South Carolina’s historic Charleston is a gem brimming with Jewish history and Southern charm.
The many church steeples and towers that grace the skyline of Charleston, S.C. long ago brought the nickname of “the Holy City.” But the city also has a rich Jewish history until today.
The historic, picturesque city — South Carolina’s second largest — has four congregations catering to a wide range of Jewish traditions and practice, all located within several miles of the heart of downtown.
Congregation Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim is perhaps the best-known area shul, in part due to its place in history. Founded in 1749, the Reform congregation is the fourth oldest in the nation. Its 171-year-old building is the oldest U.S. synagogue facility in continuous use. Today it is led by Rabbi Stephanie Alexander.
The shul’s beautiful gift shop, Chosen Treasures, which is stocked full of conventional and unique Judaica, incorporates a distinctly Southern flair with items such as its “Shalom, Y’all” mugs. In fact, visitors to the synagogue who attend a Kabbalat Shabbat service and the Oneg that follows are given a “Shalom Y’all” mug for the evening to identify themselves as newcomers and be welcomed by members of the community. Representatives of the synagogue and congregants alike have eyes trained on the blue mugs and are ready to strike up a conversation. To get your own, visit the shop from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays through Fridays.
Of course, if you’re looking for a little more than just a mug and want to take in the breadth of history within the synagogue walls, you can sign up for a 30-minute tour, which runs at various times throughout the day, Sundays through Fridays. For information about the synagogue, gift shop and tours, visit kkbe.org .
Brith Sholom Beth Israel caters to the modern Orthodox community of Charleston and has a rich history of its own. The oldest Orthodox synagogue in the South, according to its website, as well as the oldest Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogue in continuous use in the United States, the congregation has a downtown synagogue and a minyan house in a surrounding neighborhood to cater to residents and visitors within the Orthodox community. Learn more at brithsholombethisrael.com .
Charleston’s first Conservative shul, Synagogue Emanu-El, was founded in 1947 and is nestled in the West Ashley neighborhood of the peninsula. Visit emanuel.com to learn more about the congregation and its beautiful building. For those who still haven’t found what they’re looking for, Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country (southern spirit.org) caters to “every Jew, regardless of background or affiliation.” Chabad is located in Mount Pleasant, just over the border of Charleston proper.
To Market,To Market
Of course, Jewish life in Charleston is bigger than just its network of synagogues. There is also a Jewish Community Center in downtown Charleston, as well as the Addlestone Hebrew Academy, which serves “tiny tots” through eighth grade.
When you’re done exploring all there is to see in Jewish Charleston, you’ll need some comfortable shoes to hit all the downtown shopping. The Market, which runs down Market Street and recently underwent renovations, is a must-see for those in search of everything from standard souvenir fare — T-shirts to boxer shorts stamped with the word Charleston — to an array of eclectic spices, traditional foods and crafts from the Lowcountry, including woven sweetgrass baskets, once produced by slaves from West Africa. Visitors can watch the artisans as they sit on lawn chairs throughout the marketplace, weaving the natural elements into durable and beautiful works of functional art.
The Market is also a great place to pick up a carriage tour, which will show off the historic sights of Charleston from the comfort of a horse-drawn carriage. No two tours are the same, with routes drawn by lottery as each group travels down Market Street so the carriage tours can be at the top of your list no matter how many times you’ve visited the Lowcountry.
On a beautiful day, of which there are seemingly endless ones in Charleston, take a walk from the Market down King Street, where you will find some of the greatest commercial shopping, from Louis Vuitton to stores whose walls are lined with costume jewelry. King Street shopping features a variety of chain stores and independents, from The Extra Mile Running Store at 336 King — which has a map of great Charleston jogging routes for visitors and newbies — to the many antique shops and art galleries tucked into unassuming storefronts. My personal favorite is a clothing boutique aptly named Affordables, which features a great variety of eclectic women’s clothing for reasonable prices.
After a few blocks, which could take hours depending on your shopping habits, you’ll reach Calhoun Street and the foot of the Charleston Farmer’s Market, which is erected every Saturday in Marion Square from April through December. More artisans and food vendors flank the park, where College of Charleston students often sunbathe and locals take their dogs for scenic walks. If you only try one of the food samples offered throughout the farmer’s market, make it a pickle slice from Fresh Pickle Works. These aren’t your average dill pickles, and you can’t get them anywhere but Charleston, so stock up!
Grits & Groceries
Once you have successfully worked up an appetite, you really can’t go wrong with any restaurant selection in downtown Charleston.
If you’re standing at the Farmer’s Market, starving and feeling like channeling the spirit of the basking college students, check out Mama Kim’s Korean and Chinese food restaurant right across the street on Calhoun for a good, inexpensive lunch. After I sampled nearly a dozen restaurants over several Charleston visits, Mercato on Market Street remains at the top of my list. Voted Charleston’s “best new restaurant” in 2007, it consistently provides excellent traditional Italian food, coupled with great wines at the suggestion of your server or bartender, and live jazz seven nights a week. The service, ambiance and food make Mercato a must-try, and is usually my first stop upon disembarking the plane!
Most restaurants in the Lowcountry feature Charleston’s traditional (albeit quite treife) dish: shrimp ’n grits. Made with bacon or sausage, cheddar cheese and stone-ground grits, topped with spicy shrimp, the dish is a delicacy that no two places make the same way. While there may be no kosher equivalent, real, old-fashioned stone-ground grits should find their way to the top of everybody’s list when visiting the South.
All in all, the Charleston experience cannot be summed up in one article — or visit! Luckily, as of spring 2011, Southwest Airlines features non-stop flights there from Baltimore-Washington International, and often runs specials for $69 each way. There’s no better time to take in the good shopping, great food, beautiful weather and, of course, rich Jewish history of Charleston, South Carolina than right now.
For details about Charleston, including recommendations on lodging and more, visit the Chamber of Commerce’s website at charleston chamber.net.