Three Generations Uncover Their Jewish Roots in the Deep South. Part 1: Charleston.
As a young boy Ruben Owen would leap off the red brick porch of his family’s modest cottage style home in Columbus, Georgia, glance both ways down the pecan tree lined street before running across to meet the neighborhood kids at the abandoned lot for a pick up game of baseball, tag or hide n’ go seek. The events of those endless summer days are now time clouded memories resting as they are some six decades in the past.
Now a grandfather living across the continent from his birthplace, Ruben often imagined visiting the home of his childhood. As noted in an article on TMR last month, Ruben’s son Rabbi Benjy Owen had been teaching a Jewish history course at Northwest Yeshiva High School near Seattle, where he is the Dean of Jewish Studies. His research for the course had ignited in his mind an idea identical to his father’s. Rabbi Owen embraced his father’s dream of revisiting his family’s past and took it one step further, including his fifteen year old son Jeffrey and his brother Jacob (now residing in Los Angeles) in the dream, a three generations roots tour of the Jewish South.
After months of research and of poring over maps, an 830 mile long itinerary was set. The ambitious plan had the four men traveling Through Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, Columbus, Montgomery and New Orleans, all in a span of eight days.
The evening of December 24th found the four explorers ensconced in their rental vehicle excitedly approaching the outskirts of their first destination, Charleston, South Carolina. “That same day an article came out in the Seattle Times about Sam” recalled Rabbi Owen. Sam is Rabbi Owen’s eldest son who lost a valiant battle with cancer shortly after his thirteenth birthday. “Sam would have loved this trip” thought the Rabbi. Out the window, illuminated alongside the highway the group sighted a billboard with the words, “We Love & Support Israel”; a good omen.
Once settled in their hotel room, the Owen men immediately set forth to explore their Charleston surroundings. It was late and it was December 24th so not much was open, “we found this funky establishment” noted Rabbi Owen who ventured inside for some wholesome non-alcoholic beverages. “There was this guy behind the counter who looked like a wildman, the spitting image of Zach Galifianakis on a bad hair day. We started to chatting and soon discovered that the wildman was Jewish! When he heard I was a Rabbi he came out from behind the counter and gave me a bone crushing bear hug! He handed me a list of Jewish contacts in Savannah and revealed that he will soon be moving to Seattle”.
The travelers set out early morning on the 25th, arriving in time to make minyan at Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the oldest Ashkenazi Orthodox synagogue in continuous existence in the United States. Eastern European Jews arriving in Charleston in 1852 found an established Sephardic Jewish community and synagogue dating back to 1749. Longing for the customs and pronunciation to which they were more accustomed, the Ashkenazic newcomers established their own shul in 1854.
In conversation with congregants following Shahrit services it was revealed that the prior Spiritual leader of BSBI, Rabbi David J. Radinsky hails from Seattle and is related to the Maslan family. Rabbi Radinsky served the congregation well for over 35 years before retiring with honor in Israel.
It was a short drive down Rutledge Avenue to the historic Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. Founded as a Sephardic Orthodox community worshiping in private homes in 1775, they built their first synagogue in 1792. That structure burned to the ground in 1830. Around the same time that the new edifice – one of the country’s finest examples of Greek Revival architecture – was completed in 1840, the Congregation had begun to stray from its Sephardic roots to the practices of the nascent American Reform movement. In 1845, the Orthodox members of the synagogue parted from Beth Elohim and built a traditional Sephardic synagogue in a different area of the city.
Beth Elohim is the oldest continuously run synagogue in the United States and the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the country. Its cemetery is also the oldest Jewish burial ground still in existence today.
Having entered the dignified entryway of Beth Elohim Jeffrey was drawn to an ancient document sealed beneath an ornate glass display; a copy of a 1790 letter to the Congregation from George Washington declaring “The affectionate expressions of your address again excite my gratitude, and receive my warmest acknowledgment. May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me, rest upon your Congregation.”
From Beth Elohim the Owens proceeded to the Charleston JCC where the Jewish community gather annually for a bounteous December 25th southern breakfast. Trying grits for the first time Rabbi Owen described the Southern staple as merely “a butter delivery device”. This will be the last of countless December 25th community breakfasts at the Charleston “J” as it has been unable to sustain itself and will be closing later this year.
The Charleston Hebrew Academy, a Jewish Day School with 140 students that is currently housed at the JCC will be moving to a new building following this school year.
Speaking with one of the local teenagers, Jeffrey was informed that there is very little social life for Jewish teens in Charleston and many look forward to leaving town for college in places with more Jewish vibrancy.
From the JCC the three generations of Owens headed to the historic Charleston City Market. Sort of a southern version of Seattle’s Pike Place Market. City Market was established in the 1700’s and today looks much as it did when the current Market Hall was constructed in the 1840’s. Rabbi Owen shared that he was troubled when a local told him the market was once a center for slave trading. “I could find no plaque or memorial to the sordid history of the place and felt it sacrilegious to treat such a space as a jovial tourist attraction if it did indeed serve the slave trade”.
It turns out that there was a slave market in Charleston, but not there at City Market.
The Old Slave Mart in Charleston is possibly the only known building used as a slave auction gallery in South Carolina still in existence, it is now a museum. Ruben explained to his grandson Jeffrey forthrightly that the slave trade was a shameful part of the history of the antebellum South. Not something to hide but something to learn from.
Before heading back on the road, the Owens made a quick detour to visit Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim’s Cemetery. The Coming Street Cemetery as it is known is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in the South and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Cemetery is divided into three sections referred to as areas A, B & C. Area A is the original congregational cemetery and dates from 1754. In this section are dozens of historically significant plots including the resting place of ten congregants who were veterans of the Revolutionary War.
Adjacent to the older section is Area B which was developed by traditionalist Sephardic members of Beth Elohim who seceded in 1841 over the installation of an organ in the synagogue. Area C was established by David Lopez in 1843 when Shearit Israel refused burial to his first wife who had not been converted to Judaism.