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The Jewish Congregation of Charleston

By N[athaniel]. L[evin].

From the destruction of our second Temple to the close of the sixteenth century, the wanderings of our people may be traced by the bloodshed and cruelties practised upon and following them. The most horrible persecutions were inflicted, and the most refined species of torture contrived, to render them apostates to their religion, and blasphemers of their God. Among no nations was this fiery persecution carried to a greater extreme than those of Spain and Portugal. Thousands of our hapless brethren were inhumanely dragged to the rack, and suffered the severest tortures their bodies could endure: the blazing fagots of the "auto-da-fe" consumed both parent and child, husband and wife; and while their quivering flesh betrayed the weakness of humanity, the proud immortal spirit spurned the gift of life for the price at which it was offered was more revolting than death in its most hideous form. The most lenient measures adopted by these nations for the destruction of our people were the confiscation of the property and the banishment of the Jews from their dominions. The dungeon, the torture, and the flame, proved ineffectual in apostatizing them; for the conscientious Jew amid the flames, in his darkest hour of tribulation, called for aid upon the God of his forefathers, the "God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob."

The present condition of these countries, shrouded as they are in ignorance and superstition uncivilized and unrefined, without national resources, their colonies torn from them by other nations, and intestine wars preying upon their vitality, proves incontrovertibly that the retributive hand of the Deity is upon them for their cruelties and intolerance to our people.

When the Jews were banished from Spain thousands fled to Holland, and many of them sought the western hemisphere, deeming it a securer asylum than any other land afforded. It was to America, to this great land (in which liberty has erected her sacred temple) they strained their eager eyes, and from the persecutions of the old, fled to the new world, to enjoy the great prerogative of worshipping God according to the dictates of their consciences, untrammeled by priestcraft, or the strong arm of arbitrary rule. Many of the founders of this congregation were the direct descendants of those Jews who were driven from Spain by the barbarous decrees of that government. A large number of them settled in this state, and when the revolutionary struggle commenced, all those who could bear arms joined the American army, and were zealously engaged in defending the liberties of their adopted country. They knew full well that victory would bring them the rich reward of religious and political freedom; and their ancestors having told them the story of the wrongs they had endured, the fiery ordeal of intolerance and persecution through which they had passed: the fathers of our congregation poured forth their energies and blood as water to possess those great blessings which were denied to their ancestors. Toil, privations and hardships they endured; deeds of noble and heroic daring they undertook; and their gallantry was rewarded with the priceless treasure of religious and political freedom.

As early as the year 5510, (1750th of the Christian era,) the following Israelites dwelt in this city: Moses Cohen, (under whose auspices the congregation was formed,) Isaac De Costa, Joseph Tobias, Meshed Tobias, Moses Pimenta, (a man learned in the laws, who taught the Jewish youth, and manifested an untiring zeal for the advancement of the religion of his forefathers in this country,) David de Olivera, Abraham De Costa, Mordecai Sheftall, Levy Sheftall, Michael Lazarus, and Abraham Nunez Cardoza. The descendants of most of these persons are now living, and members of the congregation.

At the first meeting of which any record exists, the second* day of the year 5510, Moses Cohen was electedחכם ואב בית דין, Isaac De Costa חזן, Joseph Tobias פרנס, and Philip Hart מוהל. In this year they associated themselves as a religious society, and the Synagogue in which they worshipped was a small wooden house, situated in Union near Queen Street. The congregation, now in its infancy, and its numerical strength quite small, was strictly orthodox, and in these days might be termed hyper-orthodox, for its members were such rigid conformists to the written and oral laws, that whose who violated the Sabbath, or the laws of the "Medianos," or middle days of the holidays, subjected themselves to severe penalties, and forfeiture of the honours of the Synagogue, inflicted by a body, similar to the existing בית דין or consistorial courts of Europe. The name of the congregation was (as it is at the present time) קהל קדש בית אלהים. The "Minhag Sephardim" (as observed by the congregations of London and Amsterdam) was the guide and rule of their service. The government of the congregation was vested in an "Adjunta" of eighteen persons, elected by ballot to serve for one year. This "Adjunta" selected from among themselves a Parnass and other officers, who were empowered to make any rules and regulations which they might deem necessary for the peace, harmony, and good government of the people. The basis of the religious structure which our ancestors had established, was charity; that godlike virtue, which blesses the bestower as well as the recipient; and the sums yearly expended for charitable purposes, in relieving the sick and indigent, frequently exceeded £400. To extend the sphere of their charity and usefulness, the members of the congregation formed the חברה גמלות חסדים, (which still exists,) a society for relieving the sick and destitute strangers who might visit our shores. The members of this excellent institution visited and nursed the sick, clothed the naked, and buried the dead. The congregation occupied their first place of worship for seven years, and each year brought an accession of members and increased prosperity. In 1757 they removed to No. 318 King Street, near Hasell Street, then the property of Alexander Gillon, Esq., it being a much more spacious house, standing back in the yard. The presentבית חיים was then purchased, and was enclosed with a brick wall in 1790. In 1764 their place of worship was removed to a building in Beresford near King Street, and a misunderstanding having occurred between the congregation and the Rev. Mr. De Costa, the reverend gentleman resigned his office, and Mr. Abraham Alexander officiated in this temporary Synagogue. In the year 1780, Mr. Jacob Tobias purchased a lot and brick building in Hasell Street for 310 guineas, which was then occupied by a Mr. Little, as a cotton-gin manufactory. The congregation now possessing a surplus fund, and desirous of procuring a permanent place of worship, purchased this place from Mr. Tobias, in 1781, for the same amount paid by him, altered and arranged it in a suitable manner for their worship, and it was ever afterwards termed the "Old Synagogue."

* Is not this date erroneous? [Sept. 14, 1749, second day of Rosh Hashanah, when writing is prohibited]--Ed. Oc.

In 1784, Mr. Alexander resigned the office of Hazan, and the death of Mr. De Costa having occurred in 1781, the congregation were for some time deprived of the services of a regular Hazan. They finally procured the valuable services of the Rev. Abraham Azubee, a Portuguese by birth, and a man well versed in our laws, who afforded much satisfaction and pleasure to his flock.

In 1790, a convention was held at Columbia for the purpose of revising the constitution of the state; and as none of our brethren were delegates at that convention, they determined to support such persons as were of known sterling integrity, and liberal sentiments, who were favourably disposed to the interests and privileges which our nation should enjoy, and who would faithfully discharge their duty to their country.

Their clear judgment and discrimination was manifested by the fact that their undivided support was given to Gen. Gadsden, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., John F. Grimke, David Ramsay, William Drayton, John J. Pringle, Daniel Desassure, Elihu H. Bay, and others, men who will always be associated with the honour and character of our state, and who adorned and dignified the several exalted stations they occupied. The following correspondence, which took place between one of the elected delegates and the vestry of the congregation, will show the high moral position occupied by the wardens of the Synagogue:

To the Vestry of the Jewish Congregation.

Gentlemen,—I feel myself greatly obliged by the assistance I received from you and the members of your congregation at the late election. If the enclosed can serve the poor, or be of any use in any respect to the congregation, I request their acceptance of it, to be applied in any such manner as they shall think proper. I shall be glad of any future opportunity of rendering any service to the congregation. Your obliged and humble servant,

Christopher Knight.

The following reply, re-enclosing the order for 50 guineas, was sent to Mr. Knight:

Mr. C. Knight,

Sir,—Your favour of the 26th ultimo, with the enclosed acceptance for fifty guineas has been laid before our body, for which token of esteem we are extremely obliged to you; but when we consider the motive that has induced you to offer it, consistent with the tenor of your letter, we cannot on any consideration think of accepting it, as it may be suggested at some future period that the members of our community were to be bought. We have therefore thought necessary to return it, assuring you, we shall entertain a deep sensibility of your good intentions. We remain your obedient servants,

Jacob Cohen
President of the Congregation K. K. B. E.

At this period the Federal Government had been just established, and the united voice of the people had called the "Father of his country" to the presidential chair. Congratulatory addresses had been tendered to him from every religious denomination from every quarter of the Union. Our patriotic brethren resolved to address General Washington, under whom many of them had served in several of his most successful campaigns. The following was the address forwarded to the President, which was penned by Mr. Jacob Cohen, then president of the congregation:

To the President of the United States.

July 15th, 1790.

Sir.—We presume to divert your attention for a few moments from the more important matters which require it, in order to express the sincere desire, in your election to and acceptance of the exalted office of President of the United States. As soon as the Federal Government was instituted, the eyes of your fellow-citizens throughout the states were drawn towards you; their unanimous voices at once proclaimed you the most worthy to preside over it, and their anxious wishes awaited your consent to assume your proper station. The spontaneous effusions of heartfelt satisfaction which burst forth, the unstudied plaudits which universally and publicly resounded on the occasion, seemed to us to obviate the necessity of any particular address. But as these have been presented to you from different classes and sects of our fellow-citizens, as additional attestations of your eminent deserts, and their well-assured prospect of increasing happiness, from your wise and virtuous administration: we are desirous even thus late not to appear deficient in this respect, especially as every day which has intervened has tended to realize what we fondly anticipated. Various, extensive, and invaluable are the benefits which your fellow-citizens have derived from the glorious revolution which, under Providence, you have been the principal instrument of effecting. To them it has secured the natural and inalienable rights of human nature,—all the requisite privileges and immunities of freemen, and has placed within their reach peace, plenty, and the other blessings of good government. To the equal participation and enjoyment of all these, it has raised us from the state of political degradation and grievous oppression to which partial, narrow, and illiberal policy and intolerant bigotry has reduced us in almost every other part of the world. Peculiar and extraordinary reason have we, therefore, to be attached to the free and generous constitution of our respective states, and to be indebted to you, whose heroic deeds have contributed so much to their preservation and establishment. In a degree commensurate to its wise and enlarged plan, does the general government attract our regard, framed in the principles consentaneous to those of the constitution of the different states, and calculated by its energy to embrace and harmonize their various interests, combine their scattered powers, cement their union, and prolong their duration. They have already felt their salutary effects.

The great exploits you performed while you commanded in chief the armies of the United States, during the arduous and perilous conflicts which purchased their freedom; the toils, fatigues, and dangers you surmounted during that glorious warfare, entitled you to honourable exemption from public services, and to spend the remainder of your valuable life under the shade of your well-earned laurels in sage retirement and dignified repose, to which your truly magnanimous disposition invited, and for the pure and rational enjoyment of which your conscious virtue fitted you. But the infancy of the Federal Government particularly required your fostering care, and invoked the aid of your virtues to animate its friends and reconcile its adversaries. The genuine authority which you alone possessed, which has its source in virtue, and which once recognised, has more irresistible sway than arbitrary power itself, was requisite to launch the Federal Government on its new and untried voyage into the ocean, clear of rocks and quicksands, and with favourable gales.

Your consummate prudence and firmness were necessary to trace out to your successors the courses they should steer, your example to enlighten, excite, and strengthen them. When laudable ambition had nothing more to tempt you with, when fame had wearied itself in trumpeting your renown: yielding to the disinterested impulses of uniform protestations, and the urgent invocations of your fellow-citizens, you quitted your peaceful retreat and pleasurable mansion, to involve yourself in the cares and fatigues which now throng on you; and you have shown yourself as eminently qualified to preside at the helm of government, as at the head of armies. While historians of this and every age shall vie with each other in doing justice to your character, and in adorning their pages with the splendour of your endowments, and of your patriotic and noble achievements; and while they cull and combine the various good and shining qualities of the pagan and more modern heroes, to display your character: we, and our posterity, will not cease to chronicle and commemorate you, with Moses, Joshua, Othniel, Gideon, Samuel, David, Maccabeus, and other holy men of old, who were raised up by God for the deliverance of our nation, his people, from their oppression. May the great Being, our universal Lord, continue propitious to you and to the United States; perfect and give increase and duration of prosperity to the great empire which He has made you so instrumental in producing. May He grant you health to preside over the same, until He shall, after length of days, call you to eternal felicity, which will be the reward of your virtues in the next, as lasting glory must be in this world.

We regret extremely that the reply of the President cannot be procured. It is but too probable that, as many of the books containing the minutes of the congregation were consumed in the great fire of 1838, which destroyed the Synagogue and many valuable congregational papers, this invaluable document has also been lost.

(To be Continued)