association purchased the land and structure in 1921. The majority of the original structure still stands, earning the synagogue of ‘High Historical Integrity.’ Some minor changes have been the addition of the Torah Arc inside the sanctuary and the placement of the name of the synagogue and a Star of David above the entryway. The stained glass windows were replaced c. 2001 after the originals were damaged. The current stained glass windows were designed by Allan Sindler, who also designed the double Star of David statue that sits on the property.
1-4. “ISJL – South Carolina Camden Encyclopedia.” 2021. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2021.
5. “Chapman Levy (1787-1849) – Find a Grave Memorial.” 2012. Findagrave.com. 2012.
7-34. “ISJL – South Carolina Camden Encyclopedia.” 2021. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. 2021.