By Pamela Brownstein
Since the founding of the city 300 years ago, there has been a Jewish presence in Beaufort.
Today, at a time when many Jewish congregations in small towns across the South are disappearing, the historic Beth Israel Synagogue downtown boasts a small but thriving Jewish community and remains a viable institution.
With the start of the eight days of Chanukah this weekend, the congregation is getting ready to throw its biggest event of the year: the annual Men’s Club Latke Party on Sunday, December 18, at 5 p.m.
According to congregation member Regina Carmel, the men will be making latkes and serving a dinner of “Jewish soul food” — food that’s good for your soul, but maybe not the best for your health. There will also be group singing and musical presentations and lighting of the Menorah.
The history of the synagogue dates back to the late 1800s when many Eastern European Jews began to settle here, introducing their ethnic customs as well as the language of Yiddish. Retaining their religious identity, they soon became an integral part of Beaufort.
Before the synagogue was constructed, Beaufort Jews met at the Masonic Hall above a store on Bay Street. But in 1905, the Jewish people in town joined together to build the synagogue that still stands at 401 Scott Street, next to The Arsenal. Since many were shopkeepers, the members wanted to build the small house of worship downtown, within walking distance of their work. Beth Israel Congregation was chartered in 1905 and completed in 1908.
In the early 1900s, the story goes, a baby died, but the family had to travel all the way to Charleston because there was no proper Jewish cemetery in Beaufort. After that, the family wanted to have a cemetery in town, so in 1910 land was purchased and the historic cemetery is still there today on Bladen Street.
In 1920, a parsonage for the religious leader was obtained; the Social Hall was added in the 1950s. Many of the original documents are held in the Jewish archive section at the College of Charleston.
Carmel said the congregation of Beth Israel is unique because many of the members today are from the same founding families. Even those who have moved out of town often return for the Jewish New Year and the Passover celebrations.
The congregation is also home to many prominent families in Beaufort including the Keyserlings, the Lipsitz family, former mayor David Taub, the Levin family, as well as the Marks, who own the Furniture Warehouse and Design Gallery on Robert Smalls Parkway and can trace their relative back as one of the original builders of the synagogue.
Right now, the congregation is pleased to have Cantor BenZion Bronshtein — who is also a professional musician — from Charleston lead services, but they hope to have an ordained Rabbi sometime next year.
Services are held every Friday at 7 p.m. and once a month on Saturdays at 10 a.m., when they also have a religious school where the children learn Jewish traditions, customs and how to speak Hebrew.
For more information about Beth Israel, call 843-524-4076 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.bethisrael-beaufort.com.