Charleston Jews

Tensions and schism's in one of America's first large Jewish communities

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Largest Jewish Population

By 1800 Charleston had the largest Jewish population of any city in the United States, numbering about 6oo. The congregation maintained strict control over the actions of individual members. Rev. Moses Cohen and his successors as hazzan were all Sephardim, with the exception of Abraham Alexander, and the Sephardic ritual prevailed.

Some restlessness must have existed, though, for in 1820 the con­gregation issued a new and very stringent constitution. The hazzan of the moment was another Ashkenazi, Rev. Hartwig Cohen, a native of Wartha, Poland. He was dismissed in 1823, and his place was taken by Selomoh Cohen Peixotto, a native of Curaçao, where he had served as ribi (teacher) and shohet (kosher butcher). He had left dur­ing the British occupation of the Dutch island between 1807 and 1816 to become hazzan in St. Thomas, and had come to Charleston in 1818.

Peixotto's election may very well have been a precipitating factor in the formation a year later of the Reformed Society of Israelites. One of their complaints was that the Spanish and Portuguese prayers and hymns comprising Beth Elohim's liturgy were meaningless to the membership. However, when Reform leader Isaac Harby prepared a prayerbook for the insurgents, it was the Sephardic prayerbook that he translated.

The two groups eventually reunited, but when a new synagogue, built by David Lopez, a Sephardi member, replaced the old one, which had burned down in 1838, the agitation for an organ and other reforms led to another break-off.

The new Orthodox congregation, Shearith Israel--led at first by Jacob de la Motta, formerly of Savannah--still followed the Sephardic minhag [custom]. It prospered while Beth Elohim struggled. As late as 1854, Beth Elohim's Reform proclivities undoubtedly eliminated it from a benefaction in the will of New Orleans philanthropist Judah Touro. Following the example of Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia, Miss Sally Lopez instituted a Sunday school in 1838 which she directed for four years, obtaining weekly lessons copied for her by Rebecca Gratz.

The depredations of the Civil War and the economic depression it engendered in the South led to a reunion of the two congregations in 1866. They agreed to use the "Portuguese minhag" with a shortened version of the Orthodox service. Rev. Joseph H. Chumaceiro, son of Curaçao's hazzan, was elected in 1868 and served for six years. By 1875, the congregation had acquired a growing influx of German immigrants who were assuming leadership. The liturgy was modi­fied and the board agreed to accept the prayerbook of its incumbent hazzan, David Levy.

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.