808 Ellis Avenue
Orangeburg, SC 29115
Year Built: 1913
Years Active: 1904-Present
The township of Orangeburg traces its origins to the 1730s, when German and Swiss immigrants arrived at Edisto, a Native American trading center where they likely traded with the Beaver Creek Nation.1,2 The name Orangeburg was given in honor of William of Orange, the former King of England. It was predominantly a farming community made wealthy by the planting of cotton. After the Branchville train depot near Orangeburg was completed in the early 1840s connecting the town to both Charleston and Columbia, the population doubled in fewer than ten years.3 German Jews were among those who relocated to the growing town in the 1840s.4
First Jewish Roots
Deopold Louis was one of the first-known Jews to live in Orangeburg. A Bavarian immigrant, he went on to become a well-known merchant. He arrived in the 1840s and was soon joined by his sister and her family, the Kohns. Theodore Kohn, Deopold’s nephew, worked with him for a few years before opening his own storefront. Kohn and his partner, Emanuel Ezekiel, named their store Ezekiel and Kohn, and remained partners in business until 1890.5 Theodore went on to become a well-respected member of Orangeburg as a businessman and civic leader. During his lifetime, he served as an alderman, cofounder of the Edisto Bank, and has been credited as one of the driving forces behind the creation of Orangeburg’s public schools. His younger brother, Henry Kohn, was also an important figure within the community.6 He was the founder of the Young America Fire Company and a Mason. Henry was an avid violinist and instructor, and was often admired by the community for his dedication to bringing music to Orangeburg. He and his wife, Matilda Baum Kohn, worked to establish the Orangeburg Philharmonic Orchestra. Kohn directed groups of amateur musicians for over fifty years.7 The two of them were instrumental in the creation and subsequent ongoing vitality of Orangeburg’s classical music scene.
As Orangeburg’s general population grew, so did the Jewish community thanks to an influx of Eastern European Jews who began immigrating and settling in and near the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1905, as many as 60 Jews lived in Orangeburg and many of them were shop owners. There was a clear desire among many of these merchants to assimilate and integrate into the larger culture. Many became very involved in Orangeburg’s civic life, running for and winning elected office. Quite a few Jewish men would join the Shriners, Masons, and Aldermans in an attempt to become acquainted with their gentile neighbors.8 About two decades later, Robert Furchgott described living in Orangeburg as being “… a small town. Everybody was friendly. There was no discrimination. Of course, there was terrible discrimination relative to the blacks, like everywhere. But in terms of being Jewish in a small town, there wasn’t any separation. Everybody socialized together.”9
Organized Jewish Life
Despite their small number, Orangeburg’s Jews were steadfast in maintaining their religious traditions. In 1885, they founded the Hebrew Benevolent Society and Theodore Kohn served as the acting president. The group purchased land for a cemetery in 1886 and by 1904, they had formally established a congregation. Henry Kohn was elected president.10 A religious school was organized a short time later and in 1918, had 14 students, a sizable portion of the estimated 59 members of the Orangeburg Jewish community, though this activity was short-lived due to the Great Depression.11
In 1929, the congregation formally affiliated with the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations. During the 1930s, active membership declined by half from 88 Jews in 1927 to only 48 in 1937. During this tumultuous time, the religious school disbanded as there were only five or six Jewish families living in Orangeburg. Religious practices likewise relaxed. Families began holding individual High Holy Day services in their homes; an estimated half of Orangeburg’s Jews simply did not attend worship services at all, in part to intermarriage and conversions to Christianity. Many rural Jewish communities experienced a decline in the 1930s, not just in South Carolina, but nationally.12
Revitalizing Orangeburg Jewish Life
Following the end of World War II, the Orangeburg Jewish community underwent a period of revitalization. Many chose to live in Orangeburg due to the availability of factory jobs in sawmills or as highway construction workers and the availability of service jobs such as waitress, mechanics, or cashiers.13 In 1950, the congregation reorganized under the name Temple Sinai and began building a synagogue a few years later. They finished construction in 1956, partially thanks to support from donations from their Christian neighbors. Jewish families traveled from surrounding rural areas to the newly constructed Temple Sinai for services and to send their children to Sunday School.14 At the congregation’s height, there were likely between 15 to 20 families. By 1960, around 120 Jews were living in Orangeburg County. Despite the growing Jewish population, a full-time rabbi never lived in residence. Rabbi David Gruber of Columbia traveled once a month to perform services, and rabbinical students were brought in for High Holy Day services. The revival of this community was short-lived due to disagreements over the use of the Reform versus Conservative prayer book, in addition to the departure of children who left for college, families moved away, and people died.15
Jews in Orangeburg Today
Beginning in the 1990s, services were led by a lay reader in the synagogue one Sunday per month with only three or four members in attendance. As such, High Holy Day Services were described by one member as a “hit or miss proposition.” Temple Sinai will most likely meet the same fate of many other small Jewish communities – having to close their doors for good.16
The current building that houses Congregation Temple Sinai is a two-story building constructed in 1956. Built into a hill, the simple brick structure features a stained glass Star of David directly above the entryway. The building has a simple gabled roof, and red double doors. A majority of the windows are for the purpose of letting in natural light, while there do appear to be decorative stained glass windows in the sanctuary. The building materials are mostly brick, though there is a stone marker to the side of the doors. As with most mid-century buildings, the synagogue is in the style of American mid-century modern vernacular. At this time, many Reform congregations, especially those in rural towns, did not want to stand out and were more likely to build in an assimilated style.
1. “South Carolina – Indians, Native Americans – Pee Dee Indian Nation of Beaver Creek.” Accessed October 13, 2022. https://www.sciway.net/hist/indians/beaver-creek-pee-dee-indians-sc.html.
2. “Orangeburg History | Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina.” Accessed October 13, 2022. https://jhssc.org/orangeburg-history-3/.
3. “Branchville Depot Historical Marker.” Accessed September 8, 2022. https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=16536.
4. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “ISJL – South Carolina Orangeburg Encyclopedia.” Accessed September 8, 2022. https://www.isjl.org/south-carolina-orangeburg-encyclopedia.html.
5. “Theodore Kohn | Jewish Merchant Project.” Accessed September 8, 2022. https://merchants.jhssc.org/merchants/theodore-kohn/.
6-8. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “ISJL – South Carolina Orangeburg Encyclopedia.” Accessed September 8, 2022. https://www.isjl.org/south-carolina-orangeburg-encyclopedia.html.
9. “Jewish Heritage Collection: Oral History Interview with Robert Furchgott – Lowcountry Digital Library Catalog Search.” Accessed October 13, 2022. https://lcdl.library.cofc.edu/lcdl/catalog/lcdl:64122.
10-12. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “ISJL – South Carolina Orangeburg Encyclopedia.” Accessed September 8, 2022. https://www.isjl.org/south-carolina-orangeburg-encyclopedia.html.
13. “Search | 1950 Census.” Accessed October 18, 2022. https://1950census.archives.gov/search/?county=Orangeburg&page=1&state=SC.
14-16. Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “ISJL – South Carolina Orangeburg Encyclopedia.” Accessed September 8, 2022. https://www.isjl.org/south-carolina-orangeburg-encyclopedia.html.