120 Neyle St
Walterboro, SC 29488
Year Built: 1950-51
Architect: John Truluck
Years Active: 1950 - present
The early years of Jewish religious life in Walterboro, South Carolina dates to the early 1900s. Jewish community members held Shabbat services in various locations, including private homes, the Masonic hall adjoining Zalin’s Department Store, and, for a time, at the Walterboro Army Airfield chapel. Jacob Frank kept the community’s Torah at his home on Lucas Street. Lewis Harris, the son of Ruth Horowitz and Abram Harris, proprietors of Hayes Jewelers on Washington Street, recalls seeing Mr. Frank walking from his house to the Masonic hall, carrying the Torah wrapped in a sheet. Various members of the Jewish community led the prayers and delivered sermons.
News of Hitler’s atrocities in Europe inspired the approximately 40 members of Walterboro’s Jewish community, the majority of eastern European descent, to build a temple and community center, where they could worship, celebrate, educate their children, and hold cultural and communal events. After a few years of searching for an appropriate location for their sanctuary and social hall, the congregation bought a parcel of land on Neyle Street, which is situated southwest of the main thoroughfares of Walterboro, and hired architect John Truluck Jr., a local Clemson graduate and World War II fighter pilot to design and oversee construction of the building. Construction began in 1950 with an official groundbreaking ceremony. The building was completed by the fall of 1951, in time for the High Holidays. On May 25, 1952, Temple Mount Sinai was dedicated in the presence of the entire Jewish community of Walterboro, as well as non-Jewish residents of Walterboro. Temple President Leon Gelson led the program with welcoming remarks in which he thanked the Town of Walterboro for its spirit of friendship and cooperation. The ceremony program indicates that Albert Novit and Murray Warshaw placed the scrolls in the ark. Cantor J. J. Renzer of Charleston’s Conservative Synagogue Emanu-El sang, and the eternal light was lit. Rabbi Lewis Weintraub, also from Emanu El, gave the dedication address. Rabbi Julius Fisher of Beaufort’s Beth Israel offered a prayer of dedication and congratulated the congregation on its beautiful temple and cultural center, while noting, “The completion of the Synagogue is not, in itself, the end. It is the beginning . . . The spirit of a congregation is more important than its beautiful temple. Gold and marble are never as bright as love and loyalty.” Rev. John Younginer extended formal greetings on behalf of the Walterboro Ministerial Union. A reception in the temple’s new assembly hall followed the ceremony.
Murray Warshaw had conducted the services since the Temple opened. Warshaw was not an official rabbi, but “looked and sounded like a rabbi,” as long-time resident Paul Siegel put it. Warshaw led the congregation. When he died, his son, Bernard, took over. Later, in the early 90s, Mary Potter Engel, a graduate from a Christian seminary who had converted to Judaism, and her husband Winslow Engel, took over religious life in town. She graduated from a christian seminary and converted to Judaism. She took over the religious life in town.
In the early 1950s, the congregation also arranged to have a parcel of land in Walterboro’s Live Oak Cemetery set aside for a Jewish burial ground. This became known as the Temple Mount Sinai Cemetery and freed the city’s Jews from having to purchase plots 50 miles away in Charleston, an accomplishment that was a high priority for Sam Siegel. Siegel was a local merchant and real estate agent and a World War II veteran. He moved from Anderson in 1940. His father, Max Siegel, was the original benefactor for Temple B’nai Israel in Anderson. Congregants purchase their respective plots directly from the Live Oak Cemetery Association.
The congregation of Temple Mount Sinai never identified as either Conservative or Reform. At the January 1952 annual meeting, Sam Novit proposed that the congregation formally affiliate with the Conservative Movement. While some members supported the motion, others expressed concern over the cost or a strong preference to adhere to the customs of the Reform Movement. Those present took a straw poll and the final result was thirteen in favor of Conservative and nine for Reform. In the end, there was no motion, second, or formal vote. When the topic was broached again in 1956, this time by Henry Kessler, the board decided to request materials to help plan services from both the United Synagogue and Hebrew Union College (Reform). Although Temple Mount Sinai was often regarded as a Conservative synagogue, many members felt a close kinship with Reform Judaism. Several members also joined either Synagogue Emanu-El (Conservative) or the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (Reform) in nearby Charleston. Scholars such as Rabbis Alan Tarshish and Burton Padoll of KKBE frequently travelled to Walterboro to present lectures and lead discussions about the challenges facing modern Jewry. Student rabbis commissioned through the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative organization, conducted High Holiday services, and traveling rabbis supplemented Sunday school classes with Hebrew instruction for a congregation of about 50 adult members and 15 children. The Sunday school children put on plays and there was a sukkah at the synagogue. The holidays—Passover Seders, Purim parties— were celebrated communally.
For nearly three decades after the synagogue was built, the Jews of Walterboro maintained a vibrant religious community despite its small size. Paul Siegel, president of the congregation for four decades, fondly remembers community leader Bernard Warshaw informing the congregation of attempts by Charleston synagogues to “swallow up” Temple Mt. Sinai. Siegel remembers Warshaw striding up to the bimah and announcing to the world, “We are a proud community and will not give up our identity.” Although the future looked bright, the erosion of small town economies across the United States began to present a challenge to Walterboro’s Jewish community. Once a thriving area for small businesses – many owned by Jewish families – downtown Walterboro no longer provided a fertile environment for this type of enterprise. The construction of major highways and roads in the mid-to-late 1960s bypassed Walterboro, diverting much needed business from the downtown. A younger generation of Jews were drawn for social, cultural, and economic opportunities in larger urban settings.
Sixty-six years after the founding of Temple Mt. Sinai, Jewish life in Walterboro has drastically diminished. With fewer than ten members residing in town, holding weekly Shabbat services is unrealistic. However, there is still something remarkable about the sense of community that remains among the Jews of Walterboro and their descendents. While most of the founding families and their children live elsewhere, their extended families still treasure their roots lie in this small, southern town. Each year, family members of Walterboro’s original Jewish community come together at Temple Mount Sinai for the High Holy Days.
Today, Paul Siegel, past president of Temple Mt. Sinai and B’nai Brith and former City Council member of 14 years, and his wife Jayne, are dedicated to the reemergence of Walterboro’s Jewish life.
The Temple Mount Sinai synagogue in Walterboro, SC was constructed in 1950-51 in the Gothic Revival style. The structure is built in a one-story, asymmetrical L-shaped layout using factory-made brick, laid in the Running brick bond. The shingle roof follows this L-shaped layout with a cross gable on the west side of the structure. From east to west on the north facade, which faces the street, the one-story structure has four lancet windows. The windows each have a Y-shaped, wooden tracery. The bottom-half of the windows are 2-over-1 single-sash. The panes are horizontal. The windows have a concrete sill and brick jack arches with a sandstone keystone. Each of these windows are separated along the facade by half-wall engaged piers that are topped with a half-gable sandstone piece connecting the pier to the wall. The door to the synagogue is a pointed arch-shaped wooden door in a setback entryway. The door is framed with sandstone masonry pieces. The pointed arch that forms the entrance to the entryway is made of an alternating pattern of sandstone square blocks and keystones.
The perpendicular cross gable structure on the west side of the building features two windows of the same style, but no engaged piers. On the gabled wall above these two windows, in the center, is a circular stained glass window featuring the Star of David. This structure is where the Sanctuary is housed. The ceiling is also clad in bare wood shiplap with exposed beams and roof frame. The north wall inside the Sanctuary is made of vertical, bare wooden shiplap cladding. The bima and ark are positioned in a setback pointed archway with the stained glass circular window at its point. Along the west and east brick walls are four windows of the same gothic revival design seen on the facade of the building.